Ep. 65: How Zenni Is Using Technology To Improve Customer Experience with Sean Pate

In each episode of The Playbook presented by FanFood, host Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment and hospitality. We invite industry veterans to talk about how customer expectation have changed in today’s world, and how businesses need to change accordingly for greater operational efficiency and better guest experience.

Ep. 65: How Zenni Is Using Technology To Improve Customer Experience with Sean Pate

Sean Pate, Brand Marketing & Communications Officer at Zenni, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how Zenni has used technology to improve the customer experience and differentiate themselves from the competition. How was Zenni able to overcome the challenges of the pandemic by helping people better shop online? Why is there a huge opportunity in telling your brand story and showcasing what you are all about? How does Zenni value the sports marketing partnerships they have, including the jersey patch on the Chicago Bulls? What role does user-generated content have on their social media marketing and why is it a great way to engage their community?


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  • Ep. 65: How Zenni Is Using Technology To Improve Customer Experience with Sean Pate
  • Ep. 65: How Zenni Is Using Technology To Improve Customer Experience with Sean Pate
  • Ep. 65: How Zenni Is Using Technology To Improve Customer Experience with Sean Pate
  • Ep. 65: How Zenni Is Using Technology To Improve Customer Experience with Sean Pate
  • Ep. 65: How Zenni Is Using Technology To Improve Customer Experience with Sean Pate

Rob Cressy: (00:08)

Welcome to The Playbook presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment, and hospitality. I’m your host, Rob Cressy. And joining me today is Sean Pate, Brand Marketing and Communications Officer at Zenni. Sean, great to have you on the show.


Sean Pate: (00:32)

Rob, thanks for having me, man. Really excited to be here.


Rob Cressy: (00:35)

Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do?


Sean Pate:(00:39)

Sure. So, I manage brand marketing for Zenni Optical. We are the largest online eyewear retailer in the country and really the world. Have been in business for 17 years, really trying to change the game in eyewear pricing and have been doing that for people that were prescription eyewear. Looking to continue to grow the platform where people can save 80% on their glasses by coming to our website and buying direct.


Rob Cressy: (01:07)

So, let’s start with this. Let’s start with customer experience because if we’re just talking about eyewear, Hey, what’s really going to differentiate one brand from another because so often right now you can buy anything from anywhere from anyone. So, why should we care about what you guys are doing and/or look forward to what you’re doing?


Sean Pate: (1:29)

Yeah. Well, the experience is actually a keyword when you think about what you’re doing at Zenni because it’s a very different experience. And if anybody that’s listening has worn glasses and is bought from the traditional means whether your eye doctor or any retailer, you get a very different experience there than you would at Zenni. You’re paying for, extremely paying for a concierge experience from your doctor, examining your eyes, taking you into their retail experience, and having you pick and choose from their wall of glasses and pay usually about 10 to 15 times what the product is actually worth. Even if you’re shopping from any discount retailers or using your insurance, you really getting gouged based on the way the industry has been set up for decades overpricing the product.


So, the benefit that Zenni brought to the marketplace since 2003 is shopping directly on our website using technology tools like virtual try-on as well as a multitude of ways to see the product virtually. And with that, being able to insert a prescription that you do bring from your doctor and find a pair of glasses for you that not only is high in style, but the top level of quality on par with anything that you would ever get from your eye doctor, and be able to do that at about 80 to 90% off of the retail price. So, a pair is Denny’s average is about $40 a pair. Starts at $7 a pair. Most people are used to spending about $270 for their glasses annually. And we think we’re really changing the opportunity for consumers, not only to add to their eyewear wardrobe but really help give some price relief to those people. Certainly in these tough economic times where you’re unable to afford your typical pair of glasses or potentially have lost your insurance due to a layoff or furlough and are now looking for the most affordable option for you.


Rob Cressy: (03:26)

I like what you mentioned about the virtual try-on because it’s a very forward-thinking proposition. I’m curious about the adoption side of things because it’s something that’s going to be new to a lot of different people. How do you guys encourage it to make sure that people can have the best customer experience using the thing that’s going to help them get to what they want to use, but it’s brand new for them?


