Marc Fielmann on tech in the glasses business

Source: t3n Magazine

Fielmann sells every second pair of glasses in this country, but not a single pair online. All that is about to change. In an interview, Group CEO Marc Fielmann explains his digital strategy and why he believes in the future of data glasses.

Marc Fielmann wears a dark suit for the video call, without a tie for once. Even though the boss and heir to the optician chain of the same name was born in 1989 and thus passes for a Millennial, the T-shirt, jeans and sneakers attire is obviously not his thing. “When I go to the branch store, I also wear a tie,” he says, alluding to the fact that he is often asked about his choice of clothes. For the 31-year-old from Hamburg, who says he still sells glasses himself in the shop a few days a month, this also expresses a “form of respect” towards the customers. “An 18-year-old is not going to not buy glasses from me just because she thinks I’m a bit stuffy. A gentleman of a certain standing, however, wouldn’t find it so cool if his optician appeared before him in a T-shirt.” Around 8.3 million pairs of glasses crossed the counter at Fielmann in 2019. The fact that Marc Fielmann is an expert and has learned sales from the bottom up is evident time and again during the conversation: He pulls off his own glasses, bends the temples, sometimes rolls his office chair very close to the camera and then away again to the back of the room to demonstrate how difficult it is to calibrate head size online. Last November, he succeeded his father Günther as CEO of the listed family business, which most recently had an annual turnover of around 1.8 billion euros. Internally, 300 people are working on the digitalisation of the company in product development; a total of 200 million euros will flow into the implementation of its “Vision 2025” in 2019 and 2020. Despite all his enthusiasm for the virtual, he emphasises the down-to-earth nature of his industry: “Optical chains are family businesses, so a handshake still counts for something.”

Mr Fielmann, you are investing hundreds of millions in digitalisation and opened a high-tech branch in Hamburg in June. However, an app for buying glasses online is not due until the end of the year. Aren’t you a little late?
Apps and their development are nothing new for us. We have had an omnichannel business model for contact lenses since 2016. However, complex measurement technologies play a role in the online sale of glasses. Especially for lens centring.

Online players like Mister Spex have been selling glasses on the internet for a long time and claim to be able to do so.
Despite investments, the online market share for glasses has stagnated at one per cent for years. This is not exactly a revolution. Rather, the fact that all online providers are now opening physical stores confirms our omnichannel strategy. But it could also be seen as you going digital to fight a defensive battle in the face of the competition’s push into physical retail. We are guided by the wishes of our customers. Customers do not distinguish between on- and offline. For us, it is essential that the customer receives Fielmann quality, regardless of the channel. Market-ready technologies for 3D try-on, 3D fitting and an online eye test must first be developed for this. We are migrating these technologies into our app later this year.

“Technological investments must always have something to do with our eyes and ears.”

As you say yourself, only very few glasses are currently bought online. You could also draw the consequence of dismissing the whole thing as not very lucrative.  Why is Fielmann getting involved?
If you currently buy a pair of glasses from the online shop, it is purely a product of chance. The online eye tests can only tell you whether you need glasses or not, but cannot determine the visual acuity. If, on the other hand, you buy from an optician, the glasses will be measured and adjusted to you. Comparable to a tailor-made suit. We create an omnichannel system that guarantees the same quality. In the medium term, we nevertheless still expect a physical retail share of 90 per cent for prescription glasses.

If clients have high visual acuity, diabetes or other risk factors, then we will always recommend coming to the branch for a check-up.

According to some of your competitors, they rely on 3D printing to manufacture glasses in a more resource-efficient way. Is that also an option for you?
We have had a 3D printer at the Fielmann Ventures premises since 2013 and have been using the technology in product development for five years. In mass production, however, you would have to call up a relatively high price for 3D versions – more like 99 instead of 17.50 euros. This makes 3D printing not for mass products at the moment, but rather for luxury products. I don’t envisage a breakthrough into our market.

