VisionPlus talks to Henri Blomqvist, Chief Commercial Officer, Safilo, to get an insight into the company’s strategy, product offerings and new initiatives
As the worldwide leader in premium eyewear, Safilo Group has always been associated with pioneering initiatives that have helped the industry grow. Recently, the company has hired Henri Blomqvist for the newly established role of Global Commercial Director. A native of Finland, Henri brings on board strategic as well as commercial experience. In this edition, we speak to Henri Blomqvist to understand his perception of the Indian optical trade and how Safilo is evolving to address its dynamic needs.
VisionPlus (VP): Hello, Henri. Great to have you on board for In Focus. You have a rich experience working in a variety of industries. How different has the experience been working in the eyewear industry?
Henri Blomqvist (HB): Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my view through your magazine to the optical trade community in India. I joined Safilo in November 2013, after spending the last ten years at Procter & Gamble, working in the areas of sales and commercial management, and on several worldwide brands.
I believe every industry has its particularities and is challenging in its own ways. Given the nature of our product, to enhance vision and protect the eyes, the eyewear market is well established but highly fragmented in comparison to other industries. The penetration of retailer/optician reaches practically every nook and corner of the country and quite often businesses are handed over from one generation to the next within the family. Therefore, many Ophthalmologist/Optometrist and opticians are literally born into their profession. As a result, some might term the industry as conservative, but I think a better predicate is well established and solid.
VP: What have been your objectives since your association with Safilo as Global Commercial Director? What new strategies have you implemented to meet them?
HB: Our aim is to become the preferred partner for our customers. We are looking for sustainable growth, and all our activities are aimed towards building a mutually beneficial relationship with our customers. Specifically regarding India, just to mention a few strategic steps we have taken in the past years, I would like to highlight the establishment of a warehouse in Mumbai in 2014, that has helped in drastically cutting the lead-time of the core assortment of all our brands and increasing the service level for the retailers. As a welcome side effect, the opticians are also able to reduce their inventory, as we have local stock available. Furthermore, we have engaged with some highly professional distributors to come even closer to our partners and consumers. Keeping the digital progress of the country in mind, we have also introduced a B2B platform, where our enrolled retailers can comfortably order our entire collection from their desk, and if needed from their mobile. Finally yet importantly, we made significant changes to our Indian brand portfolio, adjusting it to the local needs and requirements.
HB: Shopping behaviour and trade structure are definitely unique in the Indian eyewear industry. The Indian eyewear market is still dominated by the traditional opticians. Other channels like boutiques, lifestyle or department stores are yet to become significant. Apart from the lack of different formats, also speciality stores like sports, adventure and kids are yet to evolve for eyewear. Keeping the average size of an optical store in mind and the attempt to cover all above categories and experiences, there are certainly some compromises in qualification/specialisation or dedication towards these special needs, if one wants to benchmark internationally.
On the other hand, I also had the privilege to experience the fact that the Indian market is very sensitive towards product quality, pricing, design etc., maybe even more so than other international markets. When we took the case of Carrera and brought these factors in perfect harmony with expectations, we witnessed a doubling of sales in less than 3 years.
In the recent years, I have also observed a healthy shift towards a more modern approach. Shops are being refurbished and modernised, new concepts and formats are being tested, most of these targeting the affluent Indian.
VP: In the Indian market, where do you see a better future- in the optical or the sunglasses segment and why?
HB: I see huge potential in both segments, but am not sure which one I should cherish more. In India, the weather is quite predictable, and the number of sun hours per year is rather high, which allows no alternatives than buying one or more sunglasses to protect their eyes from dust, glare and harmful UV rays. Keeping in mind that Polaroid invented the polarized lens more than 85 years ago to protect from UV rays, we will certainly take over the responsibility of being the leader in the polarized eyewear category. For many consumers, sunglasses are not yet a regular part of their fashion accessory wardrobe, I am sure this is changing as we talk.
In both categories, sunglasses and frames, we can observe that consumers are upgrading over time and our target groups are growing exponentially.
VP: Which segments are more important for Safilo – luxury, fashion or value – and accordingly which brands?
HB: Safilo India is in the luxurious position to have a very balanced brand portfolio. Our proprietary brand portfolio Carrera, Polaroid, Oxydo, Safilo, Seventh Street and Vittorio are almost at par with our licensed brands, and we are very happy to see that we have powerful brands in both the segments. Carrera almost managed to become our biggest value driver in 2014, and we are waiting to see that happen in 2015. Polaroid is enjoying a fantastic momentum and gaining traction in the optician channel. Needless to say that Gucci is leading the game, even Jimmy Choo, Marc Jacobs and BOSS are doing very well. However, the most challenging segment is for sure the Top Luxury segment, given the price and value consciousness of the Indian consumer. Therefore, we are looking forward to discontinuing the Top Luxury brands Alexander MCQueen, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent Paris by the end of this month, to place more focus and energy on fashion-aficionados with our licensed brands, and on the value-for-money-seekers with our proprietary brands.
VP: What was the idea behind launching Vittorio only for the Indian market? How is the brand doing today, has it exceeded expectations?
HB: Vittorio was launched in 2009 and inspired by the former Chairman of the Safilo Group, Vittorio Tabacchi. The particular needs of the Indian market and the big volumes below the price point of Rs 3,000 led us to the decision to be a part of this market as well. It is sound proof of Safilo India’s dedication to local needs and requirements. Today Vittorio is available from Rs 1,400 to Rs 2,750 and caters to a target group which otherwise would not be available to us. This price range gives us the opportunity to reach out to opticians and consumers which want low price but don’t want to compromise on quality or service standards given by a leading eyewear manufacturer like us. Vittorio gives us a lot of pleasure today and is amongst the volume drivers, at the forefront to explore new territories not only in metropolitan cities but also in rural markets.
VP: Does Safilo plan to enter in the retail sector in the near future?
VP: Safilo will open its new Product School in September 2015. What is the objective behind this new initiative?
HB: Safilo has announced the launch of its Product School offering 3 year apprenticeships to up to 10 young professionals every year, starting from 2015. Safilo recalls the importance of its product creation, design, development and manufacturing capabilities, and its historical reputation of offering the very best of Italian tradition through eyewear apprenticeships dating back to 1878. The objective behind this new initiative is, to give young apprentices starting their professional lives, the opportunity to build foundational mastery across all product functions, and then begin Safilo’s career path to form the new generations of Eyewear Product Directors.
The focus is on Product Creation, i.e. from design to product development, from prototyping to manufacturing, materials, quality, pricing, and product concept selling. Additionally, the program also covers the development of managerial skills and behavioural competencies.
VP: What other initiatives have been planned by Safilo, specifically for the Indian market? Have you planned any training programmes for opticians here?
HB: Training and education is a major focus of our company. Currently we are doing a lot of internal training, to upgrade ourselves first. At the same time we are considering multiple routes to increase the buying experience of our consumers and try to support the opticians to sell more. Training on new technologies, material, production design, etc. is certainly an integrated part of our initiatives. But also brand/product mix, stock level, store intelligence and visual merchandising will not be neglected.
We are gearing up to make ourselves and our trade partner ready for the increased demand.