The Interline knows plenty of people who wear glasses.  And most of them would say their glasses don’t fit them correctly.

Cubitts, a London-born spectacle brand, has a vision for a future where every frame can be customised based on facial scanning, machine learning, and a seamless workflow from customer-facing customisation app to production queue.

But first they need to weather a storm that has every retailer, no matter their technological ambitions, taking on water.

This week, The Interline talked to Tom Broughton, Cubitts’ Founder and CEO.  And what follows is a candid discussion about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on a business that does the bulk of its trade from physical stores in the UK capital. We discuss what it means to bring a modern sensibility to a deeply traditional industry – optics – and how retail can adopt more of a startup mindset and forge its future through technology.

The Interline: There’s a tentative re-opening of the economy starting in the UK, but physical retail stores haven’t been specifically mentioned yet, and the timeline for being able to shop in person again is uncertain.  As a brand with ten stores concentrated in London, how are you coping?  What proportion of your sales are typically in-store versus online?  And how is your supply chain holding up?

Tom Broughton: In-store sales account for 80% of our business, so that’s dried up entirely.  We source our acetate from a supplier in Italy, which closed down about six weeks ago.  Fortunately, eyewear isn’t a just-in-time thing; it’s not like manufacturing cars, where components and materials arrive the moment you need them.  So in terms of materials we have quite a lot stockpiled.  The only thing we’ve really had a problem with was lenses – there was a shortage for a while, but luckily that now seems to be resolving itself.

The Interline: And what do you think is the outlook for retail in the UK – and Cubitts specifically?

Tom Broughton: Frankly, the government have proven to be pretty inept when it comes to giving clear guidance.  So we’re not really looking to them for a way forward.  The question, for me, is how consumers are going to respond, and we’re going to have to be guided by that.  If people do want to come back into physical stores, then that’s great, because we’ve got ten of them spread across London to fulfil that desire.  But if they don’t, then we’re going to have to adapt and change the business accordingly.

It’s a complicated issue, though.  We’ve found that, while store sales have obviously fallen by 100%, online sales have increased by around two and a half times.  But those extra sales don’t really appear to be new customers – it’s mainly existing customers who would normally have gone to one of our stores buying online instead.  So actual online traffic has stayed basically the same.

If it emerges that what we need to do is become a digital business, then that’s what we’ll have to do.  We don’t have a huge amount of choice in the matter.

The Interline: The uncertainty is, it seems, the worst factor here.  It’s too early to draw any meaningful conclusions, but on the other hand you can’t wait indefinitely to start deciding what the future of your business is going to be.  If it’s any consolation, having a unique proposition – as Cubitts does – could be a real boon when retail does fall back into gear.

On that point: let’s talk a bit about the philosophy behind Cubitts.  You emphasise a lot of meticulous, time-consuming methods and traditional craftsmanship – both of which run counter to an industry that, at least prior to the pandemic, was fuelling itself with a disposable sort of newness.  How do you get people to care more about something that’s become almost a commodity?

Tom Broughton: The number one thesis that we’ve been trying to push is that those two things – modern business and timeless craftsmanship – are complementary.  We believe you can be forward-looking without that coming at the expense of the craft of the product and the heritage of the industry.

I think one of the biggest misnomers that’s emerged in the last five or ten years is that you’re either an artisan or you’re mass market.  And it’s my view that you can take the best bits of both.  If you do things in a modern, progressive way, you can actually make the warm and fuzzy parts of this legacy industry – spectacle making – more relevant, rather than less.  By being progressive and open, you can do things like make the products more affordable, reduce wastage, and give people the skills to care for and look after the products so they last longer.

So I’d say there’s a deliberate tension at the core of what we do.  We absolutely do not want to be “ye olde spectacle maker”, trading on the way things used to be.  But we do believe that you can take the best bits from golden age of optics, which was around the previous world war, when the products were revered for their quality and materials, and repurpose them for a modern audience.

