Roger Hardy is the founder and CEO of Coastal Contacts Inc., the world’s largest online retailer of contact lenses and eyeglasses. While attending university, Hardy was a member of many sports teams where his competitive nature served him well. Later in his career, it was this competitive spirit that helped Hardy succeed in an online industry in which thousands had entered, and failed.
Settling in Vancouver, British Columbia, Hardy began to build his resume working for a transportation and logistics company, followed by a contact lens manufacturer. After discovering the optical store mark‐ups on contact lenses and eyeglasses, Hardy recognized an opportunity to serve customers better than they were being served and became passionate about changing the way these products were sold.
It wasn’t long before his entrepreneurial affinity began to take over, and in 2000 Coastal Contacts Inc. was born. The knowledge and expertise Hardy had acquired in logistics and contact lenses from his previous positions along with the efficiencies of the Internet provided the basis for a solid business plan.
FOC: Items like glasses are a tough sell online. How did you break that barrier, and what enabled it?
Hardy: Glasses sales were really a revolutionary evolution for our company; this was really enabled for coastal by our very own customers demand. Customers told us over and over again that they loved what we had done for them in contact lenses, but they didn’t like the high prices and poor experience offered by traditional retailers for glasses. Many couldn’t believe that a pair of eyeglasses was costing them more than an iPhone or an iPad! So we decided to look at the business and found that we could build a better pair of eyeglasses at lower prices so we started decided to add them to our offering. We also focused on making our offering a real ” wow” for customers—more than 2000 frames to choose from (10 times traditional retailers ) all our frames are in stock, made today and delivered by 9 a.m. the next day. We found by making it easier people shared the experience and that’s what’s helped us grow.
FOC: When it comes to e-commerce, disruption is the name of the game. What’s the next disruption to come down the pike? Is it mobile? T-commerce? 3D printing?
Hardy: The population is aging, health-care costs are skyrocketing and customers really are looking for choice. Eye doctors today are both retailers and health care providers. This is one of the few areas where the medical role is mixed with the retail role. There needs to be further separation between these two roles to eliminate the “conflict of interest.” We believe eye doctors should focus on eye health and the medical side of eye care, while companies like ours can focus on lowering the cost of eye care for customers.
FOC: Your model would seem counterintuitive, giving customers a free pair of glasses before their first purchase. How has that worked to build relationships with your customers?
Hardy: Our model is all about giving customers a great pair of eyeglasses. The first pair free was a cost-effective way to let customers tell others about the experience of buying glasses online because we knew in being first we had to do something different. This was a way for us not to have to spend money on marketing; we could just let customers tell our story for us. It’s been super successful to the point where we have had more than 2 million eyeglasses on satisfied customers’ faces.
FOC: Customer service is so integral to e-commerce—and it can play out loudly online thanks to social media and online reviews, etc. How does Coastal approach customer service in a digital age?
Hardy: Customer service is integral for any company today and even more so in e-commerce and on the web where customers have such a loud voice. The key is to be transparent and open in communication with customers. We work hard to make sure we create an amazing experience for customers, and to make sure the processes and systems in our business make dealing with Coastal a revolutionary experience for customers. New tools like Facebook give us instant information on how we are doing, and these tools are great at identifying challenges or opportunities to be better.
FOC: We always like to ask our experts and visionaries what they’re reading. What books, blogs, magazines or other publications are you reading, and why?
Hardy: I am reading Escape Velocity by Geoffrey Moore, he is the technologist’s prophet. Everything he writes is prophetic. I also read Ben Horowitz’s technology blog. He has great advice for CEOs and leaders of companies about what it takes to build a great business.
FOC: Tell us, what does the future of commerce look like?
Hardy: The future of commerce is a bigger move online for everyone and everything. Retail is going to continue to evolve very quickly in the next decade. Online commerce makes a lot more sense than physical retail and this trend will accelerate as retail spaces get smaller and stores offer smaller, showroom-type offerings in their stores complemented by their online offerings. Ultimately, the promise of e-commerce will be delivered on and we are going to see more than 50 percent of buying occurring online for reasons of selection and convenience.
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