The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on consumers and businesses. The subsequent lockdown disrupted business continuity. And while businesses have resumed operations in some parts of the country, both consumers and enterprises are getting used to this new normal.

Consumer behaviour has also seen a marked change. According to a recent study by Facebook India and the Boston Consulting Group, 43% of those surveyed expect to cut down overall spends in the next six months, while 79% consumers are not going out of their homes, except for work. The pandemic has also meant a focus on health and wellness; the survey says that more than 40% of those surveyed shall increase spends on health and hygiene over the next six months. This is what Essilor, which is in the business of prescriptive lenses, seems to be banking on.

Spectacles fulfil a basic need, says Maarten Geraets, chief executive officer, Essilor South Asia. “Because, if you can’t see, life is not the same.” While he declines to forecast a number, he believes there should be “solid growth in the industry… that is in high single digits”. His confidence also emanates from the fact that “500 million people in India today still do not have spectacles even though they need them. So, the growth potential in this market is huge,” Geraets, a Dutch national, tells Fortune India.

For the ophthalmic optics major headquartered in France, which supplies to around 35,000 independent opticians around India, the lockdown brought its own set of challenges. The network of opticians was shut and there were no sales. But Geraets sees business bouncing back relatively quickly after the crisis.

Geraets, who joined Essilor in 2018 after a 20-year-long stint at Nestlé, says he is confident because in China and South Korea, business is “back to more than 80% within eight weeks” of the lockdown being lifted. And there’s also good traction in Europe; but while he agrees that economic repercussions would probably follow next, “I don’t think we will be severely impacted in comparison to other industries.”

Geraets—who looks after India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Maldives—has reasons for his confidence. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to lifestyle changes, and that has opened a new segment: working/studying from home. With consumers (including children) spending a lot more time in front of screens, they would seek protection from harmful blue light. “We talk of blue light, but there is bad blue light and good blue light, depending on its wavelength,” he explains. Other protective lenses cut out all blue light. “You need the good blue light as its good for your eyes,” he says adding that the company’s high-end solution Crizal Prevencia fulfils this need. Because consumers are spending a lot of time in front of screens, there is also a lot of strain on the eyes. To relieve the stress, Essilor has a solution called Eyezen, which also takes care of the blue light.

If those solutions were all for working from home, Essilor also has solutions for when people step out, wearing a mask. “When you wear a mask and spectacles, you get a lot of fogging. So, we have a solution called Optifog, which helps you to eliminate or reduce the fogging on your spectacles.” This solution is not new; during pre-Covid times, it was offered to surgeons who wore spectacles in the operation theatre. “This was a small business. But we believe that there’s a big opportunity in selling lenses that help against fogging.” The other category in which Essilor is seeing traction is plano lenses. “A plano lens is a lens without power. It is for people who want to be protected against the virus when they go outside,” Geraets, who has an MBA from the International Institute of Management in Lausanne, Switzerland, explains.

And if people do not want to step out because of the pandemic, Essilor has made available to opticians a home refraction solution, which they can bring to the customer’s doorstep.

Maarten Geraets, chief executive officer, Essilor South Asia
Maarten Geraets, chief executive officer, Essilor South Asia
Image : Essilor

Coping with the fallout of Covid-19

But how did Essilor—which has around 5,000 employees in India and 12 labs where the lenses are made—cope with the fallout of the pandemic? Geraets says there were “three clear priorities”. The first was to look after its employees; the second was to look after the company and make sure that it survives, and the third was to look after their stakeholders—opticians, suppliers, customers, and the society at large. Essilor secured everyone’s salaries, except for some voluntary deferments at the senior management level “to help the company sail through the period”; next, the company trained employees in safety precautions and protocols. And when the employees started coming back to office, they were handed out 25 masks for themselves and their family.

For the stakeholders, Essilor did two things. The first one was a 360° Suraksha package, to protect opticians’ business and protect their staff. Under this, Essilor provided safety kits and protocols for the opticians; products relevant to the time, such as Optifog lenses; new services, such as a home refraction solution; advertising support with regards to the messaging; and help with finances and cash flow situations.

The second was a campaign called #SeeGoodDoGood, which they launched in June. “We are telling our customers to take care of those who look after and take care of your eyes… your trusted local optician, who has had a very bad three months,” he explains. When a customer buys a lens from Essilor, the company will pay out 3% of the money the customer spent in the store to counter staff.

Besides this, Essilor also conducted a lot of training sessions in the past few months to bring opticians up to speed with the new technologies to be deployed. “We have folders and materials that go out to the opticians because your optician is your local trusted man and they are in the better position to take the time and explain this [to customers],” he says.

And to make sure that the company survives, Geraets explains that “agility and the ability to sustain our business and relocate volumes and your supply chain will be key in these very volatile times”. He says that the “extreme VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity] world that we live in today requires us to be extremely agile”. For example, if something happens in Delhi, the order needs to be picked up in Chennai. “We see agility as being a mindset shift that we need to embed in our culture and in the way of working in the same way as speed.”

Experts seem to agree. “Our analysis reveals that only one in six companies emerged stronger in past crises—players who show the agility to reinvent their value propositions, go-to-market plans and business models to address these demand shifts will be the ones that set themselves apart from the pack,” Nimisha Jain, managing director and partner, Boston Consulting Group, had said while releasing the consumer insights survey last month.

Geraets explains that in a post-Covid world, speed and agility are especially important. “How quickly can we see the opportunity? How quickly can we react? How quickly can we order? How quickly can we get the logistics into the country to capture the opportunities as they arise and help our customers? It requires a wholly different mindset… and that is in a way challenging and exciting. Agility, agility, agility, that will be the mantra that you will have to follow if you want to survive in the space,” he says.

Essilor, Geraets says, lives by the philosophy of improving lives by improving sight. “It is especially relevant in these tough times.”

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