IOLLA, the Glasgow-based eyewear retailer, plans to expand into the north of England in the next six months and has recruited a new head of technology to enhance its digital offering.

The company, which was founded by University of Strathclyde graduate Stefan Hunter and two other eyewear entrepreneurs in 2015, closed its three showrooms in Glasgow and Edinburgh between March and July but saw its online sales climb 250 per cent during lockdown.

“Showrooms previously made up 85 to 90% of our sales,” Mr Hunter said. “That went to zero overnight. But our online sales grew by 250% during lockdown. Coronavirus has accelerated the online shopping habits we’ve seen growing over the last five years.”

Mr Hunter says Iolla’s strategy has always been ‘digital first’ and he compares the future of eyewear retail to tech giants like Amazon, Uber and Apple.

“Our intention is to roll out another showroom in a northern English city in the next six months, so that a lot more people can experience the brand,” Mr Hunter said. “We see our stores as less of a shop and more of a showroom and experience centre. Traditionally, a big eyewear retailer might have 600 branches in towns and cities across the UK. Whereas a brand like Apple has just 20 stores in the UK. We want to go down more of an Apple model.

“So for example, an experience centre in central Manchester might access 1.5 million people. They can both shop online on our platform and come in to our showroom. Customers can buy online, but have the peace of mind that they can pop into a showroom for an adjustment or to try on a pair of frames. It’s a digital-led strategy, with the showroom still at the heart of it.”

Iolla – which means sight in Gaelic – launched a ‘virtual try-on’ app on its site in April. This allows customers to see themselves in different frame styles using the camera on their device.

“We literally got that app on our site within seven days from inception to delivery,” Mr Hunter said. “A lot of industries have seen five years of innovation happen in five months because of Covid.”

The new head of technology will help to “rebuild” all of Iolla’s front end and back end systems and its website over the next 12 months.

“We’re going to use technology to better our service for our customers,” Mr Hunter said. This will include introducing order tracking data and a ‘360° customer view’, where account holders can log in to see their prescription, frame measurements, order history and other details.

An online appointment system for showroom visits and free order delivery – to reduce footfall in store when customers came to collect spectacles – were among the changes Iolla introduced to ensure Covid-compliant shopping. Mr Hunter said the business expected to keep some of these innovations in some form or another.

The company currently employs 38 and is recruiting for two new showroom staff and a product designer.

“We had to place all our retail team in furlough and about 50% of our head office team,” Mr Hunter said. “But I’m really proud that we’ve brought every single one of them back into regular hours.”

Iolla’s glasses are designed and assembled at company’s headquarters in Cambuslang, with the frames manufactured in Shenzen, China.

Other Covid-compliant measures introduced since lockdown include a limit on the number of customers who can be in a store at any one time. All frames are cleaned with a special solution between try-ons. The company’s showrooms are in West George Street and Finnieston in Glasgow and Stockbridge in Edinburgh.

Mr Hunter said he and his co-founders, Brian McGuire and Graeme Manson, had self-funded Iolla’s growth so far, with the help of loans, and had no plans to raise external capital.

Brexit was “another thing to think about”, he said, but hoped the government would do what it could to minimise disruption.