When Coastal Contacts was first founded in 2000, there were already several companies in the marketplace using the Internet to take the many middlemen out of contact-lens retailing. And yet, Vancouver-based Coastal Contacts has thrived, with 300 employees worldwide and $140 million in sales in 2009.
The company set itself apart from its competitors by investing in a large stock of contact lenses and overnight delivery services so it could provide consistently fast deliveries to its customers. A loyal base of repeat buyers kept the company alive as early competitors vanished.
Those customers soon asked why they couldn’t get the same deal for glasses as they were getting for contacts. The answer is that glasses require a manufacturing process that contact lenses don’t, involving grinding the glass lenses to shape and fitting them into frames. In 2008, after three years of planning, Coastal Contacts opened assembly facilities in Europe and North America capable of turning out thousands of glasses per day – a major shift in focus for what was once a simple online retail business.
Coastal Contacts has been embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with the College of Opticians of B.C., which charges that the company is not qualified to sell contact lenses. But as our experts panel points out, a key sign of innovation is that it disrupts a marketplace. “The industry is suing them,” says one panellist. “That’s a pretty good indicator.”