Suburban Milwaukee shop creates niche in catering to toddlers, tweens and teens
BY DANIEL P. SMITH
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of INVISION.
LOCATION: Delafield, WI
OWNER: Paula Hornbeck
AREA: 700 square feet
DESIGNER: Creative Business Interiors
TOP BRANDS: Miraflex, Etnia Barcelona, Liberty Sport, Lafont and Matisse
FACEBOOK URL: invmag.us/eck
Paula Hornbeck can scratch this one off her bucket list. In 2014, seven years after launching Eye Candy in Delafield, WI, Hornbeck opened Eye Candy Kids, a toddler, tween and teen-focused eyewear boutique, expanding the brand’s presence in this affluent, 7,000-resident Milwaukee suburb peppered with independent shops and lakeside homes. “I’m literally living the dream,” Hornbeck says.
After hopscotching the country for three decades working at eyewear shops and private practices, Hornbeck returned to Wisconsin, her childhood home, and opened Eye Candy in downtown Delafield in 2007.
“I worked for some great people, but a lot of them were content to keep the status quo. I thought we could do more and be more as eyewear businesses,” Hornbeck says. “I realized that if I wanted to do it my way, I needed to do it myself.”
A former storage space for the adult-serving Eye Candy, Eye Candy Kids opened in 2014 offering quality eyewear to this underserved market.
Inspired and empowered by her husband, Tracy, Hornbeck pushed fears aside. She took an entrepreneurship class at a local community college; assembled a comprehensive business plan detailing her vision, marketing and financials; and shopped the proposal to local banks. When Hornbeck secured the funding and a location, Eye Candy took flight.
Initially, Hornbeck peddled luxury eyewear to adults, though she maintained long-term interest in the idea of a children’s shop.
“I focused on the higher-end adult market and didn’t want to spread myself too thin by addressing children’s as well,” she says. “If I was going to do children’s, I was going to do it right.”
But Hornbeck paid attention as a swelling number of customers inquired about children’s eyewear. “I learned just how underserved the children’s market was,” Hornbeck says. “When I’d get asked about children’s eyewear, I wouldn’t even know who to recommend.”
And with that, her ambitions of opening a children’s eyewear shop took on added importance.
“There was a major need for quality children’s eyewear,” Hornbeck says, “and I couldn’t let it go on like that. I wanted to become the solution, not part of the problem.”
Hornbeck initially considered creating a separate children’s eyewear store elsewhere in Delafield, but she ultimately made the calculated decision to open Eye Candy Kids within her existing space to minimize start-up expenses. (Both shops are on Milwaukee Street in downtown Delafield, a popular shopping destination with colonial-style architecture.)
Kid-friendly eyewear displays are part of the Eye Candy Kids equation.
She transformed Eye Candy’s 700-square-foot storage space into a dynamic children’s optical boutique, sending a collection of paperwork, holiday goods and POP materials to an off-site storage facility. While each store has its own exterior entrance, a connecting hallway unites the spaces, together with a common working area for staff who regularly travel back and forth between the two stores.
“I’m paying the same rent regardless and that made it easier to accept the cost of starting a new business,” Hornbeck says.
Serving infants to “almost adults,” Eye Candy Kids embraces a decidedly whimsical flair, creating a children’s eyewear playground rather than relegating its youth collection to a corner the way most eyewear retailers do.
The shop’s designer, Milwaukee-based Creative Business Interiors, presented a plan inspired by — yes — a candy story in Australia. A basic black-and-white color scheme is energized with dynamic pops of color, including lime and mango hues that echo the grown-up Eye Candy shop.
But it’s the frames and displays that really bring Eye Candy Kids to life. Playful images around the space mimic children’s art, and open shelving sports frames sitting among kid-friendly props like wooden alphabet blocks. “It’s a fun, contemporary space, but has enough sophistication that it appeals to adults as well,” Hornbeck says.
The shop offers the Milwaukee area’s largest selection of children’s eyewear with close to 500 frames in stock in addition to sports glasses and swim goggles. All are within easy reach for kids, and Hornbeck and her colleagues — Andrea Ruane, Robin Roudebush and Melissa Szajna — often settle on their knees and speak to kids eye to eye as they help their youngest customers.
“Kids deserve to see and touch, too,” Hornbeck says, adding that she favors frames that are both flexible and durable because “undoubtedly, kids’ glasses will hit the ground.”
While Hornbeck says it will take a while for more customers to find Eye Candy Kids and discard the two-for-$99 promotions so prevalent in the children’s marketplace, the shop continues to capture momentum.
“It’s an education process,” she says. “But there’s no question we’re filling a marketplace need, creating our niche and gaining fans at Eye Candy Kids, and I can’t tell you how rewarding that has been.”
Five Cool Things About
EYE CANDY KIDS
(L to R) Eye Candy’s Melissa Szajna, Paula Hornbeck and Andrea Ruane
1. GREAT GLASSES PLAY DAY: Eye Candy Kids participates in Great Glasses Play Day each May, an event celebrating spectacled children. “Sometimes kids who wear glasses can feel different, but this day celebrates how unique they are,” Hornbeck says.
2. COLOR CHAMPIONS: Kids love color — in their clothes, their bedrooms and their eyewear. While many parents fret about colorful frames, Eye Candy Kids champions colors and patterns. (The shop was on top of last fall’s camo trend before the look took off.) “Whether adults or kids, you have to know your customers,” Hornbeck says.
3. REFERRAL EFFORTS: Without an eye doctor on site, Hornbeck leans on area optometrists and ophthalmologists for pediatric and teen referrals. When Eye Candy Kids first opened, Hornbeck personally visited local eye MDs , including one pediatric doctor, to introduce her shop and provide literature for patients. She also sent an earnest letter to local optometrists to frame herself not as a rival, but as a resource, particularly for those tough-to-fit kids.
4. THE TWO-STORE EFFECT: Having two stores side by side creates synergy. Child-toting parents discover the adult store for their eyewear needs, while staff at the grown-up shop often ask adults if they have children or grandchildren who need eyewear. “Either way, it’s easy to plant that seed,” Hornbeck says. “And the plan, of course, is for children to grow up with Eye Candy Kids and then graduate over to the adult store.”
5. FREE POPCORN: Family-friendly eyewear shops know that weekends are when sales really get popping. That goes double at Eye Candy Kids, where a nostalgic popcorn popper runs every Saturday.
THE KID WHO REFUSED TO WEAR GLASSES
It was the kind of moment that inspires, a memory that continues to motivate. A toddler boy shunned the thought of glasses, fussing and frowning and refusing to hide his discontent. Each time, Eye Candy Kids optician Melissa Szajna put a pair of glasses on the youngster, he immediately removed them. Szajna remained patient and reassuring for both child and parent. “I even bribed him with a sticker to take his measurements,” Szajna says.
The toddler was still grouchy at his follow-up appointment, consistently pushing his new, nearly indestructible glasses to the floor. But each time, Szajna scooped up the glasses, smiled and gently returned them to his face. Days later, the boy’s mother called the shop with a progress report: the boy loved his eyewear. “There was so much gratitude and appreciation in her voice,” Szajna says.
For Hornbeck, the tale is a compelling reminder of why she opened Eye Candy Kids. “Glasses don’t have to be like wearing orthopedic shoes anymore,” she says. “If we have variety and color, we can make kids feel good about wearing glasses and that they’re actually cool to have.”