Case Study: VisionSpring—Selling glasses to people who need them

Each person has a story in his or her head, a narrative used to navigate the world. The extraordinary thing is that every person’s narrative is different.

A few years ago, I went with a small team to a village in India, trying to understand the challenges that VisionSpring faces in their work.

VisionSpring is a social enterprise that works to get reading glasses to the billion people around the world who need them but don’t have them.

When the typical person only lived to thirty or forty years of age, it didn’t matter that most people will need reading glasses beginning at age fifty. But as lifespans have increased, more and more people find themselves otherwise healthy and active but unable to work—because they can’t read or do close-up work. If you’re a weaver or a jeweler or a nurse, working without glasses can be impossible.

VisionSpring’s strategy is to produce attractive glasses in bulk at a very low cost, perhaps two dollars a pair. And then, working with local traveling salespeople, they bring the glasses to villages around the world, where they sell them for three dollars or so a pair.

The one-dollar difference between the manufacturing cost and the price is just enough to pay for shipping, for local talent, and for the organization to keep growing.

When we set up our table in the village, many people came to see what was going on. It was the middle of a very hot day and there wasn’t much else to do.

The men were wearing traditional Indian work shirts, embroidered, each with a pocket on the front. I could see through the sheer fabric that just about everyone had rupees in their pockets.

So now I knew three things:

  1. Based on their age, many of these folks needed glasses. That’s simple biology.

  2. Many of them weren’t wearing or carrying glasses, so they probably didn’t own a pair.

  3. And most of the people milling around had some money in their pocket. While the glasses might be expensive for someone who only made three dollars a day, each person had access to cash.

One by one, as the villagers came up to our table, we handed each of them a laminated sheet with an eye test on it. The test was set up so that it even worked for people who didn’t know how to read, regardless of which languages they spoke.

Then, the villager with the laminated sheet was offered a pair of sample glasses and took the test again. Right there, instantly, he or she could see perfectly. That’s how glasses work. It wasn’t a new technology for these men and women, or an untrusted one.

After that, the sample glasses were removed and set aside, and the customer was given a mirror and offered a choice of ten different styles. Each was brand new, wrapped in little plastic sleeves. About a third of the people who had come to the table and needed glasses actually bought a pair.

A third.

This mystified me.

I was stunned that 65 percent of the people who needed glasses, who knew they needed glasses, and had money to buy glasses would just walk way.

Putting myself in their shoes, I couldn’t imagine making this choice. The supply of glasses was going to disappear in an hour. The price was amazing. The trusted technology worked. What were we doing wrong?

I sat in the sun for an hour, thinking hard about this problem. I felt like all my work as a marketer had led me to this moment.

So I changed just one thing about the process.

One thing that doubled the percentage of glasses sold.

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