I bought my prescription glasses – lenses and frame – for over S$200 (US$154). That’s the typical price for generic brands in eyewear retailers in Singapore, especially if you’re paying extra for thinner lenses due to your severe shortsightedness.
For the middle class, the price isn’t too exorbitant for something you’ll wear for years. But you’ll still feel the pinch when fishing out the wallet – especially if you’re replacing a recently-purchased pair that you’ve accidentally stepped on.
Yes, there are places that sell spectacles for cheap. You can get a pair from some boutique shops (here and here for under S$100). But these shops are rare, and strangely, not many people know about them.
With that in mind, there’s a new player in town that promises some of the cheapest eyewear around. You can even get one without leaving your home. That’s Four Eyes, a Philippine startup that soft-launched their Singapore website last week.
The concept behind the service is easy to grasp. All its frames are designed by the company. They all start from S$88 (US$67), and prices go up to the maximum of S$158 (US$121) for the thinnest lenses.
The way it sells its products is interesting too. Delivery is totally free. There’s a home try-on service where you can pick three frames, try them at your sofa, and then send them back to the company. You can get your money back if you dislike all of them. This could win over consumers who are hesitant to buy without trying a physical pair.
There’s also a fun virtual try-on feature. You upload a personal photo, and the site fits the frame over your face. You can send Four Eyes your prescription in two ways: either fill out a form or upload a scan.
But Fadz Yusof, the company’s vice president for Singapore, points out that neither offers home try-on and Glasses Online doesn’t have virtual try-on. Also, the latter sells items from many designer brands, while Four Eyes only stocks its own products. It’s a company that seeks to control almost all aspects of its operations.
Change afoot in the eyewear industry?
The eyewear industry in Singapore – and many parts of the world – has been moving at a glacial pace. My neighborhood eyeglasses store has remained unchanged since I was a kid. But if recent signs are an indication, it could be in for a shake-up.
The arrival of Japanese eyewear retailer Owndays in Singapore has set the wheels in motion. It promises glasses priced between S$98 to S$198 (eight, if you’re wondering, is a lucky number in Chinese culture), though in reality you’ll need to top up if you require high index lenses.
Then there’s Warby Parker, a US eyewear company pioneering the online retail and home try-on model, and bringing prices down by owning the entire supply chain. Four Eyes is a clone of Warby Parker, and that isn’t bad: ideas are nothing and execution matters more, particularly in Asia where the market is diverse and infrastructure under-developed.
The entry of companies like Owndays and Four Eyes may have side effects though. Julian Low, co-founder of AlgoAccess, a startup developing cloud software for the eyewear industry, says that downward price pressure from these guys could degrade the optometry profession (optometrists are the ones that check your eyesight, opticians craft the lenses). These companies are focused on selling spectacles cheaply, rather than providing optometric services, which include detecting a whole range of problems that might degrade a person’s eyesight.
“There are additional manpower and equipment costs involved. The typical equipment setup investment is more than S$100,000 when you bring in a slit lamp, Fundus camera, and tonometer,” says Low.
Selling glasses online has risks
Online eyewear retail is tricky, which explains why there haven’t been many big players who have gone into it. Concepts like home try-on is something that’s relatively new even to the ecommerce industry. Given the high cost of logistics in Singapore, I wonder if Four Eyes can pull it off while keeping prices low.
The risks are real. Buying clothes online is a harmless hobby. Unless these items are laden with lead, you’re unlikely to suffer adverse health effects in the long run. Prescriptive lenses, however, are different – wrongly-fitted glasses could damage your eyesight in years to come. Low says that having an optician to check your glasses before you wear them is still important. “Even Warby Parker has a store to get your eyes checked,” he adds.
Four Eyes has been thinking seriously about it. After all, a clueless customer could fill up the online prescription form with random numbers. Yusof says that instead of setting up its own retail network, the company will partner with local opticians to allow customers to get their eyes checked for a fee.
“We would like to keep our costs low to pass on the savings to customers. Within the next two years, we’ll have a showroom that doubles as our operational and logistics headquarters in Singapore,” he says. This move isn’t just about ensuring consumers get their eyes checked. It lowers the friction of getting a pair of glasses on the website.
While Four Eyes may come across as a snazzy internet company, it actually has roots in the eyewear industry. One of the founders, Jiten Lalwani, has a family business that’s been distributing and wholesaling eyewear for three decades.
That industry knowledge has allowed the startup to raise US$350,000 from Kickstart Ventures, Future Now Ventures, and Wavemaker Partners to expand beyond its home ground. It is now raising another seed round to further bolster its efforts.
With Singapore’s high cost of doing business causing even well-funded startups to downsize, Four Eyes will need every dollar it can get.
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