Coastal Contacts Inc. is hoping a corporate rebranding will put a kinder, gentler face on online retailer Clearly Contacts, known mostly for its aggressive discounting of lenses and frames.
In a case of meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss, CEO Roy Hessel this week dropped the "Contacts" from the name, in part because the Vancouver-based company has for a while now sold a much larger range of products, since its founding about 15 years ago.
The move reflects some of Mr. Hessel's first big changes after holding the job for more than a year. He replaced the company's Canadian founder, Roger Hardy, after Paris-based Essilor International S.A. purchased Coastal Contacts for $430-million in February, 2014.
Mr. Hessel also announced plans to move the company's products slightly upmarket, focusing less on offering discounts that were in some cases 70 per cent lower than traditional eye wear retailers.
"In many cases, we will still be about value, and cost arbitrage," he said, but the new strategy will also see the company push new, pricier lens technologies, such as Kodak BlueReflect Lenses, which promise to relieve eye strain related to staring at computer screens. Just a week on sale, Mr. Hessel says the Kodak lenses have generated new business.
A former venture capitalist, Mr. Hessel has worked in online vision retail for more than a decade, first with his own startup EyeBuyDirect and then with Essilor after it purchased that company in 2013.
Another big change from the old boss is Mr. Hessel's claim that he wants to work to relieve some of the tension the disruptive company has had with the country's professional associations for optometrists and opticians.
"In my first four months, I invited the respective associations, both federal and provincial, to tour our lab, to discuss opportunities and collaboration," he said. "They were mostly wary; historically, they have been shunned and alienated from the company."
For instance, Mr. Hardy and Coastal battled with the College of Opticians of British Columbia for years over the legality of a website selling prescription lenses that eventually was put to rest when the provincial legislature passed new rules to cover the practice in 2010.
In many ways, Clearly is in a position to make peace because it won: The company has 30 per cent of corrective-lens sales in North America, it won a more recent legal challenge in Quebec, and it's now focused on taking market share from some of the world's largest eye wear retailers in North America, Japan and Europe.
"I was always taught that it's better to build strong partnerships than to burn bridges," Mr. Hessel said.
Analysts estimate there are more than 4.3 billion people in need of some form of corrective vision wear. While Essilor makes 36 per cent of the global supply, its route to the end consumer was mostly through third parties before it began buying up digital channels. Luxottica is still the largest eye wear retailer in North America, through its Lenscrafters, Glasses.com, Pearle Vision and Sunglasses Hut stores.
Clearly has no plans to expand its brick and mortar stores beyond the three it has in Canada, in Vancouver and Toronto. The company is also rolling out some enhancements to Clearly's website and apps, which allow a sort of virtual try-on feature that superimposes the frames of your choice on a selfie.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article used an incorrect surname for Coastal Contacts CEO Roy Hessel.