The Interline: One part of that legacy that it feels important to try and reinterpret right now is one you’re perhaps already ahead of the curve on.  Assuming retail is given the green light to reopen in some capacity soon, we’re going to see a lot of companies with physical premises, who normally thrive on high footfall, needing to dial back their in-store capacity and maximise their engagement with a smaller number of shoppers.  And that could feel very familiar to the more consultative sort of customer engagement historical retailers have, and that Cubitts has preserved with its bespoke and made-to-measure services.  What advice would you give another brand who might be trying to figure this all out right now?

Tom Broughton: I think everyone is going to need to adapt to the way shoppers behave, and that’s going to mean thinking almost like a startup again.

In our case, we’ve been running stores for close to six years, so we have all these preconceived notions of tracking the number of people who come in, what their conversion rate was, what an average basket value looked like… and I think the situation has made a lot of that kind of irrelevant.  So I’ve been talking to managers about how we can get out of that mindset, and treat it as though we’re learning everything for the first time.

If you fixate on the idea that, shit, my sales are down 30% year on year, or my average basket values have dropped by 80%, or I can’t get as many people as I need through the door, you’re going to make a whole bunch of bad decisions.  Whereas if you think back to when you opened your first store – your first shift – and you didn’t know who was going to come through the door, what their likelihood was of buying something, or what you were missing in your product range, you’re going to be in a better position to react to what people actually want.

And if you can’t make that work then, frankly, you’re going to have to pivot.  And we could end up having to do the same; if we can’t get ten stores in London to make sense in this new world, we’re going to have to stop having ten stores in London.

The Interline: Thinking a bit more about consumer behaviour here.  We recognise that it’s something nobody can really predict with any real degree of accuracy, but there’s a possibility that people are going to start looking more locally and nationally – realising that they don’t necessarily have to look further afield to find great-quality apparel, footwear, or eyewear.  In that sense, having a strong regional identity – like Cubitts does, with its frames being named after London streets, and the brand doing a lot of charity work in the capital and nationally – could be another strength.

Tom Broughton: Maybe.  I can also see the other argument: that people have spent months at home, being inundated by huge global brands who still have the size, the scale, and the budget to be hitting them with ads.  And in times of crisis people might flood back to the multinational brands they know.

I take some confidence from the fact that we have a product that people actually need – one that we know is better than a lot of what’s out there in the market – and if we can get that product to people through stores, through a website, or through some other channel, then that will get us through.

And I think if you were to draw a normal distribution curve of brands, from the most at-risk to the least-at-risk, we’re definitely not in the worst position.

The Interline: That’s an interesting point, because risk in this first wave of lockdowns has been all about what to do with seasonal product that’s either languishing in warehouses or stuck at ports, with little hope of being sold at anything other than a precipitous discount.  That’s a lot of dead stock, to put it bluntly. 

In Cubitt’s case, though, your core products – the spectacles – are quite timeless, and you introduce fashionability instead through creative collaborations for cleaning cloths and cases.  If you were a business that relied on newness, that next wave, where people might return to shops and expect to see new styles, could be the hardest part.  Instead, your challenge might be doing greater volumes of products that still have to feel special and out of lockstep with seasonality.  How do you plan to do that?

Tom Broughton: That’s definitely a difficult position for any business to be in.  The pandemic broke just as seasonal retailers were about to release their spring / summer collections.  So we’re lucky in that, like you said, our spectacles are designed to be timeless.

Today, the vast majority of our sales are off the rack: styles that people can buy without having to come in for an extensive consultation.  Our bespoke and made-to-measure business is much smaller.  But our big ambition is to find a way to make everything custom, so we can offer the same level of personalised fit in a ready to wear, full collection frame as we’ve been able to in the past from our other services.

The Interline: And this is where your work in 3D, head scanning, and augmented reality comes in?

