Article

The Name of the Game

One word sums up the new sports eyewear market: Extreme. As extreme sports hit the mainstream, the branding, manufacturing, merchandising, and selling of sports eyewear takes on a radical nature all its own.

The Name of the Game
One word sums up the new sports eyewear market: Extreme. As extreme sports hit the mainstream, the branding, manufacturing, merchandising, and selling of sports eyewear takes on a radical nature all its own
By Erinn Morgan

Eye on extremes. Clockwise from top left  Rudy Project was a sponsor of Italian Olympic snowboarder, Lidia Trettel.   Revo shades, Olympic skater in Rudy Project, Zeal Zoonileopard, and waterskier in Costa del Mar

The effect of extreme sports on our world today is hard to miss. Television commercials and magazine advertisements for companies such as Visa, Ford, Gap, Mountain Dew, Nissan, and Coors mix images of snowboarders, mountain bikers, rock climbers, and BMXers with shots of their own products--credit cards, cars, clothing, and beverages--to increase their own cool quotient. Events such as the X Games, the Gorge Games, and the Vans Triple Crown draw hundreds of thousands of live spectators (and millions of TV viewers) to witness launching, flipping, and twisting athletes. Even the Olympic Games include such high-profile extreme sports as freestyle snowboarding and mountain biking in the roster of events.

At the same time, athletes on the cusp of their sports are inventing new sports and reinventing old ones. Examples include long-jump repelling on a rope--not a bungee cord; freestyle snow motocross; and kiteboarding, which employs a surfboard-like object strapped to the feet and a massive four-line kite to pull off tricks 25 feet to 50 feet up in the air above a windy lake or river.

No doubt, these sports may one day hit the mainstream, or at least an American Express commercial. In the meantime, it's important to realize the effects that extreme sports, and their high-profile athletes, have on consumers across the country. Those retailers of sports eyewear agree that there is a marked increase in customers looking for eyewear to suit their radical-sport interests, or at least to obtain a more extreme look.

"Extreme sports are definitely hitting the mainstream," says Marty Shattuck, owner of two All Sports Eyewear stores in Park City, Utah. "We are seeing people do a lot more types of sports than we ever thought we'd see. Now we get 70-year-olds in here who snowboard and want the goggles and helmet to go with it."

This trend, coupled with the recent availability of extreme products to suit these needs has, in some cases, led to a tactic of extreme selling--where commitment to the category, merchandising, and marketing are paramount.

Seeing victory. Italian Olympic skier in eyewear by Rudy Project

ADVANTAGE POINT: PRODUCT

You might have customers who are mountain bikers, ice climbers, or wakeboarders--or at least want to look like the real deal. But do you have the products they want? These and other extreme sports have specific technical needs. More than ever, sports eyewear manufacturers are meeting the challenge of demanding athletes with product that is technically advanced.

New materials are lightweight, grip better during exercise, and wick away moisture and sweat. Lenses offer better optical quality for higher base curves and increased performance through advanced lens tints designed to provide better clarity for specific sports.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Manufacturers suggest that even more dramatic advances in lenses, materials, and details will come down the pike in the coming months.

The point is that the sports eyewear market is filled with products suited for every athletic need. The level--and availability--of eyewear on the market will only increase in the future. Being aware of the options, as well as their varied functions, will help you offer the right assortment to the demanding sports customer. It will also help you educate them on the benefits of your products and increase the chances for a sale.

MAKING THE COMMITMENT

The first step to creating an extreme sports eyewear business is seeing the opportunity and making the commitment. This end of the business is on the upswing, a fact that is leading retailers to add new products and more space to the category. "Sports eyewear has recently risen from 12 percent to almost 23 percent of our business," says Skip Flynn, frame buyer for Archdale and More Eyecare in Colorado Springs, Colo. "We've increased the amount of products we carry, but we find it's really about how you display and educate the patient about the product."

Roughing it in style with Extreme Timberland T21250

Some dispensers, have even made the decision to commit their entire business to sports eyewear. For example, All Sports Optical carries 1,500 sports frames at a 500-square-foot shop and 2,500 sports frames at a 900-square-foot location. "We have a lot of product now because we are just coming off the Olympics," says Shattuck. "We are deep into a lot of brands. Our whole thing is to give people options. We say 'Oh, you like that? I have this similar frame, too.'"

Shannen Tanave developed the concept for her exclusively sports eyewear shop in Portland, Ore., while still in college. "I was working for an optometrist in town and put this together as a class project," she says. Little did she know it would turn into a successful business. Her 900-square-foot store stocks about 400 frames and caters to cyclists, skiers, and ice climbers. The company's Website, www.sporteyes.com, provides technical information and another place to purchase products.

X-Citing Displays

Once you've made the commitment to sports eyewear and obtained the product, a question remains: How do you arrange it in the dispensary? Sports-eyewear-dedicated dispensaries frequently carve out a specific section in their store to house the products. Some place them close to the register for prime viewing. Others put them in the front, playing off the high-profile appeal.

"We put the sports eyewear right up in front," says Bret Hunter, owner of Eyetech Optical, who says that his firm does more than 60 percent of his business in sports eyewear and sunwear.

