Cubitts founder Tom Broughton on the importance of physical retail and using tech to create the perfect specs
Tom Broughton launched his Cubitts spectacles brand online in 2013 from the kitchen table in his flat on Cubitt Street in London’s King’s Cross.
A year later, in 2014 he opened the first Cubitts store on Marshall Street in London’s Soho, and it quickly became apparent that bricks and mortar retail was the way forward for his products and relationship building with his customers.
As well as offering a curated range of spectacle shapes for men and women, Cubitts offers made-to-measure and bespoke services that allow customers to have existing frames made to their exact measurements. Customers can also design their own entirely unique frames from scratch, and Cubitts offers professional eye examinations, as well as a free on-site repairs service.
Launching a spectacles business was something that had been building since Broughton’s school days. He said: “The genesis of the company is when I started wearing glasses. I think anyone who started wearing glasses when they were at school has a very special relationship with spectacles, and that’s certainly true for me. From that moment, I’ve just always thought that they are such an amazing thing. Not least because they sit in the middle of your face and everyone sees them, they allow you to see.
“I just thought there was a real opportunity there to create a spectacles brand that people engaged with and actually enjoyed, while hopefully changing perceptions from a product that people just need, to a product they really want. That laid the foundations for Cubitts.”
After the Marshall Street store opening, other stores in London quickly followed as the brand gathered momentum very quickly, but retailing is something that Broughton has very much learnt as he’s gone along.
“We had a year as a purely online business, then we opened the Marshall Street store in Soho. There is no other place on earth like Soho. It’s one of the rare places that manages to combine workers, domestic and international tourists, celebrities – everyone’s in Soho, and everyone goes to Soho at some point. It always felt like the obvious place to me where we’d have our first store.
Having initially walked round Soho, Broughton thought that there would be no way he could afford to open a shop there, despite a clear love of the area. He commented: “On my stroll, I got to Marshall Street and saw this beautiful little corner site on the corner of Ganton Street in a Georgian building that looked almost like a beacon, an oasis emerging from the desert!
“There was a pop-up in there so I realised it was available, and I spoke with Shaftesbury, the landlord, who were brilliant. They really helped us financially and they also really wanted to support us as a brand. We originally opened it I think with a one-year break built in, as I was so paranoid about being stuck in a five-year lease and it not working. I remember thinking at the time, if it was a real horror show I could live in there as well and rent out my flat, so I could basically cover the costs of the store. Thankfully I didn’t need to do that! Those times were exciting but extremely stressful.”
Broughton said it was like his first “retail petri dish”, as he had no idea how to run retail never mind how to do a store fit-out, and he’d never even worked in retail.
“We also had a tiny budget, and we used a funny little group of tradesmen to put the shop together. We found vintage bits of furniture and vintage light fittings, and made an inordinate amount of mistakes. But, as the old cliché goes, that’s how you get better. I think it probably took us five stores to get to the point where we actually could say “we know what we’re doing now”. Now they are one of the things I’m most proud of really, in terms of the store designs, concepts and fit-outs, because every store is unique.”
After the Soho opening came a store in Borough, then one in King’s Cross on the Caledonian Road, close to where the brand was founded, which later closed after opening one in nearby Coal Drops Yard.
Now with eight stores in key locations in London, including Spitafields, Notting Hill, St James’s, Seven Dials and Hampstead, the first Cubitts store to open outside of London came in 2020 in Brighton, unfortunately just as the pandemic struck.
With one-to-one service and physical retail so important for the brand, the pandemic and subsequent forced store closures during the various lockdowns spelled a very challenging 18 months for Broughton, his brand and his now team of 90 staff.
“We literally signed the lease for the Brighton store the day that Covid kicked in,” Broughton said. “It was that crazy week before Boris had first addressed the nation on TV. It was getting really weird, and there was no one in the streets. In hindsight the Brighton store has worked out well, but part of me thinks it was a very bold thing to do.”
A store in Cambridge in summer 2021 subsequently followed, and store number 11 is soon to be added in the Victoria Arcade in Leeds, with other key cities firmly on the radar for new stores going forward.
Another exciting development came in the summer, with a Beta mode launch of a new revolutionary Cubitts app, using the company’s own HERU technology, which scans and creates a 3D model of a customer’s face with detailed optical measurements.
“It’s available for our customers to try in all of our stores at the moment, but we’re planning to do a full roll out of it early next year,” commented Broughton.
“We want to try to use technology to change the way people buy glasses. For most people, the process has not really changed for about 300 years. You go to a physical place, someone looks at your eyes, gives you some tests and a bunch of numbers that you don’t really understand, and then you just wade through the hundreds of options that are presented, not really knowing what you’re doing. And most glasses are designed for one average face.
“There’s no real sizing, things aren’t in any kind of order, it’s literally trial and error. It’s slow, confusing and people just don’t enjoy it. But what we want to get to is a point where you use the technology by scanning your face and it takes all of your measurements in a few seconds. You don’t have to really think about it, and it then relates those measurements to a frame and it can recommend frames through the data and machine learning with an informed approach – identifying individual faces and which frames are best for each. You can also customise endlessly, changing colours and details.”
When a customer is finally happy with their choice, they can just press “go” and it gets turned into a three-dimensional cad drawing and then gets produced. According to Broughton, it could get to the point where everything is made to order. “There’s then no wastage and people get a custom product for the same price as something off the shelf,” he added.
It’s a real gamechanger that Broughton is clearly excited about – adding another dimension to a business that now has over 100,000 customers, predominantly in the UK but also in some 120 other countries, with grand designs to become the finest spectacle company in the world.
Listen to more insight from Tom Broughton on our In Conversation podcast in partnership with Klarna. Listen on demand here.