This article originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of INVISION.
LOCATION: Atlanta, GA
OWNERS: Dr. Gavin Cohen and Mark Meyberg
YEAR OPENED: 2015
AREA: 2,500 square feet
DESIGNERS: Cohen and Meyberg, with Square Feet Studio
EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time OD plus 4 full-time employees and 1 part-time employee
TOP BRANDS: Karoo
FACEBOOK URL: facebook.com/karoo.lifewideopen/
INSTAGRAM URL: instagram.com/go_karoo/
On first glance, people who step into Karoo might think they’ve entered an adventure travel store — or even a luxury wilderness outpost. Reclaimed wood and African scenes cover the walls. Maps and compasses dot the tables, and there’s talk of passports. But eyeglasses delicately hanging from the ceiling and artfully lined atop shelves eventually bring things into focus at this new Atlanta optical destination.
Karoo takes its name from a semidesert region of South Africa, which is fitting since that nation is the homeland of Karoo owners Mark Meyberg and Dr. Gavin Cohen. Working with full-time, in-house optometrist Dr. Lina Barry, they’re creating an optical oasis that stands apart with its blend of affordable, one-of-a-kind eyewear and special attention to eye health.
Like Warby Parker, Karoo has strong lifestyle branding and sells only its own line of eyewear. But unlike the Internet giant, Karoo is strongly rooted in one physical location (for now, anyway), and a manifesto on its website makes it clear that vision health comes first here: “We believe in face-to-face meetings,” it says. “That’s why we want you to come into the office and experience what we can do for your eye health in person.”
At $69 for an eye exam (Optomap retinal scan included), easy online exam booking and all single-vision complete pairs priced at $149, who’s to argue? Of course, at that price point, many customers are apt to want more than one pair, so Karoo makes that easy, too. Once customers come in for the exam and initial eyewear consultation, they’re eligible for a Karoo Passport — an insider’s ticket to shop and order more styles online.
The passport is a brilliant means of encouraging multiple pair sales and accommodating people’s desire to shop online. But given Karoo’s location in the up-and-coming Ponce City Market, customers may well seek return trips to check out the selection in person. The market complex in a former Sears, Roebuck & Co. build ing in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward is filling up fast with chic neighbors that range from national chains like Lululemon and Williams-Sonoma to local and regional indie retailers, plus two dozen restaurants, bars and snack shops. It’s certainly a hot place to “See and Be Seen,” which is one of Karoo’s taglines.
The other motto is “Life Wide Open,” a phrase intended to instill the thrill of adventure, the search for beauty and a promise not to settle for anything but the best. Meyberg and Cohen worked with Square Feet Studio of Atlanta to design a space that captures this attitude, as well as the lure of the desert region that inspired the Karoo brand.
Well-worn leathered seating invites people to relax amid vintage accessories like authentic binoculars and travel cases. A custom table has steel legs that resemble those of an African elephant. The branding extends to custom eyewear cases made of cork, and to a logo that incorporates both an elephant and the small hills — called koppie — that rise up from the African plains. Even the orange motif pays homage to the Karoo’s arid landscapes.
Cohen and Meyberg, who have more than 40 years of optometry experience between them, designed Karoo as a place to get eye exams with state-of-the-art equipment and an on-site lab. “Our goal is to inform patients and customers about glasses and eye health — to be a full-fledged practice,” Cohen says.
Once the eye exam is complete, customers can take a trek through Karoo to hunt for the perfect pair of frames, with colorful styles to fit every taste and face, all curated and created by Meyberg and Cohen, and all bearing the Karoo brand.
And the Karoo brand is the only line the store sells. “Being in the industry for so long, we knew what people want,” Meyberg says. There was never even a thought to carrying other lines, he adds. “We’re totally independent. No one is telling us what to do.”
But the house line runs deep, with frames for every flavor of geek chic. (From the website: “Nerd out in your Karoos. We definitely nerded out creating them.”) Styles are named for the exotic animals of South Africa, including kudu, bateleur and oryx.
And although browsing is welcome, help is always nearby. “Our associates have great instincts on what would look great on people,” Meyberg says. “We prefer to have staff who have optical experience, not just salespeople.” Karoo has sales reps in the community at large, too, with a corps of Brand Ambassadors giving Karoo good word-of-eye exposure all around Atlanta.
With Karoo on target to hit its first-year sales projections, Cohen says expansion is “just a matter of time.” He notes that they’ve had interest from doctors in other states who have multiple locations and may want to bring Karoo to their market. “I always thought price, quality and service could never exist together,” he adds. “That’s what’s so cool. We have all three.”
Five Cool Things
Top left to right : Mark Meyberg , Calvin Pegus, Bottom left to right : Dr. Gavin Cohen, Dr. Lina Barry and Ramona Sandro
1. ONE PRICE PLAN: No matter how colorful or exotic, every single-vision pair of glasses is $149. (Polarized Rx sunglasses cost $249 and progressives cost $299.) All pairs also come complete with AR and scratch coatings plus a one-year, “no questions asked” warranty on the lenses.
2. Yes, it’s a small world: Even though Mark Meyberg and Dr. Gavin Cohen are both from South Africa and had worked in the optical industry there, neither had met the other until they came to the Atlanta area and eventually got into business together.
3. Local love: Although Karoo has expansion aims, “We want to be known as local to the Atlanta market,” Meyberg says. “It’s our birthplace. We’re Atlanta boys, even though we don’t sound like it.” The Karoo Brand Ambassadors program is another way the brand enhances its local ties.
4. NO NEED FOR INSURANCE: Karoo accepts many insurance plans, but most customers are private-pay — not surprising, given the reasonable price points.
5. Time for your close-up: Karoo found an ace copywriter for its website. For example: “Our in-house optometrist, Dr. Barry, will begin your exam with both an evaluation of your prescription measurements and a picture of your retina. Don’t worry; she’ll make sure to get its good side!”
Karoo's Brand Ambassadors
The theme of exploration and adventure stretches to select Karoo customers known as Brand Ambassadors, who represent for the new line by wearing their Karoo frames with pride as they move about their high-profile lives in Atlanta. Ambassadors include local radio personality Mara Davis, marketing guru Bill Kaelin and other entrepreneurs and leaders in the travel and social media realms.