Not even in the direction of personalisation? Like sneaker manufacturers do?
You can also personalise glasses without 3D printing – from personal engraving to interchangeable temples. I compare this with the question: “Wouldn’t it be better to deliver glasses within an hour?” We’ve tested this, but the average German is not necessarily willing to spend more money on it, and it doesn’t make them happier.

Talking about happier. After all, you wear glasses yourself.  Is there one thing that bothered you personally that technology has now solved?
Have you ever heard of “diminished reality”?

No. What is it?
If you have a high level of visual acuity, you have to get very close to the mirror when trying on your glasses to be able to see anything at all. We have now developed a computer programme that renders the glasses from the face in real time and puts on the selected frame in 3D without having to take off your own glasses. The technology is ready, but we still have to optimise it for different hardware and decide whether to equip all branches with it or integrate it into our app.

The participation in the French augmented reality specialist Fitting Box certainly comes into play here. How else do you use the technology?
Fitting Box has digitised over 100,000 frames to provide customers with information on the fit of a pair of glasses. At the moment we are testing a web application for sunglasses; because – what many people don’t know – there are no sizes for sunglasses. Our Fielmann finder measures the face in real time and virtually puts on the selected frame in 3D.

These try-on functions often have something comic-like about them. I can assess whether the shape of the glasses suits me, but that’s all. Can you improve on that?
We use augmented reality for more than just the 3D fitting: Our finder measures your face using over 18,900 measurement points, matches this anatomical data with your chosen sunglasses and tells you how well they will fit.

Your portfolio has recently also included the Bremen-based data glasses start-up Ubimax. How does this cooperation fit into your concept?
The Ubimax team also wondered that at first:  “What have we got to do with a glasses company? Smartglasses are computers that sit in front of your eye, after all; apart from the word glasses, we haven't got very much to do with each other.” Together we worked out the win-win: Ubimax is now the first provider in the world that can glaze data glasses at scale.

Google also offers smartglasses, and Apple is working on them. So far, however, customer acceptance has been poor. What potential do you see?
Smartglasses are strategically very interesting for us. At Ubimax, augmented reality is used in the business customer sector, for example in plant maintenance. An engineer can join the employee live on the screen in the field of view and circle which cable needs to be checked. If you ask me now: “When will there be great smartglasses for end customers?”, I would say: “They already exist, they just haven’t caught on yet.” It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Because only if they catch on is it worthwhile for a developer to build apps on the technology stack, and only if there are enough apps is it worthwhile for you as a customer to buy smartglasses.

What needs to change?
They have to look better, the CPU has to be as small as possible and they have to be able to be hidden in the temple. This has already been achieved quite well with the newer models from Bohse, Google and Vuzix.

Would you consider cooperating with tech companies like Apple or Google?
If you bring something to the table – for example, knowledge of how smartglasses work or how to glaze and repair them – you are a more attractive dialogue partner for technology companies. That’s why we’re already talking to each other.

We have now talked a lot about augmented reality; the buzzword “AI” has not even been mentioned yet. What about deep tech applications at Fielmann? 
I use the term AI rather conservatively. In many cases, this is just applied statistics or automation. But in our online eye test, which we are currently developing in-house and having patented, we use neural networks to determine visual acuity. That is then actually AI.

When you think about the next five to ten years, what do you see? Is there another digitalisation push coming?
When it comes to digitalisation, I don’t look further than three years ahead because development is so fast. I think we will be much more international and digital every year. Through qualitative measurement technology, we will ensure that the online market share for glasses will grow from one to ten percent.

What will you invest in next?
We are continuing our expansion in Europe, also through acquisitions. Due to the coronavirus crisis, there are some companies that want support.  And since digitalisation is relatively expensive despite all the customer benefits, companies benefit from our omnichannel platform. We can also amortise our digital strategy with our acquisition strategy. For us, technological investments must always have something to do with eyes and ears.

How about virtual reality glasses? Will Fielmann have them soon?
That’s too far away – apart from the fact that you can put it on your head, it actually has nothing to do with our business (laughs).

Source: t3n Magazine © yeebase media GmbH. Interview: Sabrina Schadwinkel. Photo: Frank Siemers 

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