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Big Interview: Vision Express and Lenstore 'stronger together'

Vision Express's parent company GrandVision acquired online contact lens retailer Lenstore in December 2013 and, half a year on, the two businesses are harnessing their different areas of expertise to pave out a multichannel retailing future together.

In a joint interview with Essential Retail, the companies' respective CEOs, Jonathan Lawson and Mitesh Patel, said they are confident that working closely under the same umbrella group and sharing ideas can fast-track each other's businesses into providing the modern services required by customers today.

It is clear from talking to the retail execs that Lawson is keen to tap into Patel's team's digital expertise, particularly around online marketing development, while Lenstore has recognised the potential benefits to its customers of leveraging the face-to-face service that Vision Express's store-based optometrists and opticians can bring.

Lawson said: "There has been a lot of discussion in the optical sector about almost wishing that online/multichannel will go away and pass this sector by – which I find bizarre. I don't believe it's a threat, I believe it's an opportunity but one we need to grasp.

"One of the reasons we are so keen to work so closely with Lenstore, is because it has grasped the opportunity and it understood there is a proportion of customers who have decided the best thing for them is to purchase contact lens online.

"It's now all about working with them to understand what opportunity there is to sell those customers glasses, and what value do those people place on optical care around our retail environment."

Dixons Retail CEO Seb James spoke last month about how he saw the future role of the high street store as a place for consultancy and – in reference to his own sector – somewhere customers can go to get advice and guidance on the latest gadgets and mobile devices on the market.

His comments, which were made during his presentation at this year's British Retail Consortium Annual Retail Lecture in London, ring true with Patel, who agreed that the mantra of "serve not sell" is certainly a trend in today's omnichannel environment. Lawson, too, suggested that "one of the absolute key drivers in our segment is expertise in eye-care", much of which, he says, must be communicated inside a bricks and mortar store.

The Dixons boss also spoke about data and mathematics being the future of retail in the sense that, by using the wide range of digital analytic measuring tools now available, companies can successfully serve their customers by predicting trends based on their online footprint and previous purchasing behaviour. The data collection opportunities presented to a prescription-based retailing field such as optical sector have not gone unnoticed at Vision Express and Lenstore.

"Optics is a customer data focused business, so when someone walks into their Vision Express to get an eye test and a contact lens exam, they hand over their customer data – their name, address, email – because the company is providing a prescription product," explained Patel.

"This is a challenge that the likes of Sainsbury's or Evans Cycles, for example, really struggle with in terms of the first step in the multichannel world.

"I think Jonathan and the Vision Express team realise – and they realised it early – that we can leverage that data within optics to provide a better clinical service."

Lawson added: "I think there is a brilliant opportunity to communicate with our customers with the data we have in both businesses, where we can hopefully satisfy their need for products and expertise in the right channel and via the right media."

Last month Vision Express reported a 6% increase in annual turnover and an 11% jump in operating profit for 2013, as well as a third consecutive year of like-for-like sales growth. Lenstore, meanwhile, was expecting to announce annual sales of £10 million in 2013 when it was acquired by GrandVision.

Unique visitors to Vision Express's online properties have increased 20% three years in a row, suggesting the business is growing across all channels, and Lawson described the upturn in web visitors as "a fantastic opportunity to communicate with potential, new and existing customers – and I think the expertise we are gaining by working with Mitesh and his team boosts that".

The Vision Express CEO also suggests there are plenty of opportunities for his stores to introduce new technologies in the future, including improvements to its click & collect service which are currently in development, but he warned about implementing technology for technology's sake.

He acknowledged that some customers are keen to book an eye exam seamlessly on a mobile, which they can place straight into their smartphone diaries, but others would rather go through this process face to face. Ultimately a retailer's service offering revolves around the choice of options it provides a customer.

"It's important to relate to customers in a way they want to be communicated to, rather than just bombarding them with technology," Lawson noted.

"A lot about successful retailing comes down to the quality of your people and the quality of the way you communicate – it's now just through different channels."

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