Monday, October 8, 2012

17 Years In 60 Minutes

Luxottica Retail was featured on 60 Minutes tonight. After watching it, I felt like blogging.  Everyone wants to see the mighty fall these days.  Maybe it's simply our need to root for the little guy or the underdog.  Well I’m here to tell you we were the little guy once. 

I worked for LensCrafters and Luxottica for 17 years. I worked for LensCrafters when it was less than 250 stores and owned by US Shoe.  I remember the full page ad and hostile takeover from Luxottica Retail in the news paper. I worked in Virginia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Pickerington Ohio, Columbus Ohio, Dallas Texas, and Cincinnati and Dayton.  I worked in every position that a store offered over those 17 years. I opened the 700th store at Tuttle Crossing in Columbus.  I worked in Licensed states and in unlicensed states. I was sent to Texas to help launch the Sunglass division, we were  going to name SunCrafters. As soon as my wife and I relocated to Texas, Luxottica bought Rayban, Revo, Killer Loop and Arnette. It was the sunglass division of B&L. There went all the plans for SunCrafters. Oh well, it wasn't the best name anyway, so it was all for the best. After Texas I accepted a position back to Cincinnati and worked in the corporate office. I was at LensCrafters when all of our merchandise changed and vendors stopped selling us frames because we were now owned by Luxottica Retail.  I remember when private optical stores all over the states stopped carrying Luxottica frames and shipped them back to Luxottica because they now owned their competition. This left Luxottica with no real retail sales market in the states expect LensCrafters. I remember when the MERGER with Sunglass Hut happened. I think I was leaving LensCrafters just as the purchase of Cole Vision happened. 

Cole of course owned Pearle Vision, Target Optical and Sears Optical to name a few.  I don’t remember a 60 minutes interview on the monopoly of eyewear leaders when Cole owned the market.  I was employed at Luxottica when Eyemed, the eyewear insurance division was created.  No 60 minutes interview was done when Eye Care Plan Of America dominated the optical insurance market and we couldn’t get in.  I have yet to see an 60 minutes story on the lens manufactures mark up. 

60 minutes made it sound like we bullied Sunglasshut into a buyout. We merged with Sunglass hut.  I thought it was a bad idea. Not because it wasn't great for the company, but because we were not ready to absorb their culture.  LensCrafters had a very unique culture. Its mission, vision and values were what seemed to drive decisions.  And those values resonated with the staff and found it's way to our customer base.  LensCrafters only had 700+ stores.  We were already running into departmental issues with RayBan stores and the launching of the Optiques. I helped develop best practices and policies during the purchase of Rayban because LensCrafters was now responsible for the warranty and customer satisfaction issues of all Rayban frames.  60 minutes made it sound like we pulled them all from all our vendors so we could raise the price and resell them.  That was a bit of a leap. When we bought Rayban their were so many knock off vendors.  I think for quality control we had to purge the market in order to make sure all Rayban eyewear moving forward was of Luxottica quality. That led Luxottica to build RayBan departments inside our LensCrafters stores.  

Sunglass Hut had over 1700 stores.  Their employee turnover was off the scale, and their internal theft issues were, well let's just say they were outside the norm. I can remember the boxes of Oakley Frames that were left in the back hallways of malls because there was no space on the retail floor to log the product into inventory.  It was easy to see how and why $300 pairs of sunglasses could come up missing. Not to mention those sunglasses cost that much long before Luxottica got involved. Luxottica did not have the manpower to run their stores and ours at the same time.  So yes we merged, and by default we diluted much of our culture of LensCrafters in the process.  The company size tripled overnight, and overnight it began to change.  

Looking back, I believe we earned the right to take over the optical industry.  The reason was, we out educated the competition. I was a part of educating Frame Stylist to becoming Apprentice opticians and later Licensed Opticians.  We would stay after hours when the mall closed and train each other.  We would take national board exams even when the states we worked in didn’t require them, and the company was not offering us any more money if we passed.  That was our culture.  Or at least it was for the stores that I managed. We wanted to be the best. As a company, our sales people became professionals very quickly, our opticians became some of the best optical problem solvers in the business.  Even when the lens manufactures would suggest measurements, we had the real life experience of measuring, manufacturing and fitting patients and because we were at their local mall, we could keep them adjusted, cleaned and in perfect working condition as many times as they wanted to come in. Great ideas found their way up the the highest levels of the company.  I know this because I developed the first remake reduction training and best practices program while at a store in Youngstown Ohio. Later my remake reduction plan became a company wide Remake Prevention initiative, eliminating  many of the reasons eyewear had to be remade.  Our managers were operating stores with profits between one and four million dollars a year.  That type of volume rivaled what our competition's regional managers were responsible for.  Our store managers were managing sales staffs of 10-20 associates and had to cross-train with independent doctors of optometry and the manufacturing sides of our stores. Our customers, were being educated. The only other people doing that type of educating  at the time were private opticians that had their own practices. Maybe an ophthalmologist hired them to run the glasses side of their store while they did exams in the back.  

