To Keep Growing, LensDirect Thinks Small


LensDirect has spent the last few years expanding beyond contact lenses. And Ryan Alovis, chief executive officer, is building consumer-friendly tech that would have astonished his Ukrainian great-grandfather. He tells D2C Insider why he bought back the family business and the latest growth plan.

D2C Insider: Not many D2C businesses have an origin story as old as you do. What's the history?

Ryan Alovis: My great-grandfather Barney Cohen started in optical in the early 1900s, selling frames out of a pushcart on Delancey Street. He came from Odessa, Ukraine. Then my father and my uncle started LensDirect in 1992. It was a mail-order contact lens company that struggled to find footing, and got sold to a vitamin company in 2004. In 2009, I had the opportunity to buy that business.

Until 2019, we were strictly a contact lens online retailer. Then we invested to reposition the whole company from contact lenses to total vision care -- contact lenses, eyeglasses, and sunglasses. What makes us different is that we are one of the only online retailers that are all-in-one, touching each sector of vision care. And we're also family-owned, family-run, with about 50 employees in the U.S. and 20 at our call center in St. Lucia. Our sales are north of $20 million.

D2C Insider: You compete with much larger companies.

Alovis: Yes. That means we try really hard. I still jump on the line to speak to customers. Anyone can get a customer by having a low price. We are committed to keeping a customer, and that's much harder.

D2C Insider: How extensive is your customer base?

Alovis: We've shipped well over a million orders, with hundreds of thousands of customers continually coming through. We've had steady, strong growth year over year.

D2C Insider: How often do they shop?

Alovis: Contact lens customers return every five or six months. But it's up to us. If we do nothing, they come back less frequently, so we do many things, including text messages when running low. And we've invested in auto refill, which is now a significant percentage of our business.

D2C Insider: What's the split?

Alovis: About 80% contacts, 20% vision care, including eyeglasses, sunglasses and lens replacement. That's wildly innovative but hasn't caught fire yet. So if you have a pair of Oakleys that you love, for example, you can order the lenses without sending us the frame. We teach you how to pop the new ones in.

D2C Insider: What's your growth rate?

Alovis: We grew very quickly in 2020 and 2021, as did many D2C companies. It's slowed. We've been thoughtful in our investments to nurture growth. We just relaunched our website after three years. We're launching an iPhone app that lets you try on glasses and manage your auto-refill.

D2C Insider: Customer acquisition has gotten so much more expensive. What strategies are you using?

Alovis: We enjoyed the fruits of Facebook's labor in 2020 and 2021. And obviously, things changed in 2022. We never raised any outside capital. We've grown thoughtfully, and we're profit-driven. We've never had that 'growth by any means necessary' approach that comes with venture capital. So I'm happy with our marketing approach, now with the new website and app. We're launching our rewards program. We're gearing up to spend more.

D2C Insider: How much of your revenue goes to marketing?

Alovis: Between 10% and 15%. We're cautious about our ROI.

D2C Insider: What are the marketing challenges, especially in balancing brand awareness with demand marketing?

Alovis: We're proud that LensDirect has a name with some credibility. We're not a new D2C company with a completely made-up name, trying to acquire customers with a colorful ad and user-generated content. Those strategies are so saturated at this point, from naming conventions to the Shopify look of their websites. It all feels like the same thing with a different color of lipstick.

We're spending more on branding at the top of the funnel. The name is familiar to people, which has allowed us to spend less money on acquiring customers and eyeballs. We started at a time when you had to make money to build the right systems. You didn't just outsource everything.

D2C Insider: Who do you consider your main competition?

Alovis: So many. There are online competitors, big box competitors, and then there's every mom-and-pop eye care practitioner in the U.S. We compete with Costco, Walmart, Lenscrafters, 1-800-Contacts and Warby Parker.

D2C Insider: What comes next?

Alovis: We can be the largest online retailer in the vision care space. I don't know why we can't be the Chewy of vision care. Right now, there is no Chewy, no central company. Everything is still deeply fragmented.

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