In the business world, they’re called “disrupters,” companies that enter a business sector with a new technology or business model, making their products some combination of cleaner, greener, safer, faster and cheaper than those of the established companies.
The established companies — especially in retail — are not happy campers. Before the disrupter came along, they were usually making a tidy profit with little risk.
About six years ago, a kiosk opened in West Edmonton Mall close to the waterpark. It was called Second Specs.
Second Specs has disrupted the Edmonton retail eye-glasses market. It offers new glasses at a price competitive with online companies, way cheaper than most walk-in Edmonton optical companies, provides personalized service … and can make and fit prescription lenses to a new frame within a half-hour.
Second Specs is 100 per cent local. Founders Dr. Aaron Patel, an optometrist, and his business partner Quy An, an optician, are Edmontonians through and through.
Today, Second Specs has seven outlets. Kiosks are in West Edmonton Mall (with two), St. Albert Centre, Londonderry Mall, CrossIron Mills and Market Mall in Calgary and one strip-mall store in Sherwood Park.
Second Specs’ lenses-cutting — skilled technical work — is done at each kiosk, not shipped off to a centralized lab. Each outlet is staffed by a licensed optician. Staff at each outlet can make and fit lenses within the promised half-hour.
How does a thoroughly local company create such inexpensive eyewear, provide personalized service and follow-up, and have the fastest turnaround time in Canada?
Patel, a youthful 44, credits a series of happy coincidences. An entrepreneur as well as an optometrist (an eye doctor), he opened the Alberta Eye Health Clinic on 107 Avenue in 2006. “The store had many government-sponsored clients. Profit margins were minimal. We had to rely on volume.”
Volume meant speed of manufacturing. “Quy (now 39) was my manager. I was amazed. He figured out how to make lenses and fit them to a frame (a process known as edging) within 30 minutes.
“We realized we could make lenses anywhere, more quickly and at less cost than our competition.”
Meanwhile, the Internet had come along. Online optical companies were offering glasses, sight unseen as it were, at spectacularly lower prices than brick-and-mortar stores.
Aaron and Quy began talking about a new optical business model. “We knew we could offer the all-important personal touch, make a pair of glasses within a half-hour, provide followup service — all the things internet companies couldn’t do. But we had to compete price-wise.”
The light came on. Why not set up kiosks in malls — with a reasonable inventory of inexpensive frames, the equipment and trained staff to make lenses in each kiosk, good customer service, and the ultra-fast turnaround time?
“The costs of a kiosk were much less than operating a full store,” says Patel, a past president of the Alberta Association of Optometrists. “But, within the optical business, operating from a kiosk was seen as unprofessional.”
West Edmonton Mall was the only shopping mall in town willing to take a chance on the still unproven concept, even though Patel and Quy had financing in place.
“We knew we could make it work. We found a frame supplier who was reliable, high-quality and had good prices,” says Patel. The only thing Second Specs does not offer is actual eye examinations.
Second Spec, still entirely owned by the two partners, has plans to open another three locations in 2020. It now has annual revenues in the multi-millions with an eventual goal of having up to 100 Second Spec mall outlets across North America.
On the charitable side, Second Specs has partnered with the Canadian Vision Care charity, providing a new pair of glasses for those in need outside Canada for every pair sold here.
Franchises, partnerships? “Who knows what the future holds,” says Patel. “We like what we have. For now, we just want to grow in a steady, careful manner. In this business it’s all about location and reputation.”