How Former Glasses Direct CEO Jamie Murray-Wells Proved Going Digital Works

An innovative CEO has the potential to elevate a company to unprecedented levels of success.

Take Bob Iger, for instance. When he assumed the role of CEO at The Walt Disney Company in 2005, Disney was caught in the middle of an evolving media landscape where traditional forms of entertainment were being disrupted by emerging technologies. To stay relevant, Iger made bold moves, leveraging Disney’s vibrant legacy to establish its presence in the streaming industry and integrating cutting-edge technology in Disney’s animated films, ultimately steering the entertainment giant to new heights.

Much like Bob Iger navigated Disney into the digital age, Jamie Murray-Wells, the visionary founder of Glasses Direct, reshaped the UK eyewear market through his early adoption of digitalisation in the early 2000s. In this article, we’ll explore how being an early adopter of technology put Murray-Wells’s company at the forefront of the eyewear industry and why going digital is crucial for UK high-street retailers to survive.

How going digital set Glasses Direct apart

In a 2017 article that Jamie Murray-Wells wrote for The Grocer, he highlighted how the retail sector was undergoing a massive transformation driven by consumers and their rapid embrace of technology. He went on to paint a picture that predicted how the high street will evolve to offer consumers personalised products and experiences that will turn shopping from a chore to an adventure.

We now know that his predictions were somewhat accurate, mainly because Murray-Wells was a pioneer of digital retailing, as is exemplified by his establishment of glasses retailer Glasses Direct. Glasses Direct is an online optical retailer that sells a range of eyewear including glasses, sunglasses, and contact lenses. The brands they carry range from luxury labels like Gucci and Marc Jacobs, to more affordable options from London Retro, Scout, and Aspire.

The company set itself apart from its competitors by becoming one of the first optical retailers to be purely Internet-based. This allowed the company to cut overhead costs and pass those savings to shoppers, ultimately providing prescription eyewear online at wholesale prices. In the UK, purchasing a pair of glasses can set buyers back by as much as £120, according to an article from The Standard. In contrast, Glasses Direct has frames that go for as low as £9. This means that at the lowest range, customers can get a new pair of glasses for under £30, delivery included.

On top of the massive savings they offer to shoppers, as early as 2009, Glass Direct had already been taking steps to make shopping for glasses a more personalised experience. This came in the form of augmented reality try-on features and an at-home trial programme, which are features that are still available on their online storefront today.

By the end of Glasses Direct’s first year of operations, Murray-Wells’s business had generated £1m in retail turnover, and by 2013, the business had achieved sales of £29.9m. It didn’t take too long for eyewear retailing giant Essilor (now EssilorLuxottica) to take notice of the growing demand for online eyewear shopping. After a series of funding rounds between 2007 and 2015, Murray-Wells sold his company to Essilor in a deal thought to be worth £120m in 2013.

What modern retailers can learn from Glasses Direct

Nearly two decades after Murray-Wells established Glasses Direct, Wells’s adoption of technology continues to stand as a testament to the critical need to adapt to changing consumer needs and shopping habits.

After the global health crisis forced high street retailers to shutter their doors, high inflation and the cost-of-living crisis are now threatening to undo the sector’s recovery. According to Accenture Europe’s strategy lead Kelly Askew, there are marginal gains businesses can make by leveraging technology. This includes automating in-store or logistics functions and AI-driven, personalised shopping experiences.

Murray-Wells demonstrated that, beyond mere survival, embracing online avenues and digitalisation opens doors to unprecedented growth and accessibility. The echoes of his success serve as a reminder that the future of retail lies in the integration of technology and commerce, and those who heed the call to digital transformation will not only thrive but also shape the narrative of retail’s next chapter.

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