At Mediajobs.com we pride ourselves in making your job search easier by finding the great companies first and we are excited about this interview with Roger Hardy, founder and CEO of Coastal.com, the first company to sell prescription eyewear online.
As a $200 million dollar public company, with over 10 years experience, in an $18 billion plus market, Coastal is well positioned for significant growth. According to the National Eye Institute, 64% of people wear glasses in the US which represents over 200 million people.
Listen as Roger explains why the Wal-Mart, Costco, Pearl Visions and more will become far less dominant in this huge market.
You can listen to or read the interview below:
Roy: My name is Roy Weissman from MediaJobs.com. Today we’re speaking with Roger Hardy, the founder and CEO of Vancouver-based Coastal.com. Coastal is the leader in disrupting the established eye work plateau, which blows away the pack with outstanding service. “A better way to buy for perfect vision.” Welcome Roger, how are you today?
Roger: Doing great, thank you Roy.
Roy: I appreciate you taking the time to talk about Coastal.com. It’s interesting because we’ve all heard about, I live in New York and I’ve heard about Warby Parker, and Warby Parker, the website where they have prescription eyeglasses. Of course, you’re led to believe they’re the only ones in the market. Then low and behold, there’s this wonderful company, and you guys have been in business since 2001?
Roger: Yes, Roy, we’ve been around since 2001. About four and a half million vision-corrected customers, sold more than a billion dollars online at this point. Yeah, we’ve been serving vision-corrected customers for a while now.
Roy: What made you start this business? Why this business? How did you get into this?
Roger: I worked in logistics, actually, transportational logistics, working with companies on shorting their supply chains and trying to find better, more efficient ways to reach their customers. After doing that for a while, I went to work briefly for a contact lens manufacturer. It was in that process of understanding how contact lens customers and vision impaired customers were served that I recognized an opportunity.
I built a website; my sister and I were the co-founders. We started the company, as you said, in late 2000 into 2001, and the business has taken off from there. It was really a boot-strap business. I started on the idea that there was a better way to serve customers. What we’ve started to glimpse, even at that point, was that vision-corrected patients, after they’ve transitioned from patients to customers, they start to have choice. We were all about trying to offer vision-corrected customers more choice in the marketplace.
That’s how we started and we’ve been trying to serve customers as best we can ever since. As I said today, about 750 Coastal employees here in Vancouver, in Stockholm, Sweden, and in Sydney, Australia. We’ve also got a distribution center and manufacturing center in Blaine, Washington. We serve a number of different markets, and we’ve got these four centers where we’re able to serve customers very, very quickly with high quality products.
Roy: What percentage of your business is Canada versus U.S. versus international?
Roger: Our North American business is more than half of our business. We think of Canada and U.S. as North America, so that’s more than half of our business. The U.S. is our fastest growing market. We talk about how big is the market. The market for eyeglasses, to give you an example, is about $18 million in North America. That business surprisingly today is only about 3% online in the U.S.
At Coastal.com our vision is really that there’s a big shift underway. Just like you’ve seen with PBMs, managing the pharmacy benefits, I think you’re going to see some VBMs, some vision benefits managers over the next 4 or 5 years. We start to manage all of these patient relationships and serve these patients in a better way than they’re currently being served. There’s this massive opportunity to shift away from the independent eye care, independent eye doctors, towards a better solution.
A better solution is one really that’s got higher service levels, more consistent service levels, obviously better pricing. It still makes no sense to anyone that a pair of eyeglasses should cost four or five or $600. In Manhattan, maybe Roy, you’d pay seven, $800 for two pieces of plastic, two little screws.
That’s really our vision, is finding a better way to serve customers, partnering and making it a higher service level, a more consistent service level, and doing it in a way that really wows customers.
Roy: Who are your biggest competitors? Obviously, being in New York, you’ve heard of Warby Parker. How do you compare to them, and who are the other competitors out there?
