One of the UK’s best-known young entrepreneurs has accused the biggest opticians on the high street of trying to drive him out of business.
James Murray Wells, the founder of Glasses Direct, an online retailer of spectacles, claims that Boots, Specsavers, Dolland & Aitchison and Vision Express, are leading a campaign to stop prescription glasses being sold over the internet.
Glasses Direct sells over 150,000 pairs of spectacles every year at prices up to 90 per cent lower than found on the high street.
The company’s customers take an eye test in any high street opticians and then, using the prescription they receive, buy glasses on Glasses Direct’s website. But the General Optical Council (GOC), the quango which regulates the industry, has said that internet sales of glasses could be harmful to the public.
The Companies Committee of the GOC, which includes representatives from all of the major high street opticians, has said that it believes internet sales of glasses could pose a risk to “public safety”. The chairman of the committee is Brian Carroll, who works as a consultant to Boots Opticians.
The GOC has so far taken nearly two years to debate the legality of selling prescription glasses on the internet but has not yet set a date for making a ruling, despite receiving extensive legal advice on the matter.
“This situation is bleeding us to death,” Mr Murray Wells said. “There will come a point when we take the GOC to court to force a ruling on this matter. Until we receive clarification we can’t seek a major round of venture capital funding or float the business.”
He did seek election to the GOC but was rebuffed after Doug Perkins, the managing director of Specsavers, in a circular, asked his staff to rally behind a candidate from one of the company’s branches.
Mr Perkins wrote, in a memo dated 15 September: “If the votes end up being spread across several candidates with the interests of hands-on, professional practitioners at heart, the vagaries of the ballot may result in the election of councillors who set out to act directly against everything that we hold dear.” In the letter, he specifically mentioned that Mr Murray Wells had expressed his intention to stand for election.
Mr Murray Wells pulled out of the election when it became clear he would not win a ballot.
Spokesmen for Specsavers, Boots and Vision Express refused to comment on the allegation that they were trying to drive Glasses Direct out of business by influencing the GOC’s position. Dolland & Aitchison could not be reached for comment.
They have argued in the past that an optician should be present for the fitting of glasses. If this opinion is enforced by the GOC, it would, in effect, make internet sales illegal.
The GOC said in a statement: “The General Optical Council’s priorities are to protect the public and promote good eye care. The Council does not represent industry or commercial interests. Our role is to ensure people are free to buy spectacles and contact lenses where they choose, provided that proper safeguards are in place.
“We are working at the moment to make sure that opticians and retailers have clear guidance about how they can sell spectacles and contact lenses safely within the law.
Mr Murray Wells has the support of James Gray MP, who earlier this month wrote to Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health, to request her support on the matter.
He wrote: “Mr Murray Wells is very concerned, and apparently with good reason, that there is effectively a conspiracy amongst those selling prescription glasses in the high street to prevent the potentially explosive growth of internet sales.”