Minnesota optician creates destination
boutique unlike any other
STORY BY HEATH BURSLEM
“I’ve never been one for coloring inside the lines,” says Nikki Griffin, recalling her mindset as she founded her own optical after 15-plus years, on and off, working for others as a licensed optician. When it opened in Oakdale, MN in 2012, EyeStyles Optical and Boutique promised the “freedom of choice” she’d aspired to.
Describing her early ambitions, Griffin speaks more in terms of a “vision” than a business model. She had plans, but fate steered her in an unexpected direction. “The clinic I worked in closed. When I asked to buy the fixtures, they told me to take whatever I wanted. Um, okie dokie…” She grabbed what she could and repurposed it for her place in suburban St. Paul.
EyeStyles Optical and Boutique
OWNER: Nikki Griffin
AREA: 1,200 square feet
EMPLOYEES: 2 part-time
TOP WATCH BRANDS: Coco Song, Dolabany, Etnia Barcelona, Etnia Kids, Louis Luso Jr., Proof, Rudy Project, TC Charton, TC Charton Kids, Tomato Glasses
EyeStyles’ first incarnation cheerfully sold eyewear alongside garden signs and salsa — the vestigial “Boutique,” which served its purpose, creating a draw in a store opened cold with no doctor. In 2016, Griffin relocated to build the “chic dispensary” she’d always wanted, in a spot with better visibility. “Our strip mall is anchored by a busy sandwich shop. It brings day-to-night foot traffic right by our door.”
These days Griffin sticks to eyewear, and it’s working for her. “Business is great and we are profitable! It is a struggle to be the little guy, but we believe in the grassroots power of old-school opticians combined with good coffee and conversation.” She keeps her antennae up. “When I opened, I used all the demographic research my business plan had to offer to build a frame mix. That went out the window when I built a reputation for wearing and merchandising exciting colors and designs. Never underestimate your crowd. They're more receptive than you're giving them credit for.”
EyeStyles’ interior could be described as rustic industrial. Barnwood display frames, illuminated by metallic rail lighting, surround an assemblage of fun, even surrealist touches: vintage photos (with stories attached), steamer trunks, a wallpaper accent wall above a faux fireplace that Griffin says, “sums up our tongue-in-cheek attitude to a T.” She wanted a clean design “with glam accents. I am a girly-girl but I have always loved industrial aesthetic. I had a 76-year-old man go home to get his wife and bring her back to the store to see the design. That was the biggest compliment ever.”
The curios aren’t mere eye candy. “We are P.O.P. free. We let the fixtures become a base for props that are relevant to the display.” A confessed “frame junkie,” Griffin steers clear of mainstream brands. “I don’t carry big-box product. My staff have autonomy to say yes to pretty much any request. We have all been in a situation where you know someone has the ability to do something for you but won’t. Our customers know that if there is a way, we’ll find it.”
The eyewear mirrors her own taste to a degree, but staff and customers are listened to. “TC Charton was just added. The quality is superlative; the unique fit features great for our demographic. Dolabany is a huge supporter of the independent.” There’s a following for Coco Song, and “Etnia Barcelona is a workhorse.” The emphasis is on independent brands with their own natural markets. “The exclusivity they offer helps build my brand as an independent.”
Griffin is always looking for vendors who can drive traffic through store locators. This includes vision plans. “I view them as another ‘store locator’ and spend a lot of time educating people to calculate the value of their plan. I think we have one person a year who wants what their insurance covers with no upgrades.” All marketing bases are covered. Griffin cross-markets with her neighbors. “And we are building a cohesive brand using car graphics and social media. Complacency is a killer and consistency is key.”
EyeStyles’ three-frame LifeStyle Packages are its signature. Single-vision lenses run as low as $499; progressives are $899. Package customers are asked for a referral. “I wanted to disabuse people of the notion that you have to sacrifice service and quality for price.” She negotiated pricing with her lab based on three-pair sales. “It’s been wildly successful.”
While she appears to be allowing herself a period of consolidation, Griffin is not the type to rest on her laurels. Time for an in-house lab? “I may add finish work in the future, but my relationship with my lab gives me ultra-competitive pricing.” A second store? “I would love to. But I never want to grow so big or quickly that we lose the culture we have created.”
It’s hard to imagine someone like Griffin allowing that to happen. “Now that we have a beautiful optical,” she says, “it’s more important than ever to ensure our passion for eyewear is more than window dressing. It’s about building a picture album of your life and style. It’s about having fun and encouraging people to express themselves.”
FINE STORY: A DISTINGUISHED HERITAGE
Gracing EyeStyles’ walls are photos from a remodeled home in St. Paul’s historic Rondo district. “We adopted the Townsends, and enjoy telling visitors what we know about them,” says Griffin, who tried unsuccessfully to return them to the family. “The photos are a rare glimpse into St. Paul’s history. We have a full album including a large photo of Martin Luther King Jr. taken when he visited St. Paul. We believe they are ... of the Rev. CT Townsend and his wife Edna.” Learn about the Rondo neighborhood here: invmag.us/101701
PHOTO GALLERY (11 IMAGES)
5 Cool Things About EyeStyles
1. STUDY HALL. Griffin runs a study group for employees and aspiring opticians during off-hours. “Our little group is designed to boost understanding, discuss difficult and challenging prescriptions, learn dispensing tricks and sales techniques. We use different resources including TOPS dispensing manual, Laramy K videos, and the System for Ophthalmic Dispensing among others.”
2. TOMATO GLASSES. EyeStyles is one of just 30 or so U.S. stores selling these innovative frames for babies and young children. Griffin memorably likens fitting a child to “wrestling a greased pig.” But, she hastens to add, “Once you make a pair that fit, and stay on their little noses, the reward is incomparable. Special needs kids struggle exponentially more with fit issues.” EyeStyles reached out directly to the Korean firm to carry them.
3. DECORATED DOC. EyeStyles’ doctor, Sara Mabie, OD, received a well-deserved nod recently when the store was named “Best Place for an Eye Exam” in a local paper’s readers’ choice poll. Mabie’s skills include fitting gas permeable contact lenses. She’s also a dab hand with kids. “I enjoy doing pediatric exams and am so happy we can offer eyewear that fits so well,” Dr. Mabie says.
4. BUNYAN BOARD. Griffin decided something had to be done about the “largely one-note” merchandising that afflicts the men’s segment. “We work hard to emphasize unique shapes and color schemes in our men’s selection, as well as offering a 90 piece XL men’s display which is branded with local folk hero Paul Bunyan.”
5. ONE FOR THE BOOKS. The lab EyeStyles uses offers a discount on second-pair sales within 30 days of the original invoice. Griffin sniffed an opportunity: “We created a bookmark; the back offers the recipient 50 percent off another pair of lenses, has a use-by date and a space for the price. The bottom has our logo on one side and the name of the referrer on the other. Our patient gets a discount and refers someone all in one marketing piece.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 edition of INVISION.