When Dutch eyewear startup Ace & Tate was founded in Amsterdam almost five years ago, it had one mission: to disrupt the eyewear market.
Now with 27 stores in seven countries – including a new shop near Covent Garden in central London – and the launch of its first ever global campaign this week, it is looking to take that disruption to the next level with a focus on virtual eye tests and its sights set on the US.
If one thing’s immediately clear from the Covent Garden store, it’s that Ace & Tate doesn’t look, on the outside, like a traditional optical brand (see picture below). The store is bright and spacious, less clinical, and certainly feels much more like a high-end designer shop than somewhere you’d go to get your eyes tested.
But step inside and it is more than just a boutique version of Specsavers, Boots or Vision Express.
From encouraging people to “experiment with their self-expression” to developing a “long-lasting emotional connection”, Ace & Tate has tried to build its business model with customer experience at its heart.
Key to that has been its focus on “cutting out unnecessary middlemen” so it can deliver frames directly to the customer. That means it designs and manufactures its own eyewear, unlike other stores which often have to go through designers, license holders, manufacturers and retails. This, it believes, has allowed the brand to be nimble and agile enough to adapt to constantly changing consumer needs.
“When you have customer service at the core of your business model, it allows you [to be agile] because you’re constantly listening,” Ace & Tate’s head of creative, Anoma Whittaker, tells Marketing Week.
“The retail staff and customer experience staff represent the company’s core value of gaining trust and we’re taking time to guide a consumer along to find the right style for them. That element of trust is big for [sales] conversion.”
Fashionable, designer frames are priced from just £98. And Ace & Tate also offers free eye tests.
And while the physical shops unsurprisingly account for the majority of sales, as people increasingly shop online Ace & Tate is looking at how its digital proposition can “mirror the human version of retail”.
This year, it is preparing to launch a new virtual try-on service and is also trialling a virtual online eye test with fellow Dutch startup Easee and the Utrecht medical school, which will allow customers to test their eyesight using just a smartphone and computer.
“We’re looking at how to ensure the experiences you have in-store and the experiences you have online do feel truly omnichannel,” Ace & Tate’s head of brand marketing, Kristofer Crockett, says.
“We’re expecting big consumer scepticism around [virtual eye tests] to start [with]. That will only be set aside when people see it works. There is demand for it but it allows for us to service and provide that same level of service to someone who is interested in buying glasses from us in a small town nowhere near a shop, to someone who is happy to come to the store.”
Having said that, Crockett says the human aspect is a “really important” part of the business.
“We are still a long way from the majority of people believing a £98 pair of glasses can be a really nice quality, so getting people to actually touch and see [the product is important],” he says. “Sometimes you can’t replace the physical experience.”
Shifting its marketing strategy
Ace & Tate’s ‘me myself & i’ campaign, created in collaboration between WE ARE Pi and its own in-house teams, focuses on the unique identities of six different people. It wants to “break down the barriers” that surround optical purchases and encourage people to “not be defined by a single frame over a long period of time”.
Up until now, the majority of Ace & Tate’s marketing investment has gone into digital performance media, with a big push around geo-targeting within the area of its stores and behavioural targeting on Facebook.
However, as the business looks to scale up, create a bigger impact and “humanise the brand”, it is starting to include print and out-of-home advertising in the media mix.
Crockett admits traditional forms of media have taken the longest to adapt to; when he joined the business at the beginning of 2017, Ace & Tate had never even bought a print or outdoor ad.
“We didn’t have the skills in-house to deliver an outdoor campaign so it was all focused around online and digital,” Crockett says.
“But this has made it a better transition for us; to be able to say OK now we need to think about the big picture, how we’re going to put this in a large board that’s going to be off Soho square and not only thinking about the micro-targeting.
“This campaign has been a shift for us, we’re hoping it will help to humanise the brand.”
Crockett says while Ace & Tate doesn’t necessarily see the distinction between an online sale and an offline sale, it recognises that offline is the best channel for acquisition, while online works well when it comes to retention.
While Ace & Tate’s “physical focus” will continue to be on the 25 countries where it already operates, as a brand that “always grows online first”, it is planning to launch its website in the US in the next couple of months.
“We want to be at the forefront of innovation when it comes to eyewear and keep on shaking up the business model,” Whittaker says. “So we’re going to have to continue to put a lot of investment and time into how things are made and how they get to consumers in different parts of the world as we are expanding globally.
Crockett adds: “That doesn’t mean where we are with our retail experience now is going to be good enough next year and the year after so we’re already working on what can be our new retail experience. We’ve seen new things that need to be changed and fixed now so we’re working on those – whether it’s making the brand feel more personal or encouraging other eyewear brands to become more sustainable is all part of the plan.”