Skip Flynn, frame buyer for Archdale and More Eyecare in Colorado Springs, Colo., keeps sports eyewear in a separate section within his dispensary. "We don't mix it with ophthalmic frames," he says. "We use display cases that are lit, and we change them all the time to keep things new."

Once a home is found, the decision must be made whether to merchandise by sport or by brand. While some choose to separate out products by the sports they cater to, most agree this can become confusing to this consumer, who is very often brand driven. "We separate by brand and go deep into each brand--we have about 15 models from each line," Hunter says.

"It gets confusing to them if merchandised by sport. Most people come in with a brand in mind," says All Sports Eyewear's owner, Marty Shattuck.

Even though sports eyewear and accessories prices for retailers range as low as $5 and up to $450, most choose to merchandise these products in cases due to their high profile and tendency for pilferage.

In addition, many optical pros use creative point-of-purchase materials to enhance the look of this section and create excitement for the customer.

Eyetech's Hunter hangs bike jerseys signed by pro racers up on his walls. Personal memorabilia works as well: He hangs up his number plate from snow biking in the X Games and the BMX state championships. "I also have autographed pictures of athletes who bought glasses from us and lots of cycling products," he says.

Even if selling 100 percent sports eyewear is not in your game plan, a dedicated section featuring the latest and greatest in the industry's offerings can perk up your overall business. The only requirement for success is a dedication to providing good variety.

Frequently athletes perform more than one sport, and having the right goods in your dispensary can lead to multiple-pair sales. "Our clients are into specific sports and some are not afraid to buy three pairs," says Flynn. "We had a gentleman come in who already had two pairs of polarized progressive sports glasses, and he bought a third pair when some new shields came out."

It is also important to remember that extreme athletes come in all shapes, sizes, and age groups. Your customer is not only the generation X- or Y-type. He or she is potentially a baby boomer, or even someone older. The reason? Many adults are drawn into or back to sports by their children or grandchildren.

One father of a state champion mountain biker recently said that he bought his bike and headed out to the trail at the urgings of his son.

"A lot of the kids are getting the parents into the more extreme sports," says Flynn. "Parents are being educated about things from the kids and then they ask us to give them the technical benefits and more information. Parents want to be cool too."

MARKETING MANIA

As in competitive sports, sponsorships of professional athletes can help optical dispensaries that are committed to sports eyewear. Three of the top five road cycling teams in the U.S., including 7-Up, Prime Alliance, and the Navigators, are sponsored by Bret Hunter's Lakewood, Colo.-based shop, Eyetech. But, sponsorship does not always mean doling out cash to a team to wear your name on its jerseys. It can come in the form of complimentary sports eyewear and fittings.

"The best person to sponsor is one who sends you the most business, and that's not necessarily the number-one athlete," he says. "We look for nice guys, and give them breaks and free products."

This year, Archdale and More Eyecare will sponsor the Sky Socks baseball team, a farm team to the Colorado Rockies based in Colorado Springs. "We were selected to fit their eyewear," says Flynn. "But we were lucky because I've fitted the general manager of the team with his eyeglasses for the last several years."

Promotions are another way to increase your selling power with sports eyewear. Flynn plans to have a drawing for a mountain bike this spring in his store. He promoted the event for three months prior by hanging miniature bikes from the ceiling.

This year, Flynn's dispensary is also sponsoring the "Ski Bus," on which winners from a local radio station contest make their way to the Keystone ski resort in the Rockies. Archdale sends some of its employees on the bus to give away products and literature.

Retailers who are intense about their commitment to sports eyewear have a rewarding payoff. Getting the elements in place is the key: Product, commitment, merchandising, and marketing. Race to win--having an extreme attitude about sports eyewear will undoubtedly push your business over the finish line.

 

Going for the gold.  From left: An Italian cross-country skier competes in the Winter Olympics wearing Rudy Project goggles; shooting the rapids in Costa del Mar; Costa del Mar's Triple Tail

 

X-treme Manufacturing

The nature of today's intense competition in the sports eyewear arena--coupled with the fact that many big brands have entered the fray--is forcing manufacturers to push the envelope in materials, tooling, production, and design sciences. They are coming up with truly extreme designs that are drawing consumer attention vision-conscious sportsters.

Manufacturers across the globe are hard at work developing better tools, better materials, and better colors. It is likely that within a year or less that we may see products unlike anything we have experienced before thanks to breakthroughs in manufacturing. Here, a sampling of what we might expect to see in the near future.

New lenses. New lenses for the extreme market minimize distortion on base curves. For example, even in an eight- or nine-base lens, wearers will not get distortion of images, even if they are looking to the side. The future holds even better depth of field perception, an added advantage to competitive athletes where even a fraction of a second makes all the difference in winning.

New details. Advances include ventilated temples and nosepads contoured to fit the shape of the wearer's nose. Rubber temple tips grip to the wearer's head, comfortably allowing them to perform without much eyewear movement.

Rediscovered materials. In the near future, some old materials will be used in a new way. Look for rubber, usually found on the bottom of a sneaker, serving in a new role as frame material.