LensCrafters spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building labs in our stores so that each individual store could manufacture eyewear on sight. You all remember the phrase. “In about an hour.” Because we could do that, very few other optical retailers could match the volume of eyewear our stores were handling. As LensCrafters grew, I believe their customers got smarter and spoiled.  They wanted to know the difference between polarized, Mirrored or Anti-Reflective lenses.  We taught them the difference between glass, CR-39 plastic and Polycarbonate lenses.  We discussed optical center, chromatic aberration, prisms, UV A,B and C, multi-focal lenses and even our manufacturing processes were discussed.  We shared everything with our customers.  As a manager, I personally invited Optometrists and Ophthalmologists to tour my labs. Some of them graduated med school having never actually seen a pair of glasses being made.  Once the doctors could see the attention and care we put into their patients eyewear, they felt even more comfortable sending them to us. The best part about it was, doctors for the first time had face to face relationships with the people measuring and fitting, their patients eyewear. In return, our opticians shared that relationship. Those relationships made taking care of our patients and customers even easier. Not to mention that we also provided a unique relationship between doctors and labs making their eyewear.  A relationship that empowered them. Doctors were no longer at the mercy of wholesale labs. 
When someone shopped at a LensCrafters store they would encounter extremely knowledgeable people working side by side with management, sales, exam, and manufacturing teams.  Most other retailers were still sending their eyewear out to central labs to be made.  60 minutes tried to make us look like the bully on the monopoly playground of the eyewear industry. I have to disagree.  We earned every dollar. We passed every State and National board to earn the right to call ourselves opticians.  We were the best and we knew it. It wasn't just a title on a our coat.  It was a learned set of skills with the education to back it up. Luckily we had owners who had a vested interest in our success.  Unlike some large companies today, Luxottica needed us and we needed them.  Until Luxottica, we were just one division of US Shoe that was testing one hour eyeglasses in Florence KY.

LensCrafters needed owners that focused solely on eyewear and not shoes and clothes and oh yeah, that new one hour eyeglass test store. Cole, which owned Pearle, Sears and Target optical kept shorter hours, lower staff, less selection and only Pearle stores had in house full surfacing and finishing labs. Our opticians saw more eyewear in a weekend than many of our competitors saw in a month.  When you are adjusting hundreds of pairs of glasses each day, you get really good at it.  When you are making hundreds of RX's each day you become and expert.  And when you are helping thousands of people a month select frames and lenses, you became their trusted fashion expert.  It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become great at it.  I think LensCrafters staff simply reached the 10,000 hours mark faster than most staff did. The better our opticians got, the more our customers trusted us and the more frustrating it was for them to go to our competition, only to find at times, they were more educated than the staff.  

So I guess all I can say is welcome to capitalism. With success comes the need to not only achieve, but surpass previous goals.  With that blessing comes the curse. As the company gets bigger, the focus moves more to sales. Machines begin replacing some of the labor and critical double and triple check systems. 

By shrinking the human element, LensCrafters actually levels their own playing field for their competition. Our staff was so highly recruited that we trained some of the best managers and staff for our competition. Our managers were offered crazy amounts of money to go to Pearle or WalMart or Costco and teach their staff.  We had a no return policy so if you left LensCrafters you could never come back. The edge our stores once had on the competition was weakened through the thinning of retail staffing, LensCrafters may no longer have that super skilled work force from back in the day. The one on one job shadowing days of the apprentice under their wing of a licensed optician is long gone. They may have lost the skills of the older opticians and lab technicians.  The business model may have changed, and along with that the ideal retail associate changed, and so did the ideal manager.  

It's approaching a decade since I've been employed there. Many of my friends still work there.  Though it may be a shadow of the company it was when we were figuring out how to take over the industry, it is still my place of choice. 
I’m hoping for continued success, as my pension will be paid out from them.  Luxottica never saw itself as a medical retailer.  LensCrafters associates did however. In a capitalistic society, it seems resistance is futile.  As LensCrafters moves from being a medical retail establishment to being a fashion retail establishment, LensCrafters may have lost a step.  Its problem solving edge may not be what it used to be.  Some sales people may have lost the art of a quality adjustment.  Some stores removed their labs so the organic cross training that used to take place is gone.  

So I say again, welcome to capitalism.  Someone will enter the optical retailing market and figure out a way to do it online as well as Then huge retail stores will either adapt or die.  The ophthalmic eyewear customer is much better off with Luxottica than without it. Just look at a few old family photos if you don't believe me. Buying up all their competition has brought back to the Luxottica family, all the opticians and managers they lost to their previous competitors over the years. Being the worlds largest optical retailer was earned through the blood sweat and tears of a lot of great people who still remain my friends.  

In addition to the Luxottica monopoly, you get OneSight. OneSight is the missional outreach arm of the company. It self funds missions to deliver used eyewear to parts of the world that don't have access to them. Parents see their children clearly for the first time.  Or the elderly return to reading the books of their faith.  I know this well too.  I wrote the song that the organization when it was called "Gift Of Sight." One sight does free school eye exams and evaluations for students every year.  They even have mobile stores complete with labs on tour buses that drive around the country making new eyewear for needy children in partnership with non-profits.  

You see, you can root for the mighty to fall, or you can blame the big giant monopoly. Or you can embrace the fact that with great resources comes great responsibility and the accountability to deploy them to serve others. I have to applaud both Luxottica and LensCrafters, they started out as the little guy, the underdog that we all rooted for. 

1 comment:

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