RETAIL | Staff Reporter, Singapore

Visual Loft seeks $160,000 to complete seed funding round, eyes overseas expansion

It is is an online marketplace where retail optical shops can set up their own online personalized shop.

If a Singaporean wanted to purchase a pair of eyewear, he would likely have to go out of the house, browse through a few shops in the mall, try on a dozen pairs, and make mental comparisons on prices - a relatively tedious experience that optometrist and optical shop owner Lester Lee wants to simplify with his startup Visual Loft.

Visual Loft is an online marketplace where retail optical shops can set up their own online personalized shop, complete with basically everything they need to fulfill orders such as payment and delivery systems.

The startup - which CEO Lee and co-founder and CTO Adrian Neo dreamt up to help traditional optical shops cope with the stiff competition from e-commerce wholesalers and open concept stores like Owndays - has raised $340,000 in less than two months from various angel investors. It is now looking for an additional $160,000 to complete this round of seed funding.

For Lee, himself an operator of a chain of optical stores, Visual Loft was the kind of online channel that retail optical shops had been looking for but were afraid or incapable of building on their own.

“During the process of onboarding [our partner stores], they’ve shared numerous problems with us that they have been facing ever since the rise of ecommerce and shops like Owndays. Their sales have drastically taken a dip as much as 40%.”

“A lot of them have become pessimistic and have a wait-and-see approach. Some predict that their shops will be shutting down in one or two years time. They have taken an interest in diving into the e-commerce market but lack the knowledge.”

Lee insists that Visual Loft is a complement to traditional retail optical shops, providing an additional online channel for them to sell and market, whilst keeping their physical branches open. He explains that the online-to-offline experience is still key to eyewear buyers.

“Despite the popularity of e-commerce, offline experience is still very much relevant. Eye check for prescription is required by regulation, and many consumers still like to physically try on the eye frame before purchasing,” says Lee. “[Visual Loft] is a win-win situation for both the consumers and the vendors.”

Mimicking somewhat the retail shopping experience, Visual Loft’s online marketplace allows eyewear consumers to browse and shop at their favourite optical shops at the comfort of their home. They can also easily compare styles and budget.

Euromonitor reports that optical shops continued to be the leading distribution channel for eyewear in 2017, but notes that “consumers are showing growing interest in the online channel, thanks to its convenience and competitive pricing.”

“Demand for eyewear remained strong thanks to an increasing number of Singaporeans requiring optical prescriptions. Nevertheless, the uncertain economic situation has driven consumers to be more price conscious and opt for cheaper eyewear,” it adds.

After purchasing online at Visual Loft, consumers can either choose to get the eyewear delivered to them or pick it up at the partner brand shop, which also provide eye check and after-sale services.

For partner brands, setting up an online shop in Visual Loft comes with full vendor support: They are given access to online payments, deliveries, and an online customer relationship management tool. They can either get their purchase delivered to them or they pick it up at the shop itself.

Whilst building a stronger base in Singapore, Lee is also drawing up bigger plans for Visual Loft. He is studying various countries for possible overseas expansion, looking into an automated ordering process, and even building a Business-to-Business (B2B) platform for optical shop owners, supplies, lens lab and eye health professionals.

“Optical eyewear industry is a traditional trade that hasn’t seen much changes for the past 30 years. Ever since the rise and disruptive nature of e-commerce platforms and new chain stores like Owndays, sales of traditional optical stores have been heavily affected,” says Lee.

“Visual Loft strives to help these stores adapt to the current market change and keep them relevant.” 

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