8650 Governor's Hill
We Exist To: create exceptional value in the lives of our customers, associates and shareholders. We will do this by enthusiastically satisfying every customer all the time and creating an environment where our Associates can fulfill their personal dreams. We Believe In: nurturing individuals; building on people's strengths; accepting and learning from mistakes; focusing on winning, not individual scoring; pushing breakthrough ideas; thinking and acting like a long-term owner; demanding highest possible quality; constantly, measurably improving; acting with uncompromising integrity; having fun.
A subsidiary of Italy's Luxottica SpA, U.S.-based LensCrafters Inc. is the world's leading retailer of eyewear. Celebrating its 15th anniversary in 1998, the company was a pioneer of the "superoptical" segment. Its phenomenal growth under U.S. Shoe in the 1980s culminated in Luxottica's 1995 acquisition. With over 700 outlets across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico, the chain boasts a seven percent share of the domestic retail eyewear market. The company was expected to cross the $1 billion sales mark in 1997, a tripling of revenues from 1987's $305 million.
LensCrafters was founded in 1983 by Dean Butler, a 38-year-old who had previously worked at Procter & Gamble. A knowledgeable marketer, Butler had managed the Ivory liquid, Cheer laundry detergent, and Folger's instant coffee brands for the venerable Cincinnati consumer goods company.
At that time, the eyewear industry was on the cusp of radical change, a shift spurred by two vital legal decisions passed down in the late 1970s. The Federal Trade Commission freed patient choice by compelling vision professionals to give patients their prescriptions. A separate legal decision allowing advertising in this segment set the stage for the "superoptical" movement.
Butler was not the first to perceive this opportunity. New Jersey-based Eyelab gets credit for pioneering the concept, which featured mall-based stores, extended hours, onsite lens-grinding labs, thousands of frames, and rapid turnaround. Butler left P&G and launched his first 7,500-square-foot Precision LensCrafters (later simply LensCrafters) store just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Florence, Kentucky, in 1983. He was soon joined by another P&G colleague, Daniel Hogues.
Butler's version of the superoptical concept promised "glasses in about an hour." And since his stores were located in malls, customers could while away that hour shopping with other retailers. Guarantees helped instill confidence in customers who were accustomed to dealing with doctors. The "no risk sales guarantee" gave clients a full refund on glasses returned within 30 days of purchase. LensCrafters also offered to match competitors' prices as well as free lifetime maintenance. In a 1986 interview with Forbes magazine, Butler noted that "Marketing eyewear isn't much different from selling coffee. Retailing is what you do when customers walk into the store. But with a new idea, marketing comes first. Marketing is how you inspire customers to come to your door."
Notwithstanding naysayers who were convinced that the concept would fail, LensCrafters' first-year sales totaled $2 million. With support from a cadre of investors, the partners expanded to three outlets by early 1984, when their success drew the attention of a powerful backer: United States Shoe Corp.
Acquired by U.S. Shoe in 1984
Also based in Cincinnati, U.S. Shoe was a billion-dollar company. Over the course of its more than 100 years in business, U.S. Shoe had diversified from its core footwear into retail apparel. Chains included Casual Corner and Petite Sophisticate. U.S. Shoe used its strong cash flow to fund a rapid expansion of LensCrafters.
With this backing, LensCrafters came not only to dominate its own industry, but also to take precedence over its own parent company's footwear and apparel businesses. From 1984 to 1987, LensCrafters' sales multiplied from $13.6 million or one percent of U.S. Shoe's annual revenues to 241 units and $305 million in sales. In 1986 alone, the company opened new stores at the rate of almost two per week. In 1987 Bannus B. Hudson, an 18-year alumnus of Procter & Gamble who had come to work for LensCrafters in 1985, took the helm. (Founder Dean Butler had by this time resigned from the business. Following the expiration of a non-compete contract, he opened a rival chain dubbed Lens Lab.) By the end of 1989 Hudson had increased the number of stores to over 350 and boosted sales to $532 million or over one-fifth of U.S. Shoe's total revenues. Perhaps more importantly, LensCrafters' $30 million net income constituted nearly 40 percent of its parent's operating earnings by that time. That year U.S. Shoe tried to divest its lagging footwear business, but could not find any takers.
LensCrafters and other eyewear retailers were not content to merely wait for market growth in the form of aging baby boomers with deteriorating eyesight. Instead, they promoted the concept of eyeglasses as fashionable accessories in the same category as shoes or jewelry. This concept not only encouraged sales of designer eyeglasses, but also ownership of multiple pairs of glasses. As Butler told Forbes in 1986, "Right now, most people buy a single pair of glasses every two or three years. But what if we can sell eyewear as fashion, a tortoiseshell pair for work and some wire rims for play? We could double per capita sales of glasses."
LensCrafters also focused strongly on maintaining a positive corporate culture. This ideal was embodied in a list of nine Core Values enumerated in 1986. They included: nurturing individuals; building on people's strengths; accepting and learning from mistakes; focusing on winning, not individual scoring; pushing breakthrough ideas; thinking and acting like a long-term owner; demanding highest possible quality; constantly, measurably improving; and acting with uncompromising integrity. A tenth value, having fun, was added in 1990.
