Candid conversations between VCPN’s editors and leading optical executives about their product strategies.

Kelly Bickford, Director of U.S. Optical Channel at Oakley, Inc., has held several positions with the company over his 18-year tenure with the fast-paced sports and lifestyle brand. Five years ago, Oakley split its focus between the optical channel and sports channel, and Kelly has since led the Wholesale Optical Channel. Based in Foothill Ranch, CA, he leads a team of approximately 80 people dedicated specifically to the optical trade. Here he discusses how Oakley has a unique opportunity to bring the company’s fun, active culture to the optical business.

ED DE GENNARO: When did Oakley get into the ophthalmic eyewear market?

KELLY BICKFORD: Oakley first launched an ophthalmic eyewear line in 1996. Prior to that, we were putting prescription lenses into our M sunglass frame with an insert. We started hitting our stride in 2006 with ophthalmic frames with the release of Jackknife, and since that point the business has been robust.

ED: Within the last two years many traditional sunglass companies have released ophthalmic lines. How did Oakley get that idea so early?

KELLY: Optics is at the core of what we do with sunwear at Oakley so it was easy to make the transition. Our founder, Jim Jannard, saw the size of the Rx market and felt we should serve it. Oakley offers doctors a unique opportunity to attract new patients to the practice because it has almost 90% brand recognition. If an Rx eyeglass wearer notices that a shop carries Oakley, that doctor has a great chance of getting a new patient. This is what drives us.

ED: Is the Oakley ophthalmic Rx eyewear buyer different from the Oakley plano sunglass buyer?

KELLY: No, we think they’re similar, although there are some differences. The obvious one is that sunglasses are a want while Rx eyeglasses are a need. There’s no compromise for prescription eyewear or sunwear versus our plano sunglasses; it looks identical in prescription form as it does in non-prescription form. We reach a broad audience with our ophthalmic line because of this.

The typical Oakley product buyer is a younger, active person aged 18 to 25, but we sell ophthalmic frames to people who are 50, 60, and 70 years old every day. Some of our dealers thought only young people with active, athletic lifestyles would buy them, but the reality is that the ophthalmic line has broadened our reach.

ED: How do you maintain the Oakley image in the ophthalmic line?

KELLY: There’s typically something about an Oakley frame that people can spot from a distance, so it was a natural extension for us to use the same DNA…the same design intention with the ophthalmics.

Our ophthalmic frames use mostly a 2.00D- or 4.00D-base curve so they’re very flat, which is different from our sunwear that is pretty curved with 6.00D or 8.00D. What makes our ophthalmic eyewear look and feel like other Oakley eyewear and sunwear is the hinge designs, the materials, and the sculpturing of the designs. Oakley creates unique parts for every ophthalmic frame. We don’t interchange temples with other frame fronts, for example. Each frame is designed from the ground up, and each offers something unique. There’s typically a back story for each one, too.

Sun Rx is tricky because of its high-wrap nature. Originally, some frames weren’t designed for prescription lenses so we created unique bevels to allow the lenses to fit the frame precisely. This way, there’s no difference in protection, fit, or aesthetics when you get a sun Rx versus a non-Rx sun.

ED: What growth potential do you see for ophthalmic in the next four years?

KELLY: I expect that in my channel, the ophthalmic business will be at least 70% of sales while sun will continue to grow. The Oakley brand has nearly 90% brand recognition, but when it comes to knowing that Oakley has prescription eyewear, the numbers come in around the 20% range, so people know Oakley, they just don’t know we make prescription eyewear. This means there’s a huge opportunity for us in the Rx market.

We’re doing things like creating destinations in shops for prescription eyewear. We’ve created our own frame boards, and offices are allowing us to put those in and they’re calling people in their area to come in. We’ll also be driving consumer advertising in a bigger way over the next couple of years for prescription eyewear.

Oakley is committed to the optical industry. We want to be a great partner with practices. We think we can offer a lot as a brand and we bring a lot of quality and innovation to the market. We’re a pretty active group and we think that it’s an industry that fits us really well.


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