Sean Pate: (03:49)

Yeah, and that is basically the big challenge that we have in the industry. I think we developed a site long ago that is basically a builder of your own pair of glasses. You bring us your prescription, you bring us you, what is called a pupillary distance, the measurement between your two eyeballs, that’s the key factor in building a lens. And then we present to you over 3000 different frame options and a myriad of options within lenses and add ons and tents and things that you can build out your own pair. So, what we’ve learned in that time is that people that are willing to do the light work and want to save 80 to 90% have had a justified experience. Our challenge now is then he has grown as a brand over 17 years and really is trying to migrate that traditional retail shopper that maybe is okay with the status quo is that we are finding that we need to even streamline and tighten up our shopping experience and our purchase flow even more so to give that novice user something just many a few clicks away from a final purchase.


So, obviously as a D2C brand and an online-only brand, we don’t have the opportunity to give you a physical touchpoint to the product before you buy it. So, the virtual trial which gives you really 180-degree view, like I’m doing with my head here, to see exactly what the frames would not only look on your face but really fit on your face as we justify the frame size via the technology that we have on the site to give you that idea and really as much of a bridge to that retail experience as possible. In doing so, while not perfect, certainly the sacrifice is the price that you would pay at a retailer versus what you would get at Zenni.


Rob Cressy: (05:40)

I have to imagine that after the first time, this just becomes commonplace that when you’ve realized, Oh, I can get this at a lower cost and I can experience maybe not a hundred percent, but a good amount of what this is going to look like, it a lot of the negativity of online shopping away. Cause you think about any time you purchase shoes or for me it’s actually hats. Anytime I’m buying a custom-fitted hat, maybe I’m a seven and a quarter, but they all don’t fit the same and you end up having a large amount of return. So, for a lot of these online retailers, it’s really about free returns is what they’re going to give you. So, Hey, let’s go ahead and do this as opposed to imagine if there was a way that I could virtually try on the shoes or try on the hat. And that seems to be what you’re doing. And if I do that once, we’ve already gotten past the big hurdle so let’s keep that party going.


Sean Pate: (06:35)

Right. And really it is on the consumer side there where we give you a ton of information on the frame size, the width. I mean we often recommend to look at your current pair of glasses, get those measurements so you know really what is comfortable and what fits you as is today and then you can build from there. Because virtual of course is a guide. It’s not going to still feel on your face the way you want it to. Obviously, if things aren’t perfect for you, you can certainly return and we will replace that pair of glasses for you at no cost. But we’re hoping that because of the low, low price point that Zenni offers, this is something that we tend to experience with really low return rates, is that the risk is so low financially that people are willing to jump in and say, let me give this a go. And for $25 I’ve got a pair of prescription glasses. If they don’t work maybe I’ll return them, but maybe I’ll be like, okay, well that’s the trial price. We feel fortunate to be able to offer that. And we have had very, very little bad experiences over the year. Of course, nothing’s perfect, but we always are aiming to continue to advance what you can online. And then as we grow as a brand, find places where people can physically touch the product. Fortunately this year it’s been more of a challenge or an incredible challenge obviously because we’re not touching anything in a lot of ways.


Rob Cressy: (08:03)

So, let’s speak to that a little bit because it’s been a challenge for the entire industry and everyone as a whole, but nothing great ever came from your comfort zone and with challenge comes opportunity because innovation and new ways appear. So, I’m curious to hear from you, what have you guys been doing to push things moving forward or overcome these challenges?


Sean Pate: (08:29)

Yeah. Well, this year of course has been a Herculean challenge for everybody in business and whether it’s an opportunity or whether it’s a sustainability play or whether it’s just a pivot and try and figure it out. Just to give you a little context on Zenni, we started 2020 with an eye on the pandemic in China well before it hit the US as most of our manufacturing is based there. So, we were of great concern about how this was going to affect our business for the entirety of the year, potentially shelf it because of just not being able to produce our product. Thankfully we got the hatches to batten down so to speak in China very quickly. We were not at any risk long term. And what we found is we got through the beginning of the spring and the immediate impact zone of the coronavirus and then kind of going into April is that people had more time, obviously a lot of time as we were all sitting at home to be shopping online. So, you’ve seen that with other eCommerce sites and platforms that are offering a virtual experience.


Zenni has sort of been straddling the line of the online shopper and then the newbie, the curious one that is looking to maybe potentially save money, maybe has heard about the brand. But we really benefited from people being able to spend more time and invest in the shopping experience that we have at Zenni. So, 2020 has provided a unique opportunity for us to introduce the brand and really the growth that we’ve experienced because of this unique set of circumstances has been really remarkable and we’re super fortunate and thankful to be in this position. But, it’s because we have this online mechanism that is virtually pandemic proof we are in a place where people can feel comfortable shopping from home, get their glasses delivered, and again, not have to deal with going to any retailer. And as we know for many months there were no retailers even open. So we were benefiting from that opportunity as well.


