Here is a blog about the Power of Niche E-Commerce, written by Sramana Mitra; One Million by One Million Blog. Originally Posted: Tuesday, Nov 12th 2019
(Part 1, 2,3) available on Eyelation’s Occupational Health & Safety Blog

I have always believed in the power of niche e-commerce to build sustainable businesses. Eyelation is a great example. Read on for more.


Part 1: 
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start by introducing our audience to yourself and Eyelation.

Brad Kirschner: I’m the CEO and Founder of Eyelation. We’ve been in business since 2009. I developed a self-service safety eyewear kiosk for factories. It’s available for people to buy their prescription eyewear from. The first one was out in 2011.

Right now, we’re in about 900 companies in the United States and Canada with about 400,000 users. We manage benefits for those companies and make it easy for their people to get their protection.

Sramana Mitra: Elaborate a little bit on what’s going on in the industry. How do you differentiate?

Brad Kirschner: The prescription safety industry has not changed for many years. It has been handled in traditional ways via people going out to factories on a periodic basis and fitting people with eyewear. It could be employees having to go to one of a number of storefronts. That made it hard for people to get access to the system and it also was very challenging for people who worked on multiple shifts.

We developed a system that was available all the time. When companies require their safety equipment, it’s a requirement that everyone has access to. Anyone should have access to that no matter what their comfort level is with technology.

By providing a kiosk, we are providing this simple ATM where people can use the benefits that their company is giving them at a time that works for them without having to come in extra hours or meet up with someone. 

Sramana Mitra: Where are the kiosks located?

Brad Kirschner: We put them in factories. These are large corporate customers like bottle manufacturers or food manufacturers. We’ll typically put our kiosk in the lunchroom. Think of an ATM. It’s just there all the time. When people want to order, they walk up to it.

Sramana Mitra: What percentage of your business is corporate versus individual? 

Brad Kirschner: We’re solely B2B.

Sramana Mitra: Let’s talk about the trends in B2B e-commerce and in particular, the way you are going to market with kiosks. Do you exclusively go to market with kiosks?

Brad Kirschner: The kiosk is 70% of our orders today with about 30% coming through our web platform. We see people use the kiosk as their first touchpoint. In subsequent years when it’s time to get new glasses, they’re able to get their stuff from their cellphones.

One of the key things is that it measures people for the fitting. It’s not like they’re just ordering online. We’re measuring them. We’re getting a copy of their prescription scanned at the kiosk so we’re getting their current doctor’s prescription. It provides a seamless experience for them.

Part 2:

Brad Kirschner: One of the interesting things that has happened as well is, when I started, we spent two years developing the eyewear kiosk. We went out to the market with it. Almost right away, people said, “This is really cool. Can you do this for safety shoes?”

Sramana Mitra: That’s a completely different business.

Brad Kirschner: I had spent a number of years in factories fitting people with eyewear the old way before I started this company. One thing I noticed when I did that was that there was some guy like me who was also fitting shoes.

Even though shoes and eyeglasses don’t go together in retail, they’re two things that go together very well in factories. They’re things that people get one or two per year, and every one needs a different one. The companies have the same problem in getting their safety products for shoes to their employees as they do for eyewear.

When I started, they were asking me about this. We spent some time getting it out to market and building our network for eyewear. In the last year, we’ve added a safety shoe program as well. We’ve got 20 to 30 customers now who are buying safety shoes as well as eyewear from us.

Anything that’s in this benefit-managed space where companies want a little bit more control over what people are getting and it’s a little bit geared for individuals is something we’re looking to expanding into.

Sramana Mitra: Talk about the logistics of this. Where is the merchandise stored? How big a kiosk do you need to be able to store all this stuff?

Brad Kirschner: Don’t think of a vending machine. It’s really more like an ATM. People walk up to it and they place their order and then it arrives within a day or two. We ship it to them.

After we’ve measured them and fit them, we then ship it to them. Some companies will have it shipped to the company. Some companies will have it shipped to people’s houses. We have flexibility around that. 

Sramana Mitra: Where is the product being handled?

Brad Kirschner: We’re based out of Chicago. All of the products are shipping out of our office.

Sramana Mitra: Direct to consumer?

Brad Kirschner: Yes, or to the factories. 

Sramana Mitra: So the kiosk is for measuring and taking orders.

Brad Kirschner: Exactly.

Sramana Mitra: What measurements do you need?

Brad Kirschner: It doesn’t do the eye exam part. You still go to a doctor to get your prescription, but your doctor doesn’t probably have safety glasses that your company will pay for. What happens is, they bring the prescription from their doctor to the kiosk.

eyelation customer map
Part 3:

Brad Kirschner: After you get your eyes checked, you come out and you pick out your glasses. People will measure the distance between your eyes and the height of the bifocals. Our system does the measurements for the fitting and not for the prescription itself. They just bring their prescription to the kiosk.

Sramana Mitra: Where do you see opportunities in e-commerce in general? In particular, in the eyewear space. 

Brad Kirschner: It speaks to a challenge that I’ve had in my business. I definitely know the eyewear space really well. I’ve learned to know the safety space as well. Because of the type of product that we developed, it has applications both in retail optical as well as safety optical and other safety products.

It’s been hard for me to navigate where we should focus our energy on. We have people talking to us all the time about putting the kiosks in every Walmart. We also have people saying, “Why don’t we put more safety products?” We have gone back and forth on this over the years. It has been a challenge.

I will say that the changes in those two different markets are completely different. In the retail optical space, there’s a lot of movement towards tele-health and being able to do eye exams remotely. In the US, there’s a huge amount of consolidation as there are fewer and fewer private practices.

It has changed the landscape in terms of how an individual practice can compete. It also affects the quality of care that people are able to get as the choices diminish over time.

It’s been an interesting thing to watch as we’ve been in the optical space but a little bit adjacent by focusing on safety. We’re in a little bit of a bubble but we definitely notice everything that’s going on there. There is tremendous opportunity in the optical space on the tele-health side. I see that as the future.

In the safety space, it’s interesting because a lot of old companies that have been doing a great job for a long time are continuing to service large factories. While the rest of the US and Canada are moving towards ordering more online and ordering off Amazon, the B2B hasn’t quite moved there.

They’re ordering from people or sending people to stores to place orders. It’s been slow moving towards more of an e-commerce type of market. In the e-commerce space, B2B is probably one of the largest untapped market.

Sramana Mitra: Thank you for your time.

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