The online retail business has become so important for Essilor International that it has been placed in the hands of a high-profile manager, Bernard Nuesser, with global responsibilities, according to well-informed sources? This former international director of GrandVision and chief executive of its Vision Express chain in the U.K., joined Essilor in September 2014 as president for Europe. His functions are being redistributed among the country managers who were working under him, pending the appointment of a successor.

According to company officials, the group's involvement in online retailing is aimed at supporting brick-and-mortar opticians in the development of an omni-channel strategy. Through the databases of internet customers, it can also help promote the release of new products among end users, accelerating the replacement rate, and help in marketing.

Confirming its strategy of moving closer to the customer, while staying away from brick-and-mortar retailing (EWI, Vol. 17 n° 3, Feb. 26, 2016), Essilor announced on Aug. 19 its acquisition of the U.K.-based MyOptique Group. The takeover turns the French lens giant into the biggest online retailer of ophthalmic optic products in Europe by far, clearly springing ahead of Germany's Mister Spex, which previously claimed to be the European leader in the sector. It was about the same size as MyOptique in 2014.

Building on its original Glasses Direct business, the MyOptique Group reached revenues of £57 million (€66.3m-$74.2m) in its latest financial year, ended April 30, thanks in part to acquisitions. Last February, Essilor had already acquired another international online retailer based in the U.K., Vision Direct, which had sales of around £33 million (€38.4m-$43.0m) last year, with customers in the U.K. and Ireland as well as in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, France and Italy.

We understand that Vision Direct is targeting sales of around £45 million (€52.4m-$58.6m) this year, which would be similar to the European turnover of Lensway, another e-commerce operation, based in Sweden, that joined Essilor's growing portfolio through its acquisition two years ago of Coastal.com, the big Canadian-based online retailer operating internationally. Lensway has websites in all the Nordic countries, the U.K., Germany and the Netherlands.

One year ago, MyOptique, which was previously called Prescription Eyewear, bought the second-largest German online retailer, Business 4Care, which sells prescription frames, sunglasses and contact lenses through its website, Lensbest, and has a wholesale operation that sells Lennox eyewear and its own Acumed and Lenscare brands of contact lenses, solutions, readers, sunglasses and other products. At the same time, the British company bought Eyewearbrands.com, which it described as the largest online retailer for premium eyewear in the U.K.

MyOptique was already trading in Germany through another website, Netzoptiker. Besides Glasses Direct and MyOptique, the MyOptique group also operates three other online retail banners: Sunglasses Shop in the U.K., LensOn in Sweden. Like Lensbest, LensOn specializes in contact lenses. Glasses Direct, which specializes in corrective lenses, markets private labels such as London Retro and Scout. Essilor says it serves about one million active customers.

Vision Direct and MyOptique have been developing in parallel along slightly different paths, but they are now going in a similar direction. Vision Direct started off with contact lenses through a site called Getlenses and continued to specialize in this domain after the acquisition of a Dutch website under its new name. However, shortly after its acquisition by Essilor, Vision Direct added sunglasses to its offer. It is now expected to introduce prescription glasses shortly as well.

Essilor already has a big and fast-growing e-commerce business in North America through Coastal, which is trading as Clearly in Canada, and EyeBuyDirect and Frames Direct in the U.S. Through Coastal, it also acquired a website in Australia and started e-commerce operations in New Zealand, China (Coastalvision.cn) and Japan (Coastallens.com). In the fourth quarter of last year, Essilor launched a new e-commerce platform in Brazil, glasses4you, after acquiring two leading Brazilian online optical retailers, e-lens and eOtica.

The group's online retail sales around the world grew last year by 12 percent on an organic basis and reached a level of about €220 million, giving it an estimated global market share of around 5 percent after seven years of investments in the sector. Updating its business plan, the management indicated last year that it was targeting an annual turnover in e-commerce of between €400 million and €500 million by 2018.