Lithuania’s Fielmann continues the best traditions of the Fielmann founder, eyewear consumers’ Robin Hood

  • 2023-01-26
  • Linas Jegelevicius

There has never been a shortage of good eyewear and opticians services in Lithuania, but the German Fielmann AG, which entered the Lithuanian opticians market in 1998, has grown big muscles and become one of the market leaders here.

"As in any business sector, perhaps the biggest challenge has been the introduction of the new brand to the market. Especially when there was already more than one player in the market. Objectively evaluating our performance, today we are the market leader in optician services in the Baltic States. We have 17 optician salons in Lithuania and 11 in Latvia," Gintautas Kersnauskas, the founder and CEO of Baltoptik, UAB which manages the Fielmann optician network in the Baltics, told The Baltic Times Magazine.

According to the entrepreneur, although the company, which is a partner of Fielmann AG in Lithuania, is not the largest in the two Baltic countries in terms of the number of showrooms (Doors), it receives more customers than any other optician with twice or even three times as many showrooms.

"Prior to our partnership with Fielmann, we were not new to the opticians segment - we produced and supplied spectacle lenses to foreign countries, and we also operated a number of optician stores in Lithuania. As we were already professionals in this field, the German corporation became interested in our experience and entrusted us with the introduction of the Fielmann brand and the development of its activities in Lithuania and Latvia," recalls G. Kersnauskas.

The success story of Fielmann dates back to 1972, when Günther Fielmann, a renowned optometrist in Germany, opened his first opticians’ shop in Kukshafen.

"In the 1980s, Germany reimbursed spectacles for the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, the choice was very small - just a few simple pairs of frames, because at that time glasses were just a simple prosthesis for seeing better. Nobody thought about their design at the time. Moreover, people who wore glasses reimbursed by the state were identified as disadvantaged. To reduce this social stigma, Fielmann offered to create a collection of free frames to give patients, covered by health insurance, more choices," said Kersnauskas.

The noble idea of Fielmann's founder sparked a revolution in the country's opticians' market and allowed the company to reach a turning point after nine years of operation.

"Instead of just a few glasses frames, this resulted in more than sixty - free but stylish, high-quality eyewear models that differed in design and texture. The disadvantaged could feel much freer and more at ease," added Jurate Kersnauske, an eyewear trend expert and  Mr. Gintautas Kersnauskas’s wife, who is also Communications and PR Manager for the Fielmann opticians' chain in the Baltics.

By increasing the choice of free frames tenfold and freeing the disadvantaged persons from the trap of societal attitudes, Fielmann was even nicknamed "the Robin Hood of spectacle wearers".

The first Fielmann showroom in Germany, founded half a century ago, would be proud of itself - today, the Fielmann chain has more than 930 opticians in 16 European countries. Among them are the recently joined Fielmann chains in Spain and Slovenia, which are currently operating under different names, but which also carry the Fielmann collection and offer all the company's guarantees.

"Indeed, the Fielmann Corporation is today a major player in the European optical stores market, with the ability to work directly with global manufacturers of spectacle frames and lenses, without the need for intermediaries to intervene. This allows us to guarantee one of the company's core principles - the low price guarantee," emphasises G. Kersnauskas. - Our customers decide for themselves how much they can and want to spend on glasses, and it is our duty to provide a range of different price solutions that best suit the needs of their vision.

The free Fielmann eyewear frames collection is currently available in every Fielmann optician's showroom, but it is no longer tailored just for people on welfare benefits. It has a range of high quality and exclusive spectacle frames for women, men and children.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Fielmann salons in Lithuania and Latvia were closed for a very short period of time, but even when they were reopened, people were afraid to leave their homes, according to the entrepreneur: "I won't hide the fact that we didn't have many customers."

However, we have taken advantage of this unpleasant situation to renovate our showrooms - Fielmann's showrooms have become brighter, more spacious and much more comfortable for customers. 

"In parallel, we have reviewed our internal customer service and production/logistics processes, which have enabled us to serve our customers even faster and more efficiently. This period brought a lot of positive changes, which allowed us to secure our leading position," said G. Kersnauskas.

To my observation that in the empty streets of Vilnius and Klaipeda during the pandemic, the only thing that caught my eye were the glittering and shining Fielmann stores with modern exteriors, which can be easily seen and remembered even by the short-sighted, Kersnauske replied with a smile, "Indeed, we have a very unique interior and exterior. It is a considerable investment. Not only in terms of money, but also in terms of input of time, ideas, and a lot of heart to make it comfortable not only for our customers, but also for our employees so that they could feel at home."

