CANDID CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN VCPN’S ED DE GENNARO AND LEADING OPTICAL EXECUTIVES ABOUT THEIR PRODUCT STRATEGIES.
Marj McGraw has over 35 years experience in the optical industry. She spent 16 years at Cole Vision, where she became vice president of merchandising. In 2002, Marj joined Nouveau Eyewear to head the product department and was named Co-President in 2005. She has been influential in expanding the company’s international division, which recently opened a new distribution center in Italy. Under her leadership, Nouveau has built a portfolio of reputable brands ranging from casual to high fashion. Here, Marj talks about providing customers with quality eyewear.
Ed De Gennaro: How would you describe Nouveau’s positioning?
Marj McGraw: Nouveau has always positioned itself with a mid-tier price point. We believe the majority of Americans are looking not only for a quality product, but one they can rely on with the styling and price point they find comfortable. This has been the company’s positioning from its inception 25 years ago.
Certainly there’s a wonderful higher price point branded portion of the market, but during tough economic times like the current one, people are forced to take a step back from higher priced eyewear brands and that’s exactly where we’re positioned.
EDG: How has Nouveau weathered the recent recession?
MM: As with most optical companies, Nouveau did not see tremendous growth. We did, however, have our best year with Van Heusen in our 12-year relationship because male consumers wanted a mid-tier brand they recognized that represented quality and had a solid American fashion look. We also introduced the Van Heusen Studio, aimed at younger men entering the business world who want a tailored look, but also something they can wear during leisure time. It was also well received.
EDG: Was it a beneficial strategy to recently launch the Arrow eyewear brand?
MM: Arrow is going great. There were certainly a number of us who were a bit anxious about it, but Arrow is intended to retail around $89 to $109, preferably right around $100, which is a critical price point right now. That’s where many people are asking themselves, “Do I really want to pay more than this frame?” Arrow went through a metamorphosis about seven years ago and repositioned itself to bring in younger consumers while maintaining its loyal customer base. Today, there is a whole new generation of young men going into the workplace who needs a tailored product, but at a reasonable price. Arrow accommodated that desire by revamping the collection.
EDG: Is Nouveau’s brand portfolio complete?
MM: Our brand portfolio is probably complete, at least for the next two years. We would take advantage of an opportunity that was placed before us, but like other companies, we need to maximize the investments we have and let those brands reach their full potential.
Nouveau has always tried to be a balanced company. When we took on the Umbro license, it was because we needed a sports brand, and there is no faster growing sport in the U.S. than soccer, and there is no brand more associated with it than Umbro.
We also added Global Relief because, as a corporate cause, we look for ways to be greener, and rather than pay a royalty, we plant a tree through the American Forest programs for each frame sold.
EDG: What is your view of prescription eyewear being sold on the Internet?
MM: In our case, and in the case of many of our competitors we will not be making the decision as much as the licensor of the brands we handle. Most of our licenses don’t allow the product to be sold on the Internet directly to patients. We are authorized to sell to eyecare professionals (ECPs) on our Web site, but not to consumers. In fact, many licensors are pretty aggressive about following up on leads when their brands are retailed on the Internet, even though we all know cases where that sort of thing happens. Will that change as licenses are renewed—not only ours, but others? Perhaps down the road, but right now, we follow the line given us by our licensors and we think it’s best for Nouveau.
EDG: Do you have any advice for ECPs during this economic climate?
MM: The independent ECP should not view this as a negative time. There are tremendous opportunities if the buyers really look at the collections on their boards and take the time to create a planogram to their current customers. The economy and consumer buying trends have changed so buyers must be certain they have the proper mix of price points. They also should be open to trying new brands that expand certain price categories and perhaps shrink others.
It’s a whole new consumer walking in the door—same face but with a new consumer psyche. That means ECPs have to adjust their buying and be certain they are keeping up with the buying trends of their customer base.