Roger: For Coastal, the real competitors are the bigger chains, the Luxotticas for example, the Pearl Visions, the Sears Opticals, the Target Opticals, the National Visions. Most of those companies typically have very low customer satisfaction ratings. Where Coastal differentiates itself is we have very high customer satisfaction ratings. We’ve been awarded the Elite ratings by Stella Service, which puts us in the ranks of those of Zappos, of Burberry, of 1–800-Flowers.
We offer 366-day returns, no questions asked. We’re in an elite service regime and from a competitive standpoint, it’s really the incumbent eye wear guys that are being disrupted. The guys who have probably a big extensive retail space. Maybe, in our case, we’ve got more than 2000 frames on our site, so compared to the average store where you’d have four or 500 frames, we’ve got about 2000.
We offer this great selection, we put $15 million into our eye lab here, we can make about 12,000 pairs of glasses per day for customers, and that makes us very fast. On average, we make your glasses in less than a day and ship them out to you. You can have them by tomorrow morning if you order today. By comparison, 7–14 days for some of the incumbents. When you measure customer satisfaction across the incumbents versus ourselves, we really are the better way to buy eyewear, and that’s what customers are telling us.
Roy: How do you compare yourselves to Warby Parker, though?
Roger: Specifically, Coastal offers its own brands, which is something that Warby does, and we manufacture those in our own labs. We like to control all the process. We’ve got private-label brands, and we also have some of the brands from some of the bigger manufacturers. If you wanted a pair of Guess frames, a Gucci, a Calvin Klein, a Dior, a Fendi, you could come to our site and see those, a Prada, a D&G. Some people like brands and some people like private labels like Warby offers. We’ve got both those, but I think our key differentiator is really our service piece.
We make those glasses ourselves, we quality control those eyeglasses. You order them today, we make them later today, and we ship them out to you today. By controlling all those steps versus … Warby’s just one of … there are many companies online that are selling glasses. Coastal’s been doing it longest and has the largest online glasses business.
We’re the established player. We’ve been around since 2008 selling eyeglasses online, started lifting up the category in 2006, pretty extensively. Compared to many of these other companies, we’ve built the largest business. The way we’ve done it is by doing a great job with service, by building an annuity of customers so customers try us, they tend to love the experience, they tend to come back and buy again, and they refer friends and family.
That’s why Coastal’s got more than two million fans on our Facebook pages between our various sites, more than a million at our Coastal.com in the U.S. site, and that’s 10x what any of the other companies have in terms of fans on Facebook. We really consider that an indicator of where things are going, is our customers are happy, they’re telling friends and family about us, and then we’re seeing them through social media. It’s exciting times here, for sure.
Roy: You said you started selling the glasses in 2008, did you say?
Roger: We did, yeah.
Roy: What were you selling prior to that?
Roger: We’ve done contacts all the way through. Coastal started as a contact lens website, and also carried sunglasses, but really expanded our efforts into Rx eyeglasses. In about 2008, we really started to invest. The reason for that investment was we kept hearing from customers over and over, “I love what you’ve done for me in contact lenses. Can you do something for me in terms of eyeglasses? Why am I paying so much for my glasses?”
That’s what really drove us to investigate the business. Initially, we thought “Wow this is tricky. This will be tough. There’s all these fitting characteristics.” At the time, we were hearing about Zappos like many people, and what a great job they were doing with a couple of key parts to their model. Worry-free, no-hassle returns, free shipping on the returns. Then we started to incorporate those parts into our model, and I think we landed on something that customers love.
Roy: What kind of traffic did you get into your website monthly?
Roger: The traffic number, specifically, we don’t break out, but I think it was more than siz million. If I go back a couple of quarters, it would be more than 6 million for the quarters. It was pretty significant numbers of traffic. I would characterize us as one of the largest, if not the largest, optical stores on the internet just by virtue of the traffic we have and the sales that we have.
Roy: Can you give a sense of your sales?
Roger: Yeah, I think we’re right around the $55 million mark in the last quarter, so we’re … pretty significant from a sales standpoint.
