View from the C-Suite: BonLook finesses its retail strategy

CEO Sophie Boulanger explains how the company landed on the Growth 500 list with five-year growth of 1,994%.

Sophie-bonlook

Since its 2011 debut, BonLook has grown from an online-only eyewear brand into a company with a retail network that spans 34 stores across the country and counting.

This year, the Montreal company, which offers designer-inspired eyeglasses and sunglasses at more accessible prices, has continued to expand, adding new stores in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Surrey (B.C.) and Vancouver, though CEO Sophie Boulanger says it now aspires to reaching 40 retail outlets (as opposed to its previous goal of 50), amid growing consolidation in the industry and the modern retail needs of maximizing every square inch of its stores. BonLook also ranked 35th overall – and fourth in retail – on the annual Growth 500 list compiled by Canadian Business and Maclean’s. 

Boulanger recently gave strategy the skinny on how the eyewear landscape is evolving and where the company plans to go next.

Bonlook-glasses

According to the Growth 500 ranking, BonLook has seen five-year revenue growth of 1,994%. Is this the result of overall category growth or your own success as a company?

It’s a bit of both. Eyewear is becoming more and more popular, and it’s becoming more fashionable. I think people that used to wear exclusively contacts are going back to eyewear in the past few years. It’s also that we’re offering something different on the market for the Canadian customer, and we’ve opened many stores. We decided our strategy was to take over all good real estate availabilities. Once we had our business model pretty well finalized with two or three stores, we decided to do a very aggressive ramp-up, and I guess it has paid off.

You previously spoke to strategy about finding and filling a gap in the market. Has anything significant changed about your strategy over the last year or has it been more about finessing the things you feel you’re already doing well? 

It’s really about finessing. By opening [physical] stores, we realized that we’re able to reach a wider clientele than we were able to online, which was mostly millennial customers. With the stores, the reach is much wider, from teenagers to baby boomers. You want fashionable eyewear, no matter your age. Sixty-year-old people don’t want something super expensive and not super nice looking, either. So we’ve adapted our marketing strategy along the way to reach that older customer. For example, [we target] that older customer on Facebook, and the younger crowd on Instagram, Snapchat and now even TikTok. And we continue collaborating with influencers, most recently with hockey star Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils. These partnerships help us gain brand recognition with different audiences and also push us design-wise to do things differently. We’ve [recently] started to sell higher-end products like titanium frames. But it’s always [been] about offering the best value on the market for that product. That’s always been our positioning. At the end of the day, the model was pretty efficient, and now it’s about finessing the model and increasing same-store sales. That’s really what we’ve been working on in the past few months.

Last October, Essilor (the largest maker of corrective lenses) and Luxottica (which owns brands including LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut, Glasses.com, Ray-Ban and Oakley.) merged, creating the largest eyewear company globally. How much has that impacted the landscape in Canada? Have you reexamined your strategy as a result? 

Not that much, to be honest. I don’t think much has changed for the customer. In the future, I think we’ll see things evolve, because Luxottica owns many big chains. So [the new company, EssilorLuxottica] is looking at integrating [both sides of the business]. We’re still looking at what’s happening with this merger. It’s concentrating the industry even more into one big player, so how’s that going to play out for the customer? So far, I think it’s benefited players like us, because we really offer an alternative on the market. But we’ll see what happens.

You’ve recently added a few stores in Western Canada. Where do you plan to go next? 

We’ve been very cautious to develop a retail portfolio that was not too heavy, or in malls that you could [describe as] B malls or C malls. We’ve been very selective with where we open stores. We have 34 stores now, and they’re all in the best malls in Canada. We will probably go up to 40 stores. That’s a healthy number of retail outlets for a brand like us in Canada. It’s a challenge to find how to grow a business if you don’t open that many stores. But our stores are really efficient – we sell 16 times more units per square foot than the industry average – which is why this model has worked for us. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work to be in malls that are so expensive. And we’re looking at international markets now, including the U.S. and other countries, because we’re almost done with our Canadian deployment.

What other markets are you considering? 

I can’t say, because it’s a very high-level discussion. To be honest, operation-wise, for the next year we’re super focused on Canada, because we have seen so much comparable sales growth [that] we need to grow the teams in all of our stores, and we’ll probably have some more stores coming in the Maritimes in the next few months. We can probably double our sales in Canada without doubling the number of stores. In terms of revenue, there’s still a lot of low-hanging fruit for us to go and pick up.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly email briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up for the newsletter here to receive the latest stories directly to your inbox every Tuesday.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.