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TRENDSPOTTING: TALKING POINTS

Jeffrey A. Cole…

On the Future of Optical

Jeffrey A. Cole is an optical visionary. A graduate of Harvard and Harvard Business School, from 1983 to 2003 he was the chairman and CEO of Cole National Corporation, with over $1 billion in annual sales, a leading optical retailer in North America and a leading provider of managed vision care services. He also owned the gift store chain Things Remembered.

Since Luxottica’s acquisition of Cole National in 2004, he has served on numerous company boards, including his current position, Independent Director (nonexecutive) on the Safilo Board of Directors. I had the unique opportunity to catch up with Cole recently at the unveiling of Safilo’s new North American headquarters in New Jersey. Here, he shares his future vision of optical.

WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AT SAFILO + VIEW OF THE COMPANY?

I’m a member of the Board of Directors and chairman of the Remuneration Committee.

In a sense, we're the only [large] independent company today. I think that Safilo has tried to put forth a philosophy of being open and transparent, and of being a partner with the retailer. Safilo has always been strong with the three Os.

One of the Safilo’s hallmarks has always been great product quality. And, one of our strong suits was to bring back manufacturing to Italy. I think that Safilo clearly should be a partner of preference to most retailers.

WHAT MAKES SAFILO A STRONG PARTNER FOR ECPs?

First of all, we have quality products. We have good brands. And we have good service.

But, secondly, we don’t really demand anything. We’re willing to work out something with even the individual store that’s in that store’s best interest. We’re there to do, to the best of our ability, what will help them sell.

IN OUR UNIQUELY COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE, HOW CAN EYECARE PROFESSIONALS THRIVE?

Well, there are a number of things independents need to do…[because] the retail landscape is going to change dramatically. What’s coming down the road is that eventually—maybe only a year or two or three from now—e-commerce, omnichannel, new media, social media, remote eye exams, telemedicine, and so on are going to be more important to compete in the eyewear industry.

The way things are developing, even an ECP with one store will be able to—if they’re on the ball—find their way to some kind of e-commerce platform, some kind of social media platform.

If what I’m predicting comes true, that will dramatically increase the capacity of any independent optometrist. Also, for chains, it will change the equation, because if they understand it correctly, they really won’t need to keep opening so many stores.

DO YOU THINK WE REALLY WILL SEE THE RISE OF THE REMOTE EYE EXAM?

Yes, I do. I’m on the board of the Cleveland Clinic, which is the No. 1 heart hospital in the world. About 20 years ago, they created an eye institute, which happens to be named after me. The Cole Eye Institute is ranked in the top 10 eye clinics in U.S. News & World Report. So, as a result of that, I see the medical side.

If this remote [refraction], which is coming in many different forms, gets approved and really works, Dr. Smith isn’t going to have to run from store to store to store. He’s going to be able to train his optician, and if a customer walks in, he or she will be able to get an eye exam while Dr. Smith is at another location.

One of the keys is how you tie the new world together with the old world. It’s not a simple answer.

—Erinn Morgan