Rob Cressy: (10:41)

So, you’re the Brand Marketing Communications Officer. So, let’s dig a little bit deeper into that in terms of introducing the brand because I always like to think about marketing from everything you do as an opportunity to create a positive brand interaction, as well as get someone to look forward to hearing back from you again. So, let’s start with, I’ve never heard from you before, brand new introduction into the brand. What’s your mindset and or communication in terms of how you’re going to engage that customer?


Sean Pate: (11:13)

Well, it starts truly with validation. I mean again, any discount offering is attractive, I think to consumers. Zenni’s had a 695 starting price point for a better part of its entire existence. That also can be somewhat of a deterrent because when you’re talking about something like glasses, people will get to the point if there’s reverse sticker shock, right? And I think that is something that in candor has potentially maybe worked for and against any over the years. So, one of the things that we have tried to do very diligently over the last few years, not only tells our story more, develop our brand and our mission but validate ourselves and the credibility that we have, which exists in spades. We’ve sold 33 million pairs of glasses over the course of 17 years. We will sell upwards of 6 million this year. We have no shortage of people that are flocking to the site and using Zenni every month. But to the masses that may have not heard of the brand had been introduced to it because we have been really targeting customers specifically for many years.


My job is to really introduce any with some credentials, some style credit, and some really ambassadors that are vouching for our product. And we’ve done that with an ad campaign with Rashida Jones who’s a popular actress. You might remember her from The Office and Parks Rec. We have partnered with a lot of obviously professional sports franchises. The Chicago Bulls, we have their jersey patch that holds our brand on it. We signed with the 49ers last year to be their official eyewear and then just this year the Boston Red Sox were the official eyewear as well. So, in establishing that level of credibility, I think it gives a safe harbor for those new customers who may be like, I’ve heard about Zenni or someone mentioned to me Zenni, but you know is this just like a cheap pair of glasses that is worth $7? Or is this just some gold mine of value that I have been missing? And it’s the ladder actually.


Rob Cressy: (13:17)

So, let’s take a little bit deeper into the jersey patch of the Chicago Bulls. We’re in Chicago, I’m a bulls fan. And of course I’ve noticed the Zenni logo on the jerseys. And I really loved the Chicago city jerseys when they came out with those and you could see that logo there. But I’m curious from your perspective. So, certainly, there’s a brand awareness play when we see it. And I remember seeing it for the first time and I’d never heard of Zenni and I’m not somebody who currently wears glasses. So, it wasn’t in my world, but I’m also a marketer. I’m someone who loves branding and communications and fan engagement. And I’m always curious when I see the various patches on jerseys, how the brand is valuing that and/or measuring what they’re getting out of it?


Sean Pate: (14:05)

Yep. It’s a fair question and we get it a lot. For Zenni, it was a massive leap into the sports marketing world. It was really our first partnership there. We jumped in right into the deep end and the opportunity to partner with the Chicago Bulls in as visible of a way as a jersey patch comes along once in a lifetime or at least once in this era. So, there wasn’t a lot of time to really think about what is the long term effects. We were fortunate to be in a financial place that we could afford a partnership like that. And Zenni really had been sort of sitting on his hands for many years and telling its brand story and kind of showcasing what it’s all about. And so through the Bulls as the major vehicle or marketing and in Chicago, and obviously nationwide, even globally because of their fan base, not only have we been able to make our mark relevant as the viewers of the team have seen only through their broadcast games and social media and other places, but if you’ve consumed any bit of the Chicago Bulls in the last two seasons and walked into the arena, you have definitely been introduced to what Zenni has to offer.


From a signage standpoint, we have our only physical store location is actually in the United Center that’s available on game days. And with that, it’s gone from brand introduction to education, to validation and all of those things that Zenni was sorely in need of and again, it was a big bang type of opportunity with a franchise that unlike any other than the NBA, maybe two or three, really gives you immediate credibility when you’re a partner with them.


