The future has already begun

Source: Deutsche Optiker Zeitung
Fielmann pushes its omnichannel model

Fielmann Fit, Fielmann Focus and Fielmann Vision – these three technologies combined will enable Fielmann customers to buy glasses also from the online shop and via the app in future. While the first two technologies are already available to existing Fielmann customers, the third technology, online refraction, currently has to be proven in extended user testing. The “online glasses” from Fielmann are on the home straight.

It’s been common knowledge for some time now that Fielmann is serious about “online glasses”. Nevertheless, Marc Fielmann is currently still talking, as he did at the annual press conference, about the fact that the glasses from the online shop are a product of chance and will remain so for the time being. The last part of the statement in particular illustrates once again that there are certain factors in refraction (and this list is long) that make a personal visit to the specialist unavoidable. And yet Fielmann sees itself on the verge of meeting the desire of many customers to be able to buy their glasses from the comfort of their own homes. “The challenge is and remains quality,” says the CEO, while underlining the Hamburg-based company’s claim that it will only dispense glasses online if they meet the same quality standards as a visual aid purchased in a branch store.

Initial hurdles were overcome some time ago with shares in FittingBox, a specialist for augmented reality, and the integration of 3D glasses fitting into the customers’ systems. The “Fielmann Fit” technology measures the customer’s face using over 18,900 measuring points and compares the anatomical data with the 3D model of the selected glasses. Initially, Fielmann had used this technology to sell non-corrective sunglasses in its online shop, but it is now the first step towards also being able to sell corrective glasses online. In 2014, the company also decided to use its own development for lens centring.

Hair shouldn’t hang over the face.

After four years of research and development, in 2019 the solution was found to gradually automate this process as well, enabling clients to perform centring via a mobile phone. This technology has been christened “Fielmann Focus”. At the end of last year, after a series of measurements with thousands of test persons and certification as a medical product, the technology was made available to a small group of customers in live operation for the first time. For a good month now, this has been available to all Fielmann customers whose lens values are stored in the system and who meet certain parameters. For example, the dioptre values are only allowed to lie between plus and minus 2.5, and a “new generation” smartphone must also be available. “During the measurement process, the customer must ensure that they hold their smartphone at eye level, their gaze is directed at the upper area of the screen, the room is correctly lit and there is no hair hanging over their face,” explains Marc Fielmann.

In the self-test with a test account provided by Fielmann (single-vision glasses; left: cylinder -0.75 dpt, axis 90°; right: cylinder -0.75 dpt, axis 85 °, sphere -0.25 dpt), two questions (whether they are of age of majority and eye diseases) must first be answered. After selecting the lenses (from 17.50 euros per pair for “entry-level” plastic lenses to 297.50 euros per pair for high-tech plastic lenses from Zeiss – super anti-reflective, hardened, easy-care coating with lotus effect, very thin material, flat lens design, incl. UV protection), Fielmann Focus starts with: “Please remove your glasses for accurate centring and follow the instructions on the display.” What stands out: You do need to experiment a little before finding the right position (indicated by a green circle around the face). In addition, a steady hand is needed so as not to later interrupt the measurement, which lasts only three seconds. All that remains is to pay at the checkout and the glasses are on their way to the customer.

Online refraction goes into “extended user test”

The decisive key technology, however, which is also intended to enable new customers to order their glasses from Fielmann from the first to the last step, is now entering the ”extended user test”. The online refraction called “Fielmann Vision” made use of a well-known method of objective refraction determination: the photorefraction. Combined with artificial intelligence, it is intended to deliver data that is so reliable that the technology can be integrated into Fielmann’s digital channels, both the app and the online shop, in the foreseeable future.

So far, the Hamburg-based company has invested more than 15 million euros in the development of its own measurement technologies, 15 patents are already protected, five have been published and four more are pending. “In the medium term, we would like to make the technology available to the entire optical industry,” says Marc Fielmann – and naturally also hopes to recoup the investment in the development of the measuring technologies through their sale. What impact will these inventions have on the industry? Will this permanently change the way we buy glasses in the future and is this really bad news for the traditional optician? Or is the (later) opening up of these technologies for the market an opportunity in the long term for physical retail opticians to pick up customers early on in their customer journey and to rely more and more on an omnichannel model themselves? If you trust Fielmann’s statements, the answer has to be “yes”: “The future lies in omnichannel. But I believe that the physical retail share of glasses sold will remain at 90 per cent in the future. If you add in contact lenses and sunglasses, which are much easier to sell online, then we expect them to account for 20 per cent of total sales in the long run.”

