Specsavers co-founder Dame Mary Perkins was at the forefront of opticians shaking their tired image to become fashion-led businesses. She tells Jennifer Creevy how her chain has grown

Very few retailers could say that they have never been forced to close a shop because it was not making money. Yet Specsavers co-founder Dame Mary Perkins claims just that. “We have a constant stream of relocations, but we’ve never closed a store because it was unprofitable,” she says.

Perkins, who set up Specsavers in 1984 with her husband Doug, explains that they set out from the beginning only taking stores in the heart of local communities, rather than in highly rented shopping centres. “Every store has to be profitable and, if a site is not right for us, we simply won’t do it,” she says.

The strategy has paid off – Specsavers is expected to hit sales of£1 billion next year and has amassed a global portfolio of more than 1,000 stores across countries such as the UK, Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Spain. Perkins and her husband sit at number 158 in The Sunday Times Rich List.

Perkins is keen to point out that the success of the business is also down to its partnership approach. Each of its stores operates as a joint venture between the company and the individual optician. “The partnership allows the optician to get on with the day-to-day running of the business and not have to worry about the back-office work such as IT or marketing,” she explains. “And, that way, our customers get the expertise of the individual opticians, plus a powerful brand behind the scenes.”

Perkins met her husband in the 1960s at Cardiff College, where both were studying optometry. She remembers what the profession was like at the time: “Opticians’ were dusty old places hidden behind brass plaques and Venetian blinds,” she says. “And regulations meant opticians’ had to be listed under their surnames, so they were very stuffy and old-fashioned.”

In the 1980s, regulations changed and Specsavers broke the mould. “We were the first to have a showroom displaying frames, which was just unheard of at the time,” she says. “We wanted to knock down all the walls in the industry to make opticians’ fashionable, not just places associated with eye care.”

Price point was also key. “Part of breaking through the barrier was to make the frames affordable,” says Perkins. “That way, customers can afford to come more often, have more choice and we are able to change ranges in keeping with the fashion.”

As market leader in the UK, Specsavers works hard to keep prices down. “We aim to be affordable and honest, so in all our offers, the price will include lenses,” she says.

Specsavers has also been quick to respond to the credit crisis. Earlier this year, the entry price point on selected frames was dropped from£30 to£25. “People just don’t have as much money in their purses at the moment and there are those who will find this year very difficult,” she says. “And we don’t want those people to struggle with their old Jack Duckworth-style frames.”

Specsavers has also dominated fashion in the opticians’ sector. The face of Specsavers is style guru Gok Wan, presenter of Channel 4’s How to Look Good Naked. “He’s absolutely crazy, but great fun,” says Perkins. “And a great role model for us; he is probably the most famous glasses wearer in the UK and also a style icon.”

Fashion creeping into the industry is one of the biggest changes that Perkins has noted. “Glasses have moved from being something kids get teased about at school to being a fashion accessory,” she says. “And while we get new styles in all the time, we’re moving towards having two big collections a year to coincide with the spring/summer and autumn/winter fashion calendar.”

Perkins says she wants “more of the same” in the future. And that means growth. By the end of this year, Specsavers will have as many stores internationally as it does in the UK – more then 700 – and its hearing centres are also going global.

Such growth has meant Specsavers is getting too big for its Guernsey home. Already the largest employer on the island, Specsavers has had to spill out onto the mainland and is opening a further office in Nottingham later this year.

Perkins has no plans to retire just yet and is adamant that keeping the business private has been pivotal to its success. With her three children all working in various parts of the business, even if she does retire, it is likely to remain a family-run business. And if her children are anything like Perkins, they will be sure to keep their competitors playing catch-up.

IN FOCUS

Age: 1944
Lives: Guernsey
Family: married to co-founder Doug, with
three children
Likes: walking, cycling, looking after the grandchildren

CAREER HISTORY
1967: founded Bebbington and Perkins
Opticians, Bristol
1980: sold Bebbington and Perkins Group
1984: founded Specsavers Optical Group, in Guernsey; opened first Specsavers store in Bristol