Roy: How many glasses do you sell a year?
Roger: We’ll sell more than a million pairs of eyeglasses this year. It’s not a small business for us. It’s been a pretty exciting ramp up over the past number of years. A million pairs of eyeglasses probably places us in the top three or four retailers of eyeglasses in the world, or, I’m sorry, in North America.
Roy: When you say eyeglasses, are those just prescription or those are all the eyeglasses?
Roger: Those are just prescription, those include all prescription eyeglasses. I’m thinking prescription.
Roy: Oh, okay. Well, that’s a lot of eyeglasses. What percentage of your customers, would you say, are repeat customers?
Roger: Pretty significant portion. In Canada, we were at 47% of our customers were repeat.
Roy: Wow. Do you have an overall sense?
Roger: It’s pretty early in that business to get an exact number on it, but we’ve got a good sense of that Canadian business since that’s where we started. We initially launched our eyeglasses business in Canada, and it has had some good success.
Roy: You mentioned you have locations in Sweden and Australia. You’re selling overseas also?
Roger: We do, yes.
Roy: What percentage of your business? When you say … You’re selling overseas, where, what areas internationally are you currently marketing to?
Roger: We’ve got an office in Sweden, in Stockholm, and we have a market in Sweden, Norway, and Finland where we’re about 1 of every 3 contact lenses sold online or offline. We market, as I said, in North America here, Canada and the U.S., and then we market over in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
Roy: It’s interesting that you chose those markets as opposed … A lot of people will think “I’ll go to the UK, go to Europe, go to the E.C.” What made you choose those markets?
Roger: The Nordic markets are fairly advanced web markets so we acquired a small business in Scandinavia in 2004, and invested in growing that business. It’s grown quite nicely. It’s just been a great market where people are technology-savvy. They very quickly were ordering things on the internet, and that’s what’s helped our business grow.
Roy: Do you envision moving more into Western Europe or … yes, no?
Roger: No, I think we’re happy in the markets that we’re in. Our plan is just to stay focused on the markets I’ve outlined.
Roy: I would think that … I don’t know if there … are current league players over there, selling online prescription?
Roger: For Coastal, the real focus is on … it’s an $18–20 billion market in eyeglasses in North America, and that’s what we think the opportunity is. How many businesses that have the value proposition being this good where you can buy the same pair of eyeglasses that you can get at your eye doctor for five or $600 online for $100-$150? You’re looking at a third of the cost and you’re looking at getting them faster, same quality.
Anytime you see that, for us as business people, when you’re a third of the cost with the same high-quality products or better, it’s a great opportunity. We’re really just focused on in an $18 billion dollar market. That’s big enough for us. Eighteen percent of the contact lens market today is done online. If I go forward and say 15–20% of the category will be online in 7 years, that’s a four billion dollar online eyeglasses category, and we’d be happy to be the leader in that category.
Roy: The $18 billion that you keep talking about, is that just the prescription eyeglasses?
Roger: That’s the prescription eyeglass market, yes.
Roy: Does that include contacts, or no?
Roger: No. Contacts is another three to five million globally.
Roy: The $18 billion prescription in North America, which is obviously a huge market opportunity, and if only 3% are online currently, we can see why it’s a great opportunity there. Absolutely. You mentioned something earlier when we started the call about pharmacy benefit plans. Are you saying that you’re going to see the vision market evolving to where … if you have United Health insurance and you go to MedCo or whatever, you’re going to be tied to certain pharmacy benefit plans? Is that where you see it going?
Roger: I think that’s what we are seeing will be the next impact in the U.S. It looks very much like that’s going to be the case.
Roy: How do you envision that will change your business?
Roger: It’s just a dynamic time. There’s a lot of things happening, I think, in the next two years, and we’re lining up the partners that want to work with us in that transition. Our hope is that many of the uninsured Americans will start to benefit from having better benefits.
