Customers can now log into the beta version of Sensee.com, the new virtual optical retail store developed by Marc Simoncini, the French entrepreneur who 10 years ago founded Meetic, the leading European dating and chatting website, and then sold it with a major capital gain. It has stated a goal to represent between 30 and 50 percent of all online sales of eyewear in France within the next five years.

There are no major players yet in the French online market, but it is expected to grow from less than 1 percent to 5 or even 8 percent of total sales, according to observers, if the French Parliament approves new legislation that will liberalize sales of these products, in line with a recent European directive. The current pure players on the market are small firms such as Confort Visuel, Direct Optic, Happyview, Opticien 24 and the French operation of Germany's Mister Spex. The latest entrant into the market, Evioo, is proposing an interesting hybrid format in partnership with established brick-and-mortar retailers.

Sensee is targeting clients in the 35-49 age group, younger than those addressed by other e-commerce operations in France, according to published reports, and it should be able to reach a higher turnover thanks to a big marketing program, thanks to Simoncini's notoriety and the fact that he has decided to invest €7 million in this new project.

“You haven't seen anything yet,” says a commercial spot broadcast by Sensee on a French TV channel, M6, to back up its claim that customers will be able to pay half the price charged in a regular store. Several studies have indicated that French optical retailers tend to be among the most expensive in Europe, making a gross margin of up to 70 percent.

Like other internet retailers, Sensee charges as little as €39 for a pair of single-vision glasses and €49.90 for a pair of sunglasses. Ray-Ban and other branded models start at a little more than €100. It currently offers a choice among 1,500 styles by 60 brands, giving customers the opportunity to do a virtual try-on on their computer screens through the Fittingbox platform.

Sensee has several reassuring messages on the quality of its staff and its services. It requests an eye doctor's prescription to deliver any corrective glasses, and it allows customers to return the product after 30 days if they are not satisfied.

For a choice of contact lenses, the website is connected with another virtual store, Lentillesmoinscheres.com, that Simoncini acquired last March. Published reports indicate that its sales have doubled since the takeover, but industry officials doubt it.

Sensee is run by Alain Colin, who previously coordinated the joint purchases of GrandVision and Optic 2000. On the technical side, he is aided by Marina Lovka, a certified optician who has worked as marketing director for Shamir in France. Other opticians provide advice on the most fitting styles for the customers' personality on the website.