A friend to the independent
As White Optics celebrates 50 years, sales director, Tim Peterson, tells OT about the company’s journey
22 July 2022
What is White Optics?Tim Peterson, sales director for White Optics (TP): White Optics was started in 1972 by Tom White and the company has gone from strength to strength. We've focused in the last few years on trying to be the best supplier at entry level products. For people with NHS practices, we are a go-to company for that kind of product. The company is 50 years old this year.
What is your approach to product positioning?
TP: Entry-level products aren’t all we do, but we are very good at it. I don’t think companies can survive just focusing on entry-level, because margins are very tight and we want to be competitive.
It's important that we have collections within our ranges that are middle-of-the-road in terms of price. There are a few agencies that we run, such as Dario Martini, which is very Swarovski crystal orientated, and we have a German brand, Marc Cain, which moves into the designer realm of frames. Then we have some of our own labels too.
We've tried to be friends to the independent. We get asked the question every day: “How many do I have to buy?” Our answer is always: “You're the customer, you take whatever you want.” We know if you have a full row of frames then the presence is much better and the sales are better, but customers can take whatever they want. We have no minimum quantities.
Three facts about White Optics
- The company began in 1972 as Tom White Optical
- In 1997 a sister company was formed, Company Funk Designs, for the distribution of the Dario Martini, Mac Cain, and JCB brands
- White Optics launched a new collection in honour of its 50th anniversary this year.
How are you seeing the sector recover following COVID-19?TP: The first thing that affected us was that the job of a salesperson is to visit practices, which was made very difficult by the closed door policies. That's been a challenge but is getting easier. People want to see new products and frames, and so on that basis we are getting more people asking us to come in, often before practices open in the morning, or in the evening. We seem to have been on a fairly steep upward trajectory since the country slowly started to get back to work.
We did a lot of work in lockdown supporting opticians that were working remotely, for example, when Mrs Jones would break her glasses and practices couldn't get replacements anywhere. We had our phone lines directed to our mobile phones. Every single day of lockdown I spent at least half an hour standing in a queue at the Post Office posting up to 12 single frames to various places around the country. Dave White, my colleague, was going into the office and doing exactly the same thing. We really looked after people in that time and that’s come back to us. A lot of people have remembered what we did for them.
How is the company recognising the 50th anniversary?TP: We’ve been working on a new collection, so we now have the Tom White 50 Original Collection. They have a vintage sort of styling and interest in the frames has been absolutely fantastic. From that perspective, it's been a big success.
What are the company’s main ambitions for the next 12 months?TP: Just to carry on growing as we are. We trebled our warehouse size a few years ago. Particularly with entry level products, people expect to be able to pick up the phone on a Tuesday and to have everything they've ordered there on the Wednesday. We've got 99% of our frames stocked at the moment, which is pretty amazing.
Where it all began
TP: Tom White, who retired 15 years ago, built the company up from his garage in County Durham. Our offices are still in County Durham now, though it's a lot bigger.
He was so brave in his day. Tom got on a flight to China and went around finding factories, ordered a load of frames and had to pay for them upfront. He didn’t have a clue what he was going to get. The frames all arrived at his house and were stored in his garage. He would load them into his car on a Sunday night, then pop all around the country and come back on a Friday night with a fistful of orders, no frames in the boot and they would start again, with his wife Margaret loading the car.
That was how it all started. It's amazing, really, for somebody to be as brave as that. So many people now go out to China relatively easily, but it wasn't easy in those days.