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News Feed Item - pioneer of online contact lens sales sees continued growth after 15 years

An overview of the monopoly breaker's foundation, development and continuing success

LONDON, Jan. 17, 2014 /PRNewswire-iReach/ -- Contact lenses were extortionately expensive and unattainable in the UK unless purchased through opticians. Consumers needed and wanted to have cheaper and alternative sources for their replacement lenses. The monopoly of British opticians came to a grinding halt in 1998. An independent operator suddenly emerged and single-handedly managed to impact the UK market.


Steffan Rygaard's pioneering company – Vision Direct – exposed the conspiracy of high-street retailers who guarded a monopoly on the price of contact lenses to further their profit margins.

Despite being a half-Dane, half-Briton raised in Zambia, Steffan Rygaard was an ordinary 26-year-old who finished his studies at Exeter University and had worked a few years as a broker in London's Square Mile. Having noticed his colleagues complaining about their jobs he decided to leave the security of his city job for a more uncertain future as an entrepreneur. He didn't realise that he was embarking on a journey that would shake the British optical industry.

Having considered the options at hand, Steffan Rygaard decided that starting a contact lens mail order company was the way forward. He was inspired by the idea of running his own business, helping people, working with databases, and being able to work from home. VisionDirect was born in a single room just big enough for a desk, a bed, a printer and a few boxes of lenses. No fancy offices, no big investors, no fuss or glory – just a single entrepreneur working hard to deliver contacts at lower prices. The market for lenses had already been transformed in countries like Australia, the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark – so why not the UK as well?

Having taken every precaution possible to ensure that customer health was safeguarded, VisionDirect issued a press release announcing their presence and stating that highly priced contact lenses were now a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the British opticians' lobby group, the G.O.C, was of a different opinion. The idea that a small Battersea-based company that sold contact lenses at outlet prices could revolutionise the market seemed highly unlikely. Even though customers had to present a current prescription of their contact lenses, as well as the packaging of the lenses they were using, and had to have been wearing lenses for more than six months when ordering to get delivery, this was still not enough for the G.O.C.  Within ten months, Vision Direct was forced to shut down operations after a lengthy court ruling. The decision was made to simply continue the business from a place where the G.O.C did not have any jurisdiction.

One of Steffan's prospective customers was a journalist called Oliver James, who wrote the following as part of a column entitled 'One in the eye for competition' in the Independent in May 1998.

"... I was told of a company called Vision Direct from whom I could buy the lenses by post at half the price, a proof that the privatised companies were making a disgraceful mark-up. Until last week I have been an enthusiastic user of this wonderful service. But then, last Thursday, came the news that Vision Direct has been successfully prosecuted by the General Optical Council (GOC).

I called Vision Direct and, to my surprise, the phone was picked up by the company's founder and chairman, Stephan Rygaard. He was audibly depressed and had spent the day receiving hundreds of letters, faxes, phone calls and e-mails expressing fury. Rygaard had lost the case because the GOC, the opticians' trade body, had managed to pull the wool over a short-sighted magistrate's eyes, convincing him that the act of selling a contact lens has to be clinically supervised. On the technicality that because Vision Direct leave it to the honesty of their public to declare whether they have had a test in the past year, the company was held to be failing to act responsibly. What gives the lie to this argument is the simple fact that in Denmark, Germany and several other nations, direct mail lenses have been acceptable for some time."

The logical step for Steffan was to move his business to a place where the GOC had no jurisdiction. The Netherlands emerged as the best logistical candidate. By taking advantage of European legislation and the continued deregulation over the past decade in optics within two months of being forced out of operations, the company arose from the ashes with a new warehouse and a new phone number. Fortunately for the general public, there were now even more organizations that picked up on the idea of selling contact lenses via mail order. Hence all the GOC had really managed to do was to spite its own members by ramping up publicity for irreversible change.

15 years later, VisionDirect is still in business and still shipping from Amsterdam. The company maintains its mission to give their customers the best bargains it can. Today is the largest online retailer for replacement contact lenses, proof that persistence does pay dividends.

By keeping overhead costs minimal, VisionDirect has been able to offer prices up to 80% lower than on the high street, so it is little surprise that the company is still flourishing. Additionally, a fully qualified in-house Contact Lens Optician and a UK-qualified registered Optometrist ensure that customers are in highly capable hands. At the end of 2013 the company had a consolidated turnover of €20million, was represented in most European countries, with over 40 employees and a database of plus 500,000 wearers. Again, testament that was worth the effort and that our customer base is loyal to our beliefs.

Follow Visiondirect on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and our blog.

Media Contact: Gareth Woods,, 084-474-5454, [email protected]

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