Lenscrafters, owned by Italian eyewear company, Luxottica, now also owns Pearle Vision centers.  This amounts to almost a monopoly in our local area for eyewear, especially when coupled with their famous one-hour service guarantee.

Well, they used to work that way.

I used to be able to reliably walk into a Lenscrafters and get glasses made within a hour.  Since my husband, myself and two kids all wear glasses, this is something I’ve come to rely on.  My kids are having less frequent issues with “accidents” than they used to, but still, when a frame breaks, I need to get it repaired or replaced fairly quickly, otherwise, my kids can’t see.  A list of our more famous incidents include the stepping on the glasses when getting ready for swimming, glasses falling of the face and almost hitting a baby whale on a whale watch in Massachusetts while on vacation, and the time when a bigger kid fell on mine on a jungle gym, requiring not only an eyeglass repair, but stitches.

The fact that Lenscrafters has an excellent computer system has been a plus.  It stores the prescription for everyone in the family, the date of the last prescription, the date the last pair were purchased, and what may still be under warranty.  They have great reduced rates for eyewear for kids as well- between this and the “insurance”/reduced replacement cost factor and turn around time, we’ve been big fans for years.

But recently, things have changed.  The last time I went to get prescription sunglasses and a pair of glasses for my son, the lenses weren’t in stock and had to be special ordered.  We had to wait about a week for the glasses, just the same amount of time it would have been for any other provider.  This past week, my older son’s frame fell apart.  We went to the mall, expecting we would need to buy a new pair.  They did a nice job on a temporary repair, and told us they should be able to reorder a new frame, and they would call us the next day to let us know.  They called us later in the day and said they had it, but we could have to pay for it now- so I gave the lady my credit card number.  Then they called and said they couldn’t get the frame in, and we would have to go pick out a new one.

The first store we had gone to was in Concord Mall in Delaware, and the number of frames and choices in stock was incredibly low compared to “normal”- I even asked them if they were planning on closing that location.  They said no,  and they also said their in house manufacturing was currently out of service.  So when we had to go pick new frames, we went down to the Christiana Mall location, also in Delaware, hoping the selection would be wider.

Now the redesigned store at Christiana is lovely.  While they have gazillions of sunglass selections, they have a very limited selection of eyeglass frames as well.  I was actually shocked at how few styles and how many redundant styles they had.  My husband and son eventually picked out a pair and… you guessed it- there’s some problem with the generator and they have to order the lenses and we might get the glasses sometime this week, hopefully Tuesday.

The Wall Street Journal article on  Lenscrafters/Luxottica shows what’s going on in part:

The first quarter of 2009 was a particularly challenging period for the eyewear market, due to the structural changes that it is currently undergoing. Demand and the market in general were affected by three main factors: consumer attitudes, rapid reduction in inventories by clients in all geographical areas and the slowdown in the global economy. At the same time, it should be noted that some positive signals are now being seen on all three of these fronts.

Well, it’s trickling down to the stores.  Inventories are definitely down.  The one hour guarantee has been, in my recent experience earlier this Spring and again this past week, looks like a thing of the past.  The new “See What You Love, Love What You See” campaign is nice, but Lenscrafters is going to start to have bigger problems if they can’t provide their customers with what they need.

Glasses are functional fashion, more important than handbags- we need glasses to see, but we want to look okay in the process as well.  In an economic climate that means people are going to be reasonably frugal and probably not buy two or three pairs to change out as the mood strikes, doesn’t mean they still don’t want to look good in the process, and buy at least one great set of frames.  And given the lifespan of eyeframes, especially in the hands of children, having a decent selection is important- and is as important as getting what we need when we need it.

Given the price point of many new frames and lenses, often in the $250-$350 range, I want to have a decent selection- at least the same sort of selection I’d find in a show store, a clothing shop- more than one size fits all.  Whether it’s for me or for my kids, this is a fairly hefty expense, and we have to live with the eyewear everyday for a long, long time.  We want it to be reasonably fashionable, functional, comfortable, and reliable.  And I have to say, my recent experience with Lenscrafters, delivering below the expected selection of frames, below the expected level of service- is making me consider whether there isn’t another alternative.  Maybe my local eyewear provider who I’ve been ignoring since Lenscrafters was so convenient and quick deserves a closer look and more loyalty than before.

It’s interesting in the age of mass media, mass marketing and mass convenience, that the big boys, who have killed many local competitors by the advantages of the mass market may be driving customers right back into their hands for failing to deliver on the promises they made but now are struggling to keep.