A place in the sun

May 15, 2012
Arthur De Gennaro

The premium sunglasses business is very trendy.

When I was a former chain store executive, one of my bosses asked for a favor. He wanted me to evaluate the operations of a chain of sunglass kiosks that were owned by a relative. I agreed. Not only was the project fun, but it taught me a lot about selling premium sunglasses.

During the interview, the owner told me: "Eighty percent of the sunglasses sold in the United States sell for less than x; 20% sell above that price. Eighty percent of the profits from sunglass sales, however, come from the 20% that sell above (the target) price."

• I learned that the premium sunglasses business is very trendy. Premium sunglass customers are extremely brand-conscious, much more so than customers who buy prescription eyeglass frames. This means that it is much easier to get prescription eyeglass customers to consider a brand they were not thinking of than it is to get premium sunglass customers to consider switching. Because premium sunglass customers are so brand-loyal, a lot of pressure is therefore placed on the dispensary's merchandise manager to choose only those brands that are most in demand by the demographic the dispensary is looking to service. Not understanding your demographics and carrying the wrong brand(s) will most likely lead to sluggish sales.

Premium sunglass customers are also younger. This makes sense because the majority of premium sunglasses sold in the United States are nonprescription. These younger individuals are also more likely to engage in active sports and rugged outdoor activities.

• I learned that the amount of product knowledge needed to sell a pair of premium sunglasses is vast. To complicate matters, some of that information is different from what it is for prescription eyeglasses. Added to this is the fact that the information will vary by brand; not all manufacturers use the same materials. For example, premium sunglasses are usually fabricated with frames that are made of high-performance materials, such as Grilamid or some other nylon derivative. These materials make the frame stiffer and more rigid while remaining flexible and therefore comfortable while being worn. High-performance frame materials are also abrasion-resistant and will retain their coloration even when worn repeatedly under harsh conditions.

• I learned that premium sunglasses usually have high-performance lenses. This begins with the lens material. It is extremely uncommon to find premium sunglasses made with anything other than polycarbonate or Trivex lenses. Many premium sunglasses are worn under conditions where eye protection is a prime consideration.

Of equal importance is the color of the lenses. Reds are used toward sunrise/sunset. Amber is used to increase contrast by blocking blue light. Green and grey are used to absorb the colors of the spectrum relatively evenly, providing a natural viewing experience for the viewer. Because lighting conditions can change while engaged in a particular activity (cycling, for example) many premium sunglasses are available with interchangeable lenses of different colors. A growing number of premium sunglasses can be made with a prescription, while others have prescription inserts.

Premium sunglasses are also more likely to be coated. This includes backside AR and mirror coating on the front. Often the mirror coating is colorized. This is not only functional but extremely fashionable.

• I learned that individuals who sell premium sunglasses must be extremely good salespeople. One reason for this is that customers who purchase premium sunglasses are generally more affluent and better educated. As a result, they are more prone to ask detailed questions.

When I observed the employees of the kiosk company I marveled at their selling performance. They interviewed each customer to learn how he or she intended to use the sunwear. Only then did the salesperson recommended products. I listened as they described the features and advantages of the lenses and frames being offered. The statements were followed by the benefits the premium sunglasses would deliver to the customer.

To do this effectively the salespeople needed to understand the body mechanics and visual task requirements the prospective buyer's activity would require. This meant that the salespeople had to become familiar enough with these activities to be able to discuss them intelligently. This information was gathered informally from customers and formally from the company during mandatory training sessions.

These sellers also knew the power of the motives of pride and prestige. They knew that a lot of what the buyer was purchasing was the logo on the temples and the case. In some ways that logo is a status symbol; in other ways, it is a signal to others of the wearer's social standing or lifestyle. The salespeople in this company were trained to identify these cues and use them as ways to connect with customers. Those connections generally took the form of off-script discussions of non-business-related subjects, what one sales trainer calls "schmoozing."

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