Rob Cressy: (15:46)

So, you mentioned tell your story more and showcasing what it’s all about. Can you dive deeper into the various ways that you do that? Cause I know you mentioned the ambassador program and that makes complete sense cause it’s great social proof there, but I’m someone who’s a content guy. I love podcasts. I love videos. I love live streaming. I love user-generated content. I love community building because I believe that as a brand if you can build it as a community, that’s something that’s lasting as opposed to just being a transaction.


Sean Pate: (16:19)

Yeah. And I think if you want to use the Bulls as an example since it’s near and dear to you, I mean we’ve had all of those elements within our partnership and you know, again, we’ve come through two seasons with them now. The upside of it, we’ve parlayed a lot of their players, Zach Levine, Coby White, Ryan Arcidiacono to help develop a men’s style collection that we rolled out last season. And that was a nice parlay between visible athletes wearing our frames off the court as we called it, to give us that touchpoint. Not only from style credit but fashion as well and somewhere in the middle of the functional versus the kind of developing an I wear wardrobe which is important to us. From a community standpoint, we launched a program called Framing The Future, which is in the Chicago market working with the Parks and Rec District. That was done last December and is going to be our ongoing campaign with the Park and Rec team in concert with the Bulls to help promote eye health education and eye protection. Because one of our major initiatives outside of affordable eyewear is eye care and protecting your eye health, namely from harmful lights like blue light which has become very, very prevalent, and a hot topic of conversation. With many players in the industry offering a solution for blue light blocking. We have a product called Blocks that we have used and marketed heavily through the Bulls. Obviously, it’s got a nice literal connection to basketball, blocks. We have blocks of the game. We have a promotion called Blocks For Blocks where we give out a number of pairs of free Blocks glasses for all the shot blocks that the bulls have in a given season. We did that last year with about 3,500 pairs.


This season, obviously that got abruptly halted at the end of the season. But we just had Coby White out there taking those same Blocks and distributing them out to his hometown and the park district as our ambassador. So, through all of that and of course, there’s the social content that the Bulls help us on, we really look to make it a very holistic kind of presentation to Bulls fans. And again, one of the reasons we wanted to work with them is because they have such a deep fan base. Despite maybe their lack of performance on the court as of late they have devoted fans, rabid fans, one of the largest social media followings in all the sports. And that’s what really attracted us in terms of that. It’s far more than a local marketing play at this level.

Rob Cressy: (19:11)

So, you mentioned developing the brand and mission, and I want to see if you could help us get tactical on that because one thing that I’m very big on is writing things down. Whether it’s a social media strategy, developing your brand or the mission for it, how did Zenni come up with developing the brand and the mission so that someone listening right now could say, wait for a second, I don’t currently have this, maybe I can implement this on my end?


Sean Pate: (19:39)

Well I mean, it certainly predates me. Again, the company has been at this slowly for 17 years, but it’s rooted in sort of the mindset of our founders who are entrepreneurs, but they’re scientists and they’re not necessarily business school people and those in a typical entrepreneurial fashion. But they are both immigrants from China and Hungary and wanted to really democratize a product that has for decades been overpriced to the consumer. And that’s easy to say, hard to execute. Their mission is rooted in altruism. And so one of the things that they did and just establishing what their mission was is that we want to offer glasses at, I would say near cost, but something that still is a business model that is sustainable. That’s what they did. And they achieved that by developing a manufacturing model that was able to support that and is something that is a massive undertaking and investment that would be hard to advise your average startup to do.


It’s impressive to get really in the weeds of how they put that into motion. And over the course of these many years has paid off in spades. But, in terms of just establishing that brand mission as we evolve it, we continue to see the use case be a relevant year in and year out. While we might have been sort of an industry secret 10 years ago, that people finding any just through a Google search of inexpensive eyewear or low-cost glasses, now has become even that much more relevant in our day and age today where so many people are out of work. We’re going to continue to endure highly stressful economic times even if we get through this pandemic in the near term. Something that is mission-critical to your day today, you need to have affordable access to. That’s sort of where it’s rooted in is giving people the affordability, truly affordable ability to not only find a pair of glasses but if you’re a means, find a dozen pairs of glasses. Because you can do that and switch them out just like you would, your hat, your ties, or whatever accessories in your wardrobe.