Start in the Czech Republic, France in sight

Of course, Fielmann doesn’t just limit its omnichannel model to Germany alone, but also implements it in the other European markets. The acquisition of the Spanish optician chain Optica & Audiologia Universitaria on 31 December marked the 15th new market for Fielmann. The company has ambitious plans for growth here. From 80 branches at present, the network is set to be expanded to 200 branches. The aim is to sell more than 900,000 pairs of glasses and achieve a turnover of around 250 million euros annually. And the next expansion will follow in just a few weeks. In a way, the Czech Republic is a logical consequence of this, as the country is almost entirely surrounded by markets in which the Fielmann brand has already been successfully established. The opening of the first branch in Prague is planned for June, with plans to open a total of five branches in the course of the year. ”The market in the Czech Republic is very fragmented with only one international chain of stores represented here (editor’s note): GrandOptical, a GrandVision subsidiary, with 59 branches). The price for this is paid by the customers. Although the purchasing power of just under 10,000 euros is significantly below the level in Germany, there is hardly any difference in the price of glasses,” says Fielmann, who sees a good opportunity for successful brand development here – and wants to exploit synergies with neighbouring Poland. By 2025, the number of branches is to be increased to 20, with an annual turnover of around 15 million euros.

Beyond the Czech Republic, Marc Fielmann announced a further market entry in the next 18 months – the location of which he left open but nevertheless hinted at. For example, the purchase of GrandVision by EssilorLuxottica and the resulting disposal of branches is currently taking place (see DOZ 05/21). It would be possible to rapidly expand the network of branches in Italy, one of the growth markets, and in the Netherlands, a country that Fielmann has only served rudimentarily up to now, it would also gain in importance in one fell swoop.

And the branches to be sold in Belgium would mean entering the market in the last Benelux country not served by Fielmann.

However, Marc Fielmann was far more open in underlining the company’s intentions to set its sights on entering the French market. “Fielmann has been preparing for expansion into the continent’s second largest market for some time. We already have hundreds of French-speaking staff who can support this expansion.” Sounds like they don’t want to wait too much longer …

Hearing acoustics at a high, sales at a low

And what else did the chain store have to report at its annual press conference, which was once again held virtually? The coronavirus crisis has also led to significant losses for the Hamburgers. Sales of glasses fell by a whopping 12.2 per cent (the slump in sunglasses represented a major “share” here), external sales by 7.6 per cent and Group sales by 6.0 per cent. Only sales in hearing acoustics rose considerably despite the pandemic, increasing by a whopping 13 percent. 14 new hearing care studios in Germany and Switzerland contributed to this trend, as did the first two hearing care studios in Austria. With the addition of 57 hearing care studios in Spain on 31 December 2020, this business segment will continue to develop in the coming years. The company expects to achieve a turnover of 150 million euros in this area (for comparison: in 2010, the turnover was only 13 million euros). Fielmann recorded the sharpest decline in profit before and after tax. Whereas the former declined by 30.9 per cent, it was down by as much as 31.9 per cent for the second aspect. “The decline in profits can be entirely attributed to the result of the first half of 2020, but we made a decision to accept this to ensure we could preserve jobs and continue to invest in the future,” Fielmann states. Apart from 30 million euros in compensation for reduced hours, no state aid was taken advantage of. Quite the opposite, the salaries of employees were topped up to 100 percent from the company’s own funds even during the first lockdown when sales were down by up to 80 percent. For this, the executive board and supervisory board waived part of their remuneration.

The first quarter of 2021, however, showed a clear recovery. Sales would not only have been significantly higher than the first quarter of the previous year, but even higher than that of 2019. However, a crucial variable is missing from this calculation: This is because the acquisition of Optica & Audiologia Universitaria and the market entry into Slovenia in 2019 with the purchase of Optika Clarus added 108 new branches, which contributed to the result in the first three months of 2021. The development of new markets is intended to secure Vision 2025’s long-term goal of achieving average growth of five percent per year in sales, turnover and profit. Moreover, from 2025 onwards, the goal is to sell every fourth pair of glasses in continental Europe.

Last but not least, Fielmann proudly referred to the reopening (after almost two years of construction) of the new high-tech branch on Mönckebergstraße at Hamburg’s Rathausmarkt (see DOZ 08/20). On 1,300 square metres, they have created the “largest and most modern specialist optical shop in Germany”, in which “digital services and optical expertise are combined with the latest technology”. Ten million euros in turnover are to be generated at this location alone and, of course, all the new online measurement technologies will be put to the practical test here. Fielmann is getting serious – both online and in physical stores.

Source: Deutsche Optiker Zeitung © DOZ-Verlag, David Friederichs

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