Tom Broughton: That’s right.  We launched The Speculator, which is our AR try-on web application, in 2018.  That can give customers a good feel for how different frames, in different patterns and colours, look.  But we’ve been building a completely new technology, in-house, called HERU, that we hope will power a different sort of personalisation.

HERU uses the TrueDepth cameras in the latest generation of iPhones to take an accurate scan of the user’s face.  But that’s when the really interesting stuff kicks in: it takes standard optical measurements into account, but also other facial characteristics like gender, hair colour, nose length, lip size, and uses a machine learning algorithm to make a frame recommendation.

Further than that, though, it also allows for customisation.  You can change the bridge, set the thickness or the colour, and crucially you’ll always know that, whatever changes you make, the spectacles will always fit you right because there’s a consistent logic behind it.

And then the last part is that HERU integrates with all our production kit, so you can customise your frames and HERU will send a three-dimensional CAD file to the CNC machine that’s cutting the acetate.

The Interline: So if the frames exist as 3D CAD files at this point, are you actually designing new styles in 3D from the start?

Tom Broughton: Like a lot of the industry, we worked in 2D for a long time, and we only started migrating to 3D relatively recently.  The benefits are pretty clear for us, because frames are obviously 3D objects, and people’s heads are 3D, so being able to do fit right without in-person consultation really required us to make the move to working in 3D from the outset.  At the moment, spectacles don’t fit well because people are still producing in bulk for the median wearer, and doing it from flat sketches.

So the vision is that, with 3D assets and detailed customer data, everything can be customised, and everything can fit perfectly – which means zero waste.  And the hope is also that, when people have their own custom products, they’re going to look after them better, and they’re going to last longer.

The Interline: It’s important to point out that this is distinct from a product configurator, which is based on a predefined library of components that can be swapped out and recoloured.  Allowing the user to actually tweak the 3D CAD parameters and then having that drive the machining is a different proposition.

Tom Broughton: The thing to realise is that what makes a bespoke frame expensive, currently, is that making it is an extremely labour-intensive process.  That’s why our bespoke service has traditionally involved two or three physical consultations, asking the customer to come to us.  And that production flow just is not set up for any sort of scale: you have to spend time setting up the machinery for just a one-off piece.

Instead, if we can use big data as a way to replace human consultation and actually feed the production queue, without having to repeat all the set-up every time, you can imagine how much it could reduce the time required to create something custom.  That then frees up the human part so people can focus on sorting out the let-back angle, or filing the bridge fitting – places where their work will have the most impact.

The Interline: You mention big data.  Where the current dataset coming from for HERU?  Is it anonymised and aggregated from past consultations?

Tom Broughton: We’re about to start an invitation programme of people trialling HERU, which we’re going to use as a way to collect data on another five thousand faces.  We think that’ll be enough to train the algorithm. [Readers of The Interline are invited to join the HERU pilot scheme, with details at the end of this article – Editor]

The Interline: Finally, where else do you feel Cubitts could use technology to either mitigate some of the impact of the current crisis, or refine its model for the future?

Tom Broughton: I think it’s all around a very similar theme.  If we can own that facial measurements data, then the question becomes what else we can do with it.  How can we build a better service and a better product equipped with that knowledge?  On top of recommendations, we could also looks at pre-fitting a frame, so that if a customer orders a new style, and we know they have one ear slightly higher than the other, we can use that information to make sure their new frames fit perfectly on arrival.

The other aspect is building out and changing the production side of things.  Normally, in King’s Cross, we have two glazing machines that fit the lenses to the frames, running concurrently.  But there are options we’re looking at for automation, so we could glaze ten frames simultaneously.  Things like that could make a big difference.

Try it yourself:

Do you have an iPhone in the XR, XS, or 11 series? Are you interested in being selected for Cubitts’ HERU pilot and testing its head-scanning technology? A limited number of spots remain, and Cubitts are accepting registrations here. All user data will be kept strictly private.