Seeing is believing
Montreal entrepreneur has a vision for the reading glasses industry

It's a cliche to say that in today's world everyone will go through three or four career changes. But that's what happened to Jerry Gruia. After close to three decades in the apparel industry, Gruia retired to trade stocks online, but soon got bored and began looking for another business. He decided to import reading glasses.

Like many entrepreneurs who travel, Gruia got the idea while out of town.

"I was in a California gift shop and saw a rack of ready-to-wear reading glasses and I began to wonder why we can't buy them that easily in Quebec," said Gruia, president of Seeqa International. "So I made up my mind to look into it."

It turns out that Gruia began asking the right questions at the right time. While reading glasses have long been available in a variety of retail stores in the U.S., in Quebec, only opticians and optometrists were licensed to sell them.

But since July, 2000, regulations have been relaxed, enabling all retailers to market reading glasses as long as they have similar power in both lenses, and are between +0.50 and +3.25 dioptres. Importing reading glasses was a perfect business for Gruia who also knew both distribution and marketing well.

During his years in the "schmata" trade, Gruia traveled around the world close to 40 times. He would start each season watching fashion shows in London, Paris and other European cities, then head to the Orient to give contracts to factories that would manufacture knockoffs of the styles he liked. These would hit the stores at the same time as the original creations.

"I have a good set of contacts all over the Orient in countries like South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan," Gruia said. "I could have imported pretty much anything. But reading glasses were the best opportunity."

About 27 million pairs of reading glasses are sold annually in the U.S., a total that is expected to rise approximately 10 per cent each year for the foreseeable future, as aging boomers increasingly struggle to read the fine print on their medicine bottles and telephone directories.

Although Canadian statistics are hard to come by, Gruia estimates the market to be worth about $75 million a year and by the looks of it, Seeqa is positioning itself to grab a big chunk.

This year, Gruia's second in business, he expects to double revenues to $750,000, and then to triple that next year, as repeat orders roll in from the new accounts. For the time being Gruia is not drawing a salary and is reinvesting all of his profits into the company, to avoid the paperwork and fees that banks typically require to open small business lines of credit.

Gruia imports from a variety of Asian companies who produce according to his strict specifications and many of the models he designs himself.

Seeqa, (the name means nothing, "it just sounded good," said Gruia), does not sell directly to the public It's main market is accessory stores, gift shops, opticians and so on. As he did when he was selling apparel, Gruia prefers to deal with independent operators rather than the majors.

"I like the interaction, the social aspect of running a business," Gruia said. "It's fun to shoot the breeze with mom and pop operators and ask them how their kids are doing. You can't really do that with the major chains. To them you are just a number."

According to one Seeqa client, Gruia's gregarious personal style is a big plus, but in the end the products he delivers are what count,

"We consider ourselves a high end shop, and Seeqa has a good selection of modern products," said Alain Assedo, an optician, who owns a small store on Sherbrooke in Westmount. "Our clients like them, and they now outsell all the other lines we carry."

Beyond the growth generated by the aging population, Gruia also sees new demand for reading glasses emanating from the new styles, design and colours that come out each year.

"They are like fashion accessories," Gruia said. "Women will have a brown purse, and will ask for a pair of brown-rimmed glasses to go with them.

The most recent trend is toward ever-smaller reading glasses that make it easier for their owners to carry and store. Gruia carries several models that fit into cases the size of a big pen. When you pull the glasses out, they snap open, in a manner reminiscent of a switchblade knife.

According to Dr. David Silver, an ophthalmologist on staff at the Jewish General Hospital and a lecturer at McGill University, under the right set of circumstances, non-prescription reading glasses are a perfectly acceptable option.

"For most people whose eyes are equally balanced, and where there is no significant amount of astigmatism, reading glasses are fine," Silver said. "But even those who do use them still have to take care of their eyes."

Silver recommends regular eye check-ups that should be done at least annually once one begins to approach 40, to spot hard-to-catch diseases such as glaucoma.

"Reading glasses cannot damage your eyes," Silver said. "If they are not for you, the worst that could happen is that the eyes will feel a little bit uncomfortable. That means it's time to get your eyes checked out."

As for the future, Gruia is too busy to give it much thought for the time being. He is currently adding functionality to his Web-site so the company's entire catalogue can be put online, and has set up a small digital-photo studio in the back of his offices so he can take the pictures himself. Once Seeqa's cross-country network is firmly established he plans to look south.

"The American market is worth U.S. $500 million a year in sales," Gruia said with a calculating smile. "Just give me one per cent of that. That's all I need."


Photo caption: According to Jerry Gruia, president of Seeqa, the future of the reading glasses sector is considerably brighter since government regulations were loosened in 2000, opening up the retail end.


Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Fed up with retirement, Jerry Gruia decided to look for a business that could take advantage of his skills developed through years of importing, and settled on the reading glasses business.
o The sale of reading glasses to the public has long been restricted to licensed professionals such as opticians and optometrists, however during 2000, regulations were loosened opening the door all retailers..
o Seeqa's target customers are independent stores that sell to baby-boomers, who are entering into the key 38 to 60 age-bracket, in which reading glass use becomes increasingly common.
o Beyond demographics, Gruia sees big industry growth ahead because many people treat reading glasses as fashion accessories and own several pairs.


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