E-commerce niche retailer eyewa has eyes on the main prize

Specialist in selling sunglasses, prescription lenses and contact lenses online, the company is expanding into GCC markets beyond UAE

The e-commerce start-up eyewa.com specialises in selling sunglasses, prescription lenses and contact lenses online.

It began last year in the Dubai apartments of its Moroccan founders and is expanding into GCC markets beyond UAE, having just raised $1.1 million from UAE and Saudi investors in a seed round led by Equitrust, the investment arm of Choueiri Group. The eyewa co-founders Mehdi Oudghiri and Anass Boumediene, both 31, met while working as strategy consultants on a project for a GCC government, then worked together as co-managing directors of the online food ordering business foodpanda in the Middle East, successfully building one of the region's largest and most profitable operators, later acquired by Delivery Hero. Here they tell The National about the strategy and success of their latest venture.

How and why did eyewa come about?

We launched in May 2017 with the vision of becoming the leading vertically integrated, technology enabled eyewear specialist in the Mena region. Before eyewa, the offering of curated eyewear online was non-existent [here] while the experience in optical stores of the region is very medical for a product that is also a fashion accessory, and that is an important part of our visual identity. We wanted to offer a different way to shop for eyewear, more in line with the needs of the young population of the Middle East. While we offer products across all price segments, we focus mainly on mid-range. In terms of demographics, we are targeting mostly young adults who are tech savvy and looking for more innovative ways to shop.

What is your business strategy?

We are a niche e-commerce player; eyewa only sells eyewear. This enables us to be experts and to provide customers with the best experience and value proposition possible. We differentiate ourselves by offering choice more catered towards the latest fashion trends and we make sure we offer a user experience as customised as possible, from the way we interact with them throughout the order process all the way to the care we put into packaging. Our main goal is to delight customers, to turn them into active promoters on social media and within their network of friends.

How has the company grown since launch?

We quickly expanded to a team of 10 and are now rapidly expanding operations. Most of our team members are focused on acquiring customers (marketing), and making sure our customers are happy with their orders (operations). UAE and KSA are our main markets. We have been expanding fast and plan on continuing to build on our momentum … into other GCC markets beyond UAE.

How did you anticipate demand for eyewa in a country awash with physical retail opportunities?

The e-commerce segment is growing because of consumer habit changes; consumers who traditionally bought offline are migrating to online transactions. We see eyewa as a medium to complement the existing physical retail offering. We have some advantages; we are open 24/7, have more products, giving customers more choice because we are not limited by physical space, and we are more convenient - customers can shop from their mobiles while on the metro, for example.


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Has it been a challenge convincing people that buying prescription lenses - or fashion eyewear - online can be reliable?

Selling eyewear online is not a new concept. There are several businesses very successful in this space across the world, from Warby Parker in the US to Lenskart in India, or MisterSpex in Germany. That being said, this concept remains new for the Mena region, so naturally, there is a need for customer education. So far, we have seen customers responding positively to our offering and approach. As we grow and tap into the mass segment beyond the early adopters, we are likely to need to invest even more in customer education.

How do you view the current e-commerce landscape in the UAE?

E-commerce will continue to grow. We are still at the early days of this segment in the region and we should expect it to multiply in size over the next few years. As the overall infrastructure of e-commerce enablers get better [such as delivery providers, payment gateways], we will continue to see exponential growth. We should also see more bricks and mortar retailers move to an omni-channel approach with their own online presence. This has been the growth path in China/USA - we should expect the same here. We believe e-commerce and physical retail need to come hand in hand. The future of retail is an omni-channel experience in which the customer can seamlessly start interacting with a store online and finalise his purchase in a physical store, or vice versa

With the likes of Amazon and Noon.com in the regional marketplace, will it become tougher for smaller e-commerce players?

Quite the opposite; e-commerce is still relatively underpenetrated in the region when compared to other global markets. Educating customers around the convenience of e-commerce requires heavy marketing investments. As Amazon and Noon grow, they take care of the heavy lifting of the education. We see it … customers will make their first purchase on generalist e-commerce; once they are comfortable with purchasing online they will buy from niche e-commerce players that have an offer and service more catered to the specific product they are selling. We should expect to see more acquisitions by large operators … looking for e-commerce know-how that they lack. One way of getting it is to buy it.