Clear vision

As UK divisional manager of Zeiss consumer and sports optics, Mark Karn is a busy man. His role is to price, market and sell the company’s highly respected range of binoculars, spotting scopes and riflescopes throughout the country, which he does together with the help of two on-the-road salesmen, a service engineer and two UK-based office staff, who run the marketing and admin side. “We are a small team but also have support from head office here in the UK in terms of accounts and admin and from HQ in Germany, so we are very effective,” he says.

Mark KarncopyZeiss, which was founded by Carl Zeiss in 1846, has made its name in sports optics thanks to the development of its top-end Victory range which was launched in 1998 and is aimed at the premium sector of the market. “We have a culture of innovation and are constantly developing new products and new features for all our sports optics,” explains Mark. “We invest a significant proportion of our profits in R&D. But while optical quality is key, in today’s market customers expect additional features. That means we also have to look at things such as aesthetics, feel, design, ease of use and weight, which is a big issue. So there is a lot more to think about now than 10 years ago when it was just about optical quality.”

Developments in optical quality continue apace, however. For many years innovation in glass took the form of changes in the coatings put on lenses. However, with new glass being developed by Schott (a company in the Zeiss stable, which also supplies glass to other optics firms), further improvements have been possible. The Victory FL scopes, which were launched in 2010, showed considerable reduction in colour fringing, while the Victory HT, launched at IWA 2012, additionally reduces the amount of light lost when it passes through the glass. “We have always strived to have over 90 per cent light transmission in our binoculars and our riflescopes,” says Mark. “Our target is 95 per cent light transmission, which in really low light is a noticeable improvement. But this all costs money in terms of R&D, as do things such as the new fibre optic reticles, which we are putting into the Victory HTs.”

Although it has built a reputation as a manufacturer of professional-level products, in 2010 Zeiss launched its mid-range Duralyt line, enabling it to reach a wider market. “We wanted to consolidate our business in light of the downturn in the economy so we developed and launched the Duralyt range with a non-illuminated scope and went on to launch an illuminated version in 2011. They are still high-performance products, they are made in Germany, but they are more of a workhorse and we have saved money by using a standard reticle and not incorporating features like bullet drop compensators.”

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Asked whether the launch of a mid-range riflescope might cannibalise its premium market, Mark says: “No, not at all. We don’t see people trading down from premium to mid-range. What we are doing is bringing the world of Zeiss to more people. The idea is, people get used to and like the Zeiss brand, and should they want to upgrade they will stay with us rather than going to one of our competitors.”

There has also been considerable buzz around Zeiss’s launch of its entry-level Terra range of riflescopes at this year’s SHOT Show in Las Vegas. But Mark is at pains to point out that there are no plans to market and sell this product range in Europe. “The American market is very different from Europe, which is why we are launching this range there, where lower-end products do very well. These would not fit into the UK or European market, which is why they are staying in the USA.”

Interestingly, the company’s sports optics business seems to have made it through the recession unscathed. “The premium riflescope sector has been growing year on year for the past five years,” says Mark. “Despite the downturn we’ve had no real problem within the hunting market, while the nature market and the market for binoculars, which is a bit more hobbyist, has stabilised.”

Mark attributes the strength of the riflescope business to the fact that riflescopes are a tool. “If people buy a good rifle and good mounts, they will then buy a good scope. The hunting market in general wants a product that performs well in low light, as those are the conditions they work in. They won’t cut corners on that as they need to see their quarry, and they view a scope as a tool with a purpose. So business has really been buoyant for both our premium and our midrange products.”

Added to producing superb products is the old chestnut of customer service. “There is no doubt that customers are looking for fantastic customer service from us, and that is what we strive to offer. In Europe, for example, we give a 10-year warranty for both parts and labour, and here in the UK we also have a service engineer so if anything does go wrong we can either sort it out, send it to Germany, or replace it. We look at each case on an individual basis and decide how to proceed in a way that will work for the customer.”

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Asked if there is any truth in low-volume products making hugely high margins, Mark laughs. “In today’s market, where customers are very price-savvy, the trade tends to offer a 10-12 per cent discount off list prices. In fact I expect many of the low-end manufacturers to be making more percentage points on each product they sell than we are, because they don’t have the ongoing costs of research, development and innovation to fund. “What a business like this one has to focus on is producing innovative, high-quality products, offering faultless customer service, and being flexible on price. Yes, I need to make money for Zeiss and the dealer needs to make money, but we also have to find a price the customer is willing to pay.”

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