Israeli site makes the Internet your optician

A local company hopes to take on the big boys of the online optical industry with its own low-priced offering

A man tries on a pair of glasses at IsraelOptical's pop-up store in the Rav Shefa Mall (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A man tries on a pair of glasses at IsraelOptical's pop-up store in the Rav Shefa Mall (Photo credit: Courtesy)

An Israeli entrepreneur has big plans to take over the Internet optical business – where customers pick frames on-line, submit their prescription information, and save lots of money over the high prices charged by optical stores.

For many people in the U.S. and Europe, buying glasses online without going to an optician’s shop and being waited upon by a salesperson, has become the preferred way to buy spectacles. Grayson Levy, the Canadian immigrant who, along with partner Chaim Silverstone, opened, believes that the market — in Israel and abroad — is ripe for his company’s particular brand of eye care.

“Our objective is to supply glasses, including frames and lenses, for a very low price,” said Levy. “We have dozens of models of frames for only NIS 89 (about $25), with lenses included free for most prescriptions, plus free shipping worldwide.”

With the high price of glasses in Israel, it was just a matter of time before someone started a site like this, said Grayson. “Someone once told me that buying a pair of glasses should be like buying lunch, not taking out a mortgage on a house, as it is in so many of the big optical stores here.”

IsraelOptical isn’t the first online glasses store, but it’s the only one to use Israeli-made lenses, a fact that Grayson points to with pride. “The quality of the lenses here is much higher than what the competition is offering, which is lenses made in China,” he said. “We’re hoping that the fact that these glasses are made in Israel, along with their high quality, will enable us to become big players in the international market, despite the stiff competition.”

For Levy, one of the most important competitors happens to be the world’s largest online dispenser of cheap prescription eyeglasses — the China-based Zenni Optical. “We price our glasses with shipping built into the cost, so that it comes within a few shekels of Zenni’s price,” said Levy. “But we ship faster than they do, plus our quality is much better.”

Most online “glasses stores” work the same way: You browse through the different frames — Levy’s site has hundreds — or search for a specific style, such as men’s half-frame small plastic, for example. You add your prescription, choosing the appropriate numbers from a drop-down menu, having already have gone to an optometrist for an examination before ordering online. You then choose extra features, such as tinting, bifocal/multifocal, etc. All the while, the price keeps updating, going up or down depending on the choices you make. When you’re done, you pay by credit card, and the glasses are drop-shipped via express mail anywhere in the world. Customers in the US and Europe automatically see the price in dollar/euros/pounds, etc.

Levy, whose main line of work is web programming, designed the site and the interface to make ordering especially easy for web newbies. For many Israeli glasses-wearers, especially those who are older, buying glasses from a computer instead of a friendly, human optician may seem a bit strange, but Levy said that the response so far has been very good. “We have been up for about a month and haven’t done much advertising yet, but people have found us, and we have been getting a lot of inquiries.”

Although Israelis, who are currently the target market for IsraelOptical (once the system is perfected here, he said, the company will turn its attention to bigger markets abroad), have responded positively to the innovative way of buying glasses, there are still many who are having a hard time adjusting to the idea of making a major purchase like eyeglasses without actually seeing the frames or trying them on. To solve that problem, Levy utilizes a “pop-up store,” which remains open for a few days or weeks and lets people see goods for sale, without requiring the proprietor to commit to a long-term lease.

In Levy’s case, IsraelOptical rented out a short-term space in Jerusalem’s Rav Shefa Mall, where most shoppers are ultra-Orthodox. “Even though Haredim are not supposed to use the Internet, many of them have heard about what we offer and wanted to see the glasses ‘live.’ To that end we opened the pop-up store to enable people to see what they are ordering.”

The store has several computers that let users order the glasses they want on the spot. The pop-up concept is almost as innovative as the online glasses effort, said Levy, because “in Israel it’s very rare to find short-term commercial space to lease.”

The pop-up store could be the bridge that helps people get used to the idea of buying glasses online “I like the idea of people being able to try on glasses before buying, but the whole point of this is to keep prices down by keeping overhead down,” said Levy. “So the idea of a pop-up store, or a display rack in a department store or jewelry store, where we would rent out space for customers try before they buy, makes a lot of sense.”

That latter plan, in fact, is being used by a new American online optical site called Warby-Parker, which has set up “showrooms” in several US cities where potential buyers can check out frames before they buy. Warby-Parker is proof that the concept works, Levy said: Launched in 2010, the company has raised an astounding $150 million in three rounds of funding.

“In the month we’ve been operating, we’ve gotten about three or four calls from people interested in finding out more for every order, so there is a lot of potential for growth, both in Israel and abroad. Everyone seems to be happy with what we’re doing, except for the people from the big-chain optical store on the other side of the mall. They’ve been giving us dirty looks,” said Levy, “but they are going to have to get used to the idea of online competition.”

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