UAB Baltoptik's immediate plans include expansion into the regions, but according to the entrepreneurs, especially in Lithuania, this is hampered by a lack of specialists. Neither in Lithuania nor in Latvia is there a single training institution for opticians.  Optometry training has recently been taken over by Vilnius University, while, according to G. Kersnauskas, the specialty has long had a solid foundation in Latvia. 

"There are no plans to expand to other Baltic countries, we still have a lot of untapped potential in Lithuania and Latvia," said the founder and CEO of Baltoptik UAB, which manages Fielmann's opticians chain in the Baltics.

In addition, as the company aims to have stores only in the best and most frequented locations in the central parts of towns and cities, this should always be taken into account when planning to open new showrooms.

"Our large Doors, which operate not in the biggest shopping centres but on the main streets of major cities, have stability in the sense that they are on their own premises. In this way, we are not influenced by rental price hikes and we can provide our customers the low price guarantee of the glasses that we sell," - the entrepreneur revealed.

For Gintautas Kersnauskas, one of the premises belonging to the company in Kaunas, at 83 Laisves Avenue, is particularly valuable - it has been an optician's salon since 1936 and has continued to operate until this day.

"It is very important for us to ensure such historical continuity and to see a whole new generation of our customers grow up," he said.

He lacks high quality optician market research in the Baltics, so he and his team have to gather information on the market developments from different publicly available sources.

"Constant monitoring of the market pulse allows us to secure a leading position, for example, I monitor salary changes in our sector on a monthly basis, thus ensuring that our employees are in an excellent position to earn the most," emphasised G. Kersnauskas.

Although I did not use a special algorithm to measure which word G. Kersnauskas used most often during our interview with The Baltic Times journalist, there is no doubt that one of those words is "our employees".

"Today, we have more than 200 employees in Lithuania and Latvia. We have a very low turnover rate, most of them have been working for more than 10 or 20 years, and we only look for new employees when we plan to open new Doors," the entrepreneur stressed.

Since no training institution trains opticians, the company has taught them everything, but he has identified a few key requirements for employment in Lithuania and Latvia.

"First of all, an employee has to love his or her job and customer service, secondly, he or she has to have a constant curiosity for innovation, and thirdly, his or her values have to match with our company's values, which are the guiding principles that we follow every day," said G. Kersnauskas.

The Kersnauskas refer to all of their employees (approximately 300 of them are employed in Lithuania and Latvia) simply as the family.

"You might not believe it, but we know each of our employees well - what their worries are, what they like to do in their spare time and so on. Whenever I think of our employees, I like to say that they will love our customers as much as we love our employees, so we give our employees all a lot of attention and care," adds J. Kersnauske.

"If you go into the opticians’ business with the intention of making a lot of money, that's not the right attitude. Just looking from the side, you might have the wrong idea that the eyewear business is easy and generates a great income, because for the most part, eyewear is a necessity, even in times of hardship. The price of glasses is not high in Lithuania or Latvia compared to other European countries, and people in our countries change their glasses every five to six years, while in Western countries they change their glasses every two to three years. Therefore, in comparison, our profit margin is modest and our costs are high," said G. Kersnauskas.

According to him, the whole complexity of the business lies in the fact that it is not just about selling a product, but also about medical services and the production of glasses.

„This means that the cost of doing business is very high, because the investment is not only in buying goods, but also in manufacturing equipment and setting up showrooms. And, of course, in the ongoing training of your staff so that they can become professionals in their field. There is a real art in maintaining a low price guarantee without discounts and paying the highest salaries on the market to your employees," said Mr Kersnauskas.

He is convinced that it is unlikely that all of this could be achieved without a great love for what he is doing, without seeing the meaning in what he is doing. 

"It's like a hobby or a way of life," concludes G. Kersnauskas.

His wife, Jurate, agrees: 'In this business, glasses have to be a part of you, a way of life and a style. For me, it is. That's why I find the whole of our business so very sweet and a big hobby, not a job." 

The entrepreneurs agree that in these turbulent times it is quite difficult to plan even a year ahead, "We are never very quick in our decisions," says Gintautas, but in the coming year UAB Baltoptik will continue the renovation of the old design showrooms and will gradually enter the regional towns with new showrooms. 

In addition, for customer convenience, Fielmann will offer several IT solutions and a new type of eye care service.

"Although digitalization has not bypassed the opticians market - a number of services have been attempted to be moved online - experience has shown that it is not possible to bring all processes online so that your client could see comfortably and well with glasses. Live contact with the customer by a professional optician will remain relevant in the future," G. Kersnauskas believes.