As you know, healthcare costs are skyrocketing. Anyone who can come to the table and offer more value at a lower cost is going to be welcomed, I think, in the whole healthcare scheme. As the population’s aging, as healthcare costs are skyrocketing, everyone in these health organizations is looking for a way, number one to reduce costs, and number two, to better serve their customers.
Oftentimes, these vision categories inside these benefits providers, like a United are underserved, and they’re looking for way to complement … they want to be doing a great job for their customers as well. There’s no reason why their customers should be having a miserable vision experience when there are great alternatives like Coastal out there. That’s really what I think the evolution will be, is that many of these providers are going to seek a higher standard of care at a lower pricing. Frankly, that’s one of the things that Coastal is uniquely positioned to do.
Roy: I know with the health insurance that we have … you have the vision benefits, but typically the vision benefits is very limited and you really don’t get to use the discounts in some places. Are you and Coastal currently included in some U.S. benefit plans?
Roger: I think we’re working with a number of plans. We’re also doing a funded plan. We’ve got companies that will pay into a funding benefit plan with Coastal, and they will get a defined benefit. There’s also the plans where we can be added as an in-network provider, so to speak. We’ve got a couple of those in Canada, we’ve got a couple partnerships that we’re working on, and I think those can be good catalysts as those expands and unfolds.
Roy: I’m sure you’ve heard as much about the U.S. government health rules and laws that start next year. I don’t recall reading anything about vision benefits in it. Do you know if that’s included in that, if there are vision benefits …?
Roger: Yeah, there will be benefits in vision, in terms of vision. I think they’re still being worked out how they’re going to be provided, but there are some vision benefits to be shared with people who need them.
Roy: Out of that $18 billion business today, what percentage would you say is what majors in the stores, the brick and mortar stores?
Roger: Somewhere around 20–30% is in the brick and mortar.
Roy: What is the biggest chunk of that business right now?
Roger: You’ve got your independent eye care practitioners, you’ve then got your Wal-Marts or Costcos, and then you’ve got your, let’s call them your other brands, your Lens Crafters, Pearl Visions, Sears Optical, Target Optical, so you’re kick box and specialty retail. You’ve got, as I said, about 3% of the units being sold online.
Roy: So literally the biggest piece are the big guys at 20%, but it’s relatively fragmented, it sounds like?
Roger: It is super fragmented, yeah.
Roy: Nobody really owns the market, even the big guys at 20%, but that’s not really ownership of the market, per say. It would seem like there is an enormous opportunity to grow the business.
Roger: There is. It is a bit of akin to the blockbuster analogy where you’ve got a mom-and-pop video that’s still maybe an inconsistent service level, maybe higher prices, and it has not become one clear standard, one clear dominant player. I think that would be interesting to see if a blockbuster-like player was able to offer something really unique and special for customers if they have success.
Roy: You’re doing great today. You’ve been out there with glasses since 2008, you’ve been in business for 12 years, where do you see this company in two years? What kind of revenues? What do you think is going to happen in the next two years?
Roger: We’re a company that’s focused on serving customers well and I think if we can serve customers and do a great job for them, then we’ll be well-positioned to grow and benefit from, hopefully, a shift in where consumers are buying.
Roy: Looking at your revenues today, do you think your revenues will be up 20% in three years? Fifty percent? Doubling? What do you think?
Roger: You can imagine that we basically just focus on serving customers as well as we can. Big market opportunity, very interesting, and these things are hard to predict, when the market will shift. We want to keep working hard and serving customers, and hopefully that helps customers choose the better way.
Roy: It sounds like you guys are really focused on the service and making sure the customers are extremely happy so that that huge percentage will come back and buy again. Have you seen …
Roger: That’s it exactly.
Roy: Do you know what percentage of your business comes from mobile? Mobile is so huge. Everybody is gearing up for mobile.
Roger: Mobile is huge and we’re having a big uptake in traffic in mobile, it’s been very interesting, but it’s not something we’ll break out.
