BonLooks stays focused on the gap

How an eyewear design and retail upstart is building its brand in an industry of global goliaths.
SophieBLheadshot1

For Sophie Boulanger, branding is all about getting in your face. Or rather, on your face.

As the founder and CEO of the Montreal-based eyewear retailer BonLook, she’s competing against international giants on every front. But she sees a gap in the market for affordable, well-designed eyewear and is investing in physical retail to fill that gap.

In physical retail, it faces Luxottica, which operates LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut and manages basically every major eyewear brand name you can think of. Online, it faces Clearly.ca, which found great success proving people would buy contact lenses through online subscriptions and has been acquired by the French eyewear behemoth Essilor – which is on the verge of merging with Luxottica.

“It is a challenge for sure,” Boulanger says. “We’re building our own brand, building that equity across the country, slowly but surely.”

That began online in 2010 with glasses the company designs and manufactures itself, selling directly through owned channels to control more of its costs. It’s aiming to be a high-end product for fashion-conscious shoppers but with an affordable price point so that people will buy more than one pair.

“We’re after people who want to look good, as opposed to that person who thinks ‘I’ll just wear the same pair for five years.’ It’s eyewear wardrobe, basically. ”

Its standard men’s and women’s glasses list for $145, where competitors’ equivalent products can be found online for up to $300.

There’s no mass media spending to promote these products, but Boulanger is deep in the influencer space, using popular fashion personalities to showcase her products and help design them.

This proposition has proved strong enough that BonLook signed a deal in November with a new financial backer – Walter Capital Partners – to fuel an ambitious retail growth strategy. It currently has 17 locations. By 2020, it wants 50 nationwide.

“We had to open stores to be more ‘out there,’” Boulager told strategy. “Back in 2010, the Vision Council of America was expecting online eyewear retail to go up to 18% or 20% [of the market] by this year, but they really overestimated the growth curve… In the U.S., it’s around 5% of the market, and in Canada, it’s below 3%.”

Moreso than other fashion categories, Boulanger says online retail in her business is a pre-shopping phase for consumers. Frames may look good in a virtual try-on too, but these are medical devices after all that must suit each individual wearer. So her plan is to find shoppers online, intrigue them with BonLook’s unique designs, then route them to shopping malls for fittings.

“We can sell more types of lenses and up-sell on frames in stores,” Boulanger says. “We have the staff there to explain products.”