Rob Cressy: (22:01)

Is the opportunity to create high-quality content and fan engagement that much greater because of the low price point? So, if we’re going to think about our brand image or quality, just because you’re low price doesn’t mean that it’s not high quality, but if we all of a sudden, what’s the first thing that I do anytime I find a new brand? I jump on Instagram and I’m like, Oh, let’s see. Because if you had a hundred followers versus a hundred thousand or a million followers, now we’re in different stratospheres and then I see what you’re doing. And you’re like, wow, that’s polished and buttoned up. So, is that a great opportunity for you to double down on your customer experience and fan engagement by saying, listen, our brand is polished, even though we are a low-cost provider.


Sean Pate: (22:46)

Yeah, very much so. And that’s one of the things in talking about social media and content, our user-generated content is probably one of the most impressive things that I’ve seen in all of the social media eras. I mean, people love to give us amazing photos with our glasses on them. Not only are Zenni users very proud, but because of our diversity in style and our diversity of customers and looks, and sort of our personality which is actually very key to how we present ourselves, a very notable industry competitor that shall remain nameless, but is sort of positioned themselves as very high society, upper crust, wall brand, high-end retail with maybe a lesser price. Whereas we are every man and woman’s pair of glasses, but something that you can wear a new way.


So, social media content is key to how we represent ourselves. And ironically, as much as we’ve invested in sports marketing, we’ve done that a lot lighter in terms of featuring the athletes that we do our everyday customers just because sports aren’t appealing to everybody. We love it because we live it, but it’s got such a broad audience so it’s a great vehicle to be getting our messages out there. But certainly, our users like to make themselves our sort of unofficial models if you will, and then do that for many years.


Rob Cressy: (24:21)

I’m curious about your process for managing user-generated content. So, being a brand of high exposure, certainly, if I see you on the Chicago bulls jerseys, like, wow, you might get a lot of user-generated content. And I know there’s a lot of brands out there that believe in community building and user-generated content, but now you create a new opportunity or challenge in terms of managing said user-generated content. How do you guys go about that?


Sean Pate: (24:49)

Yeah, it’s a laborious process. We have a system, we have third party technology in place to really vet these images. It’s really near and dear to the way we present our brand. We not only use it on our channels, but we use it in our out of home marketing as well. So, that system, while not directly managed by myself, is definitely something that is used with some level of high touch and management because there’s so much that comes in. We actually parlayed it being on our social media channels. If you get any listing on Zenni, you will see the particular style where available featured on UGC. So, you start to see how it looks on a particular customer. While they’re the female, male, or whatever size or race they may be, it really gives you a nice kind of landscape of what the glasses could look like on you outside of the virtual try-on. And then of course you’ll see reviews in there of the pair depending on it, but that has come in on such high volume that we’re really fortunate that people get excited about taking pictures and calling us out in their social media.


Rob Cressy: (26:08)

And the reason why you should love user-generated content is that everyone loves to see their name in lights. So, when you guys post the picture of someone rocking your glasses, guess what they’re going to do. They are going to tell every single person they know they are going to share that with everyone in that is the best word of mouth that you can get rinse and repeat.


Sean Pate: (26:30)

A hundred percent. And I mean, really that is how Zenni has established its momentum as a company over the many years. I mean, we’ve dove into brand marketing over the last few, but truly Zenni’s word of mouth has carried it to the place that it was even five years ago which is a highly successful business. Very anonymous and brand, but the word of mouth continued to drive more and more attention to what we’ve been offering. I think our Facebook page has 1.5 million followers to it and that’s been our sort of our richest place to work with people. And we’re growing very quickly on Instagram and Pinterest and YouTube and all the panels that are very popular there. But the Facebook page has really I think exceeded the size and stature of our company.


Rob Cressy: (27:22)

Sean really enjoyed Jamie with you. Where can everybody connect with you and Zenni?


Sean Pate: (27:26)

Really simple. The website is Zenni.com. Zenni, like Jenny or Denny’s and it’s Zenni.com. And when you get there you’ll find an easy process to not only try on any pair that you like but also be able to shop and check out really quickly and that’s growing and changing by the month. So, we’re hopeful in the next early part of 2021, it’s going to be the most simple process to buy glasses online.


Rob Cressy: (27:55)

And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. And I’ve got a simple task. I would like you to send us a picture of yourself. You can be rocking glasses if you want, but we don’t really care about that. We believe in user-generated content as well. And we want to show you some love. So, all you gotta do is send us a picture with you smiling, and we will show you some love back. And as always, you can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodondemand. On Instagram @FanFoodapp or on LinkedIn. And you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy.