Original post from July 2, 2007.
1. Can you give me your full name and title at FramesDirect.com?
Dr. Dhavid Cooper, CEO and Co-Founder
2. Why did you and your partner decide to launch FramesDirect.com?
There were originally three partners, all of us O.D.'s and we'd been in practice in Houston since 1986 operating several offices under the partnership. We'd been working very hard developing these offices over a nine-year period and wanted to take a break from practice and from business for a while. The offices had been successful financially. In 1994 the opportunity arose to sell all the offices, which we did. We decided to take a year off and regroup one year later. During the time off I did some practice management seminars internationally, traveled and self-published a book "101 Secrets of a Million Dollar Office".
Dr. Hodgson and I got together a year later in 1996 to determine what our next venture was going to be. One afternoon we sat out on a pier overlooking the water at Kemah, Texas and laid out an idea for a new company. It had to operate 24/7 and have the ability to be national. Those were the primary criteria at the time. We didn't know what it would be or how we were going to achieve it. We then set up office space with a refracting lane and optical dispensary on the third floor of a six-story building. We did this intentionally rather than at street level or near a shopping area to force ourselves to think and get creative.
In 1996, the web was in its infancy and I had just learned about Windows 95 from my brother. I found it quite intriguing. I got a copy of Microsoft Front Page and taught myself how to create a web page and put 10 sunglass images online. We had formed a new company, Frames For America, Inc., under which we were going to evolve the new idea(s), but I wanted something shorter and snappier. One day I happened to be looking at box of paper I'd received from a company called Paper Direct. Within minutes Frames Direct was born.
Someone suggested we register the name as a dot-com, which we did. And FramesDirect.com became official in the latter part of 1996.
3. When did FramesDirect.com launch?
I think it was in September of 1996 - but towards the latter part of 1996.
4. What services does it offer?
FramesDirect.com is a full-service online optical store. By that we mean we offer sunglasses, contact lenses, prescription eyeglasses, frames, prescription lenses and prescription sunglasses online. We have worked very hard to be able to offer the online consumer/patient the identical services they would receive in ours or any optical store in the country.
5. Where is the official headquarters?
6. Is it a privately held company?
Yes, it is a privately held company. Dr. Hodgson and I are the only shareholders.
7. What has been the biggest difference between selling and fulfilling orders online vs. in a dispensary or brick and mortar store?
The biggest difference has been creating the infrastructure and technology to handle and fulfill online orders. The same optical principles apply, but the technology, means of communication and expectations of the consumer are much higher for an online provider, and the cost of operating an online store is significantly greater than a brick and mortar.
8. Who is the online optical customer?
The online optical customer is a student looking for the latest pair of designer sunglasses, the busy executive who wants the convenience of selecting eyewear online, the military person employed overseas who urgently needs their prescription filled, the retiree who can't out of the house to select a new pair of eyewear, the mom who wants to shop for her kids and husband without taking time out of a hectic schedule to drive, park and shop at an optical store, the internet surfer who uses this new technology for the majority of their online purchases and the younger generation who are growing up using the web as their first resource for all shopping experiences.
9. When did the emergence of buying eyewear online begin?
The emergence began probably close to the first internet boom about 1999/2000. I think the media and Wall Street helped expose the public to the web on a much bigger scale as a commercial or shopping resource beyond that of an information source.
FramesDirect.com had spent years building up a sound reputation with online users and the search engines, so that when more users started going online in search of optical alternatives - we were there, with a well trained and knowledgeable staff, and doctor/founders who were hands-on to answer and satisfy customer expectations.
10. How has it changed since its inception?
It's changed in that it's far more accepted now, both by the public and the industry. The explosive growth in broad-band technology and the availability of hi-speed access in most homes has helped fuel the explosion. People search and seek for information about eyewear products, trends, brands and want answers immediately. The 8 to 5 model no longer suffices. A user may want an answer or to find a product late Saturday evening - and they expect the answer to be on the web, from the convenience of home or office.
11. I have to assume there have been some growing pains and hurdles, can you explain them and how did you overcome them?There were certainly growing pains and hurdles going into a totally unchartered territory. There was no manual to follow - we had to create a path often with great resistance from the industry - but never from consumers. There were technical issues to be understood and learned, how to host a website and maintain a datacenter, how to design an online optical experience, server issues and the enormous cost involved of running and maintaining a world-class online presence.
We have literally spent millions in creating the online infrastructure we have today and continue to plough additional funds into R & D, continually striving to improve and improve the customer experience.
I have always dreamed of a virtual online technology that would allow the user to find just the right pair of eyewear by trying eyeglasses frames online on their own photo or image. We are close to fully realizing that dream. Our patented Photo Try On Technology - FrameFinder allows the user to upload a photo from any PC in the world to our servers, and try on frames online 24 hours a day on their own image.
We've had grateful testimonials from people in the military and those who are housebound and sometimes incarcerated, who have expressed such gratitude for being able to use a service like this.
Soon it will include the ability to try on sunglasses. In addition, the user can save a collection of favorites, email the frames and sunglasses to their friends who can try them on the users face as well. Very exciting stuff - and while there are a few bugs to be ironed out, we receive hundreds of photo uploads a day - and we haven't fully released or even promoted the technology yet.
12. What do you feel the impact of online retailing has been/will be on the optical retail environment?
Online retailing is difficult and expensive to pull off, but it is here to stay and it will grow. While no one has a crystal ball, there will always be brick and mortar stores and there will always be consumers who prefer to physically go into a store. But there will also be millions who prefer to go online. I'm one of them. I shop for just about everything online. It's just plain convenient.
In the same way that the One Hour superstores and direct mail contact lenses had an impact initially on the local optical or optometrist, I believe online retailing will in time have an impact as consumer awareness grows - but to what extent, I couldn't predict at this time, we're still in the very early stages of an emerging medium.
13. What do you see for the future of online optical retailing?
I see online optical retailing growing and new technologies emerging. FramesDirect.com is trying to pioneer this trend and our FrameFinder technology in time could reshape online optical retailing. In particular, this patented technology could spearhead a new type of corporate vision plan and we currently have plans underway to move strongly in that direction. We have been disappointed with VSP - the Vision Service Plan organization's decision to discriminate against online providers even though they promote the use of the online medium for filing claims and for their members to order products, but they deny the public the convenience of using the web for eyewear purchases.
We have been approached to find alternatives to VSP both by some of their members and companies that want online alternatives for their employees. Our preference would be to find a way for VSP members and the public to benefit from this new technology.
14. Are the frames closeouts or current inventory?
All frames are current inventory. We strive to maintain the brand integrity of the suppliers and work very hard to do so. We do not import cheap copies nor do we slash prices to undercut the profession. Our model is premium quality at fair prices. Our goal is to maintain the integrity of the profession and the suppliers - to be a resource for consumers and an extension for the manufacturers to get their branding message out to the consumer. Keep in mind, that while we have thousands of visitors to the site every day, many are just shoppers or information gatherers who will purchase their product at a local optical or optometrist. It would be nice to think that the thousands who visit would all buy from us, but that is not reality, anymore than thinking that all visitors to Amazon.com only buy their books there.
15. What are you able to accommodate online?
Bi or Trifocals?
Yes. My partner came up with an ingenious formulation for doing PALs online so has been so successful we use it exclusively in our local showroom/dispensary as well.
Yes, we are able to accommodate all brand name and no-name prescription sunglasses. To what curve?
To the exact specifications allowed by each manufacturer.
Yes. We can and do offer a full range of contact lens products online, including toric, bifocal and colored contacts. However, we recommend that consumers purchase their gas permeable contact lenses from their optometrist or eye care practitioner as this requires a specialty fit and may require modifications or changes in design initially, so the patient is better served by getting their lenses from the fitting practitioner.
16. Is there ever a correction you feel is too complicated to fulfill online?
While we can fulfill almost any prescription online, in extremely high prescriptions where the vertex distance becomes an important factor, and where several visits or adjustments may be required we advise the consumer to see their local optical or optometrist.
There really is nothing that would be too complicated for us to fill, but it must be in the best interests of our customer to do so.
We always have the needs of the consumer in mind first - our staff is not incentivized to sell products or brands or coatings, but only to offer the very best guidance to an online consumer and to be a resource for questions or information, even if no sale results from the interaction.