Roy: No, but have you envisioned doing anything unique for the mobile market? Or do you feel it’s just another channel?
Roger: I think we’re working on a number of things for mobile, so you’ll have to stay tuned for that one.
Roy: You’ve got a lot of things up your sleeve. You have 750 employees now, do you see that growing or do you see that’s relatively stable?
Roger: We’ll see. It depends how the business unfolds. We’ve got a great team. We’re lucky to have such a hardworking group here, and it’s been a good squad. Hopefully we’ll keep having success.
Roy: Do you see, in two or three years, of possibly being acquired?
Roger: That’s not something we’re thinking about. We are heads down, working hard, building a great business and that’s really our focus. We’ve got no interest, at this stage, in being acquired. There’s still a lot of market share, we’ve got strong balance sheet, a great team, we all love what we’re doing, we’re all very passionate about this space. Just working hard, heads down, and we’re hoping for good things.
Roy: It’s interesting because you brought up the Wal-Marts, the CostCos. You would be a great acquisition for them. Wal-Mart.com is really focused on trying to become the next Amazon. One way to do it quicker is to do an acquisition, like buy a company such as yours.
Roger: We’re a public company so anytime anybody wants to think about Coastal, they really just have to think about making an offer to all the shareholders. I’m just one hardworking CEO. We do the will of the people, and what if the shareholders got an offer from anyone, then we take it to them and we’ve had, seriously, all those types of things.
The truth is our recommendation would be we’ve got a great hand here, we’ve got a great team, a great balance sheet, a growing category. How often do you really get yourself in this type of a sweet spot? We want to stay right in this sweet spot and keep growing our business, and see how it all plays out.
Roy: There’s no question that you’re in a huge market, you have an enormous upside. At the end of the day, one of the biggest problems online is customer service. The fact that you guys are so focused on that is extremely important. At the end of the day, how many times do you go to a website, even Amazon, you can’t get anybody on the phone. The ability to …
Roger: That’s absolutely true.
Roy: It’s terrible. The most successful businesses think the most effective way is to not talk to the customer. In some case …
Roger: That’s not our philosophy at all. We’re really working hard, as we say, to serve customers. If we can make the website easier for them, absolutely we’ll do it. No, we’ve got a big call center here. We’ve spent a lot of time and investment in training our call center staff, on QA-ing our product, on closing the loop as well.
When we get customer feedback about something was negative, we run it to ground, we follow-up, we make sure that we understand what went right and what went wrong with our customers. We’ve been seeing a real benefit of that, a very steady uptake over the last 12 months in our net promoter score, which measures the number of customers who are super excited about what you’ve done for them.
Roy: That’s fantastic. I think that gives anybody an edge today, especially online, because nobody answers the phone.
Roger: It’s unique. You’re right, Roy.
Roy: It is unique. In some cases, people say, “Oh people promote service and say …” and everybody says “But we do a better job.” To some extent, someone could argue that that’s just trite. I think, online it’s extremely significant building the ability to actually communicate with your customer on the phone. It’s huge because you have an opportunity … the customer feels like “Oh I can do business with them. I can call them.”
I happen to think that that’s an enormous edge. Companies that don’t invest in that are setting themselves up for potential surprises. I think the service end is extremely valuable. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to share with us that is valuable for our audience?
Roger: No, I think just that it’s exciting times at the company, and we’ll continue to build a great business here. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.
Roy: Roger, you did a wonderful job explaining the opportunity at Coastal. You’re the billion-dollar company that nobody, most people haven’t heard of. This is exactly the kind of opportunity people need to pay attention to in the market. Companies that are really poised to see a far significant growth and even … significant enough today. The real question is with only 3% of the market online, you’re going to see that grow significantly. It’s going to be interesting to see what percentage of that you guys get.
Roger: Absolutely, Roy. We really appreciate you taking the time in such thorough and great questions. Thank you for including Coastal in your review today, we really appreciate it.
Roy: Thank you for taking the time. Take care, Roger.