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Will Concept Stores, Vending and Drive-Thru Work for Optical Products?

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Optical shops have traditionally dominated the eyewear industry, with the channel accounting for over 70% of global eyewear sales. While this scenario is not expected to change significantly in the near future, there have been various alternative retail developments in different parts of the world.

Targeted concept stores for contact lenses

Thanks to a growing obsession with beauty, many are turning to either contact lenses or spectacles as a means of personalisation. In particular, contact lenses have evolved to not only serve a functional purpose but also to aesthetically enhance one’s features. Cosmetic lenses such as circle lenses have been all the rage in Southeast Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan. South Korea, for instance, has seen contact lenses concept stores sprouting up in trendy shopping districts. Targeted at youths and students, these concept stores specialise in the sale of a wide selection of contact lenses and accessories, such as eye drops and contact lens cases.

Specialist Contact Lenses Shops in South Korea: O-Lens and Lens Story


With demand for contact lenses set to see an increase over the forecast period in Asia Pacific, the number of such concept stores in Asia is also likely to see a rise in the near future.

Vending machines lower cost and increase accessibility

Vending machines are able to provide consumers with products immediately and around the clock. However, one of the major disadvantages of vending is the absence of the personal touch. Thus, it is somewhat surprising that traditionally service-oriented eyewear companies are looking at vending as a retail alternative.

Contact Lenses Vending Machine in Moscow

Left photo: Contact lenses vending machine in Moscow, Russia / Right photos: J!NS Spectacles vending machine in Tokyo, Japan

Two very different countries saw the birth of eyewear vending machines in recent years. Launched a couple of years back, Russia saw the debut of contact lenses vending machines in public spaces such as shopping malls and railway stations in major cities such as Moscow & St. Petersburg.  These automated vending machines or Linzamats as the Russians call it, carry well established brands of contact lenses as well as contact lens solutions. Aimed at providing convenience, these contact lenses are positioned as cheaper but of equivalent quality as those found in optical shops.

Meanwhile, in July 2012, Japanese eyewear company J!NS launched ‘J!NS Self Shop’, which are vending machines selling its popular PC eyewear. Equipped with touchscreen panels for browsing and an online logistics management system, J!NS Self Shop also accepts credit card payments on top of the usual cash only.  Located mainly in shopping centers, where the company does not have direct stores, the company cleverly extends its reach at a fraction of retail land rental cost.  Apart from ease of accessibility for consumers, these vending machines double up as marketing platforms to increase brand recognition among its target audiences.

Whether vending machines will be successful will depend on several factors, such as the placement of the machines, the availability of established brands, a good level of stock and, most importantly, a perceived high level of hygiene. While vending as a retail alternative can clearly not replace a consumer’s need to visit an optician for professional advice and checks, this retail channel does provide a means for quick replacements.

Browse, try and buy glasses in the comfort of your own car

While the Japanese are known for being innovative, the concept of a drive-thru spectacle shop must still raise a few eyebrows. J!NS, the same company which has ventured into vending, launched the world’s first drive-thru eyewear store in April 2013. The store concept reminds one of a setting from the Walt Disney cartoon Cars, where each car is treated like an individual person, being given a space and personal attention.

With convenience in mind, this drive-thru concept allows consumers to browse, try on and purchase eyewear without leaving the comfort of their car. While the concept benefits those without prescription requirements, those who require prescriptions will need to wait for half an hour or longer to have their eyewear purchases prepared. Other services such as eye tests are also available but the customer will have to enter the store for this.

This novelty concept is clearly attracting interest but there remain various questions as to its feasibility. For example, what if the store becomes crowded both inside and out? How many customers (or cars) can the store manage at any one time? There is also the need for a suitably large retail space and sufficient touchscreen panels for car owners to browse through the eyewear products on offer. With heavy investment in hardware and sky-high rentals on retail land, can this retail concept achieve profitability? And do not forget the environmental issue of pollution, with engines running idle?

Will alternative retail formats be the future?

Increasingly busy consumer lifestyles are feeding demand for all things ‘express’, including eyewear. Traditional optical retailers will face competition from alternative retail formats which cater for independent, savvy and busy consumers who value convenience when shopping. While some alternative retail formats may thrive, others may not. Nevertheless, those companies which continue to innovate to meet the evolving needs of modern consumerism will eventually find the right formula to appeal to eyewear consumers.

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