In a hip little Main Street optical shop with the enigmatic name of Eyeglass.com: The Showroom, Jim Morrison is changing the way we buy glasses. He'll be happy to fit you with any of the dozens of stylish frames on display. There's much more to Morrison's business, however, than meets the. well, you know.
Morrison's journey in the world of eyewear has taken him from selling $5 glasses from the back of a bus to creating a Web site for thousands of frames that gets 12,000 hits a day and was featured on NBC's Today Show.
The evolution of his business began in the late 1980s when Morrison and his father, Robert, an ophthalmologist who pioneered soft contact lenses 40 years ago, wanted to use their skills to do something for the poor.
"I had lived overseas and knew how fortunate we are in the United States," he says. "We set out to invent something that would improve the lives of poor people and yet still had the potential of making money."
With his dad's help, Morrison invented an eyeglass manufacturing lab in a case-a portable, low-cost way to make glasses. He patented his device in 1990, and they formed their company, Morrison International, a year later. Father and son hit the road in a bus to sell glasses around the world. Morrison also created a Web site, eyeglass.com, in 1995 to keep in touch with his customers.
The compact eyeglass lab was such a hit that they left the bus behind and opened a kiosk in Sarasota Square Mall. There, Morrison made glasses quick and "dirt cheap."
Inevitably the sweet smell of success attracted a buyer, a franchise company that thought eyeglass kiosks were the future. Meanwhile, Morrison saw the possibilities of the Internet. In 1999 he took eyeglass.com as a stand-alone and ran.
"When we started the Web site, the idea was to have very low-cost glasses." However, by listening to his customers, Morrison discovered the unexpected. "People were willing to pay for items they couldn't find elsewhere," and with that, eyeglass.com started focusing on choice.
Morrison carries thousands of frames, from the style Tom Hanks sported in Catch Me If You Can to the trademark Harry Potter specs. Morrison even sells a single lens frame he calls Monocle Lewinsky. His prices are low because he gets his frames direct from the factory-without the designer label. "I've been there and seen them come off the belt: This one becomes Guess and that one becomes Liz Claiborne," he says. "We have essentially the same product without the brand name for much less. For example, a Silhouette hingeless titanium rimless frame is typically $290 or higher at retail. We have an unbranded equivalent for $100." He also sells designer brands at a much lower cost. For example, a customer will pay $120 retail for a Pierre Cardin frame; at eyeglass.com it is $70.
Business was growing at a steady pace until July 20, 2001. "As soon as we were mentioned on the NBC's Today Show it was like a heart attack," Morrison says. Sales spiked over night. When they finally came back to earth after a couple of days the base sales were on a new plateau.
What's next? The company is developing a new generation of ready-made, low-cost eyewear, similar to off-the-shelf reading glasses, except for distance vision. The goal is to have low-cost distance-correcting eyewear that is as accessible, both price and distribution, as "readers" by the end of 2004.
"It's a constant evolution. With every new section of the Web site all of the orders come through me until we get the kinks out. I like that," says Morrison. "We are trying to make buying glasses experiential, not medical."