Glasses Direct founder launches new challenger brand

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The founder of online spectacles retailer Glasses Direct has launched a new venture to challenge the high street giants by selling digital hearing aids online.

James Murray-Wells has teamed up with experts in the hearing industry to launch HearingDirect.com, selling digital hearing aids ranging from £99 to £249, in competition with high street retailers Specsavers, Boots and Amplifon.   The 2005 Young Gun said the average price for digital hearing aids on the high street is £1,100. He is hoping to shake up the industry with the self-service site, as GlassesDirect.com has done in the optics sector.

Murray-Wells launched Glasses Direct while studying at university in 2004, at the age of 21, selling prescription glasses online at a fraction of the price of high street rivals, starting from just £19 a pair.

He estimates that the firm, which was backed by Index Ventures, Highland Capital and Acton Capital Partners to the tune of £10m in a second funding round in 2009, has since saved UK consumers more than £40m.

“I wanted to try and do something that was just as disruptive as Glasses Direct,” he told Growing Business.

“The hearing aid industry might not be particularly fashionable, but it is extremely interesting from an entrepreneurial perspective because nothing has changed for a long time. It's ripe for shaking up a bit and replacing with a new business model.”

HearingDirect.com enables customers to complete a hearing check online, then choose and order their own hearing aids. All products have a 30-day money back guarantee and users can email any queries to a team of experts.

The site sells devices that have been pre-programmed by audiologists, which Murray-Wells says are sufficient for most of the 8.2 million people in the UK suffering from mild to moderate hearing loss.

These people often do not need a bespoke programmed hearing aid fitted by a registered dispenser on the high street, which pushes up the costs, he argued, adding that retailers are often making significant margins on the products.

“For the eight million people out there with mild to moderate hearing loss who are being sold a bespoke device, it's like being sold a Ferrari when they only need a really good Ford Mondeo,” he said.

“We're doing without expensive overheads and big profit margins in favour of the Glasses Direct 50% gross margin model, and we're passing those savings onto the customers.   “We say come online, check your hearing yourself, learn about hearing aids and choose and buy your own. If you don't like it, send it straight back to us.”

As with Glasses Direct, he is expecting to run into opposition and has already heard rumours of protests to the Hearing Aid Council.

“Their response has been very negative. We had a lot of opposition to Glasses Direct; our suppliers at one stage stopped doing business with us because they were under pressure from the big names. I hope that it doesn't come to that with Hearing Direct.”

Well known for gutsy marketing and PR stunts in the early days of Glasses Direct, he insists he will not go down without a fight and hopes both his brands will go on to become household names.

“I'm totally prepared to roll out the heavy artillery on behalf of Hearing Direct as well,” he said.

© Crimson Business Ltd. 2010

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