New Decade, New Leadership, New Strategies
By 1990, LensCrafters had grown to become U.S. Shoe's "crown jewel." That spring, Bannus Hudson succeeded Philip Barach as CEO of the parent company, and 30-year-old David M. Browne advanced to president and chief executive officer of LensCrafters. Browne, a five-year veteran of Procter & Gamble, joined LensCrafters in 1986 as the vice-president of the recently acquired Optica chain of upscale eyewear shops. He inherited a company that, while still successful, was faced with a number of challenges. The new CEO had hoped to launch 100 new stores in 1990, but was forced to scale back that aggressive growth strategy when LensCrafters suffered its first-ever sales decline. The combination of the Gulf War and recession eroded consumer confidence while heavy competition squeezed prices and profits. Instead of pursuing growth, Browne was forced to restructure. He held job cuts to less than 100 of the company's 10,000 positions by relocating hundreds of employees. In spite of its difficulties, LensCrafters surpassed Pearle Vision Centers to become America's largest chain of eyeglass retailers in 1992, with an estimated $660 million or 4.5 percent of marketwide sales volume.
The company's new strategy targeted the bargain-minded customer via a joint venture with Kmart Corporation. In 1993, LensCrafters launched Sight & Save leased departments within existing Kmart stores. This new retail venture allowed LensCrafters to enter the discount segment without devaluing its namesake stores' focus on value and convenience.
LensCrafters' charitable activities started in 1988 as an extension of its optical services. In cooperation with Lions Clubs International, the company recycles used eyeglasses through its "Give the Gift of Sight" programs. Among other activities, this charity fashioned over three million pairs of eyeglasses for disadvantaged people--especially children--in the U.S. and abroad from 1988 through 1996. In 1993, the company launched its Hometown Day project, wherein employees of each of the company's stores donated their time and expertise to needy recipients in their own communities. That same year CEO Browne committed the company to providing free eyecare to one million people by LensCrafters' 20th anniversary in 2003. It was almost halfway there by the end of 1997. The company's charitable activities earned it a Volunteer Action Award from President Bill Clinton in 1994.
International expansion proved a mixed bag for LensCrafters. The company became the first U.S. Shoe affiliate to establish an overseas presence in 1988 with the launch of nine Canadian superstores. In 1993, it became Canada's largest optical retailer with the acquisition of the 22-store Eye Masters Ltd. chain. The company fared well on its home continent. By the end of 1994, it had nearly five dozen Canadian locations. A foray across the Atlantic Ocean did not go as well. In 1990, LensCrafters opened stores in the United Kingdom. But by the fall of 1993, the company was ready to close all its U.K. stores, including locations under the LensCrafters and Sight & Save names.
LensCrafters also grew through domestic acquisitions during this period. It purchased Hourglass Inc. in 1990 and acquired Tuckerman Optical, a midwestern chain, in 1994. LensCrafters spent an estimated $45 million to $50 million on 12-year-old Opti-World Inc., a 59-store Atlanta-based chain, in March 1995.
Acquired by Luxottica in 1995
Italian eyewear manufacturer Luxottica SpA brought a $1.4 billion hostile takeover bid for U.S. Shoe in 1995. Owned by the Del Vecchio clan, Luxottica was not interested in U.S. Shoe's footwear or apparel, it was looking to round out its vertically integrated eyewear company to include retailing. Prior to its own acquisition, U.S. Shoe sold its footwear interests to Nine West Group Inc. for $600 million. Unable to find a buyer for U.S. Shoe's 1,300 money-losing apparel retailers, Luxottica transferred this division to a separate Del Vecchio interest.
The LensCrafters acquisition was a high-stakes gamble for Luxottica. The Italian company risked wholesale defection of its core customers--independent opticians and competing eyewear chains. Although many in these two groups did drop the Italian firm from their roster of suppliers, Luxottica was able to increase its sell-through at LensCrafters stores from five percent of frame revenues in 1995 to 43 percent by the end of 1996. In fact, the addition of LensCrafters more than doubled Luxottica's annual revenues from L 812.7 billion in 1994 to L 1.8 trillion in 1995.
In its first year under Luxottica, LensCrafters added 70 stores and 1,000 employees. But in its zeal to focus on designer and high-end eyewear, Luxottica pushed LensCrafters to shutter its Sight & Save chain in 1996 and invest the proceeds in store refurbishings. LensCrafters was also testing new retail concepts, including Specttica in-store areas and SunCrafters sunglass kiosks. These outlets specialized in prescription and non-prescription sunglasses in airports and other high-traffic venues.
Despite the spinoff of both the U.K. and the Sight & Save operations in 1995 and 1996, LensCrafters' sales continued to grow rapidly under Luxottica. Revenues advanced just over five percent from 1995 to 1996 to total $903.5 million, and the subsidiary was expected to contribute $1 billion to its parent company's top line in 1997.
On the occasion of LensCrafters' tenth anniversary in 1993, CEO Dave Browne said, "Looking to the future, I'm sure of only one thing--the inevitability of constant change and our readiness to face it. It will be harder to stay on top than it was to get there. We will have to recreate ourselves continuously in order to maintain our leadership position in an ever-changing category." That statement continued to hold true as the company faced the turn of the 21st century.