LOCAL ROOTS, GLOBAL FLAIR SHOWSPIRIT IN ST. LOUIS
BY JULIE FANSELOW
|WEBSITE: erkers.com | OWNERS: Jack Erker III, Tony Erker, Jack Erker Jr. | FOUNDED: 1879 | OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 1902 | AREA: (downtown location): 1,400 square feet | EMPLOYEES:(all retail locations): 15 | TOP BRANDS: NW77th, Derapage, Monoqool, Mainhattan, David Yurman, Cartier, Barton Perriera | FACEBOOK: facebook.com/erkersfineeyewear | TWITTER: @erkerseyewear|
When Charles Lindbergh made his historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, he donned a pair of custom goggles from the Erker Bros. Optical Company. By then, the St. Louis family owned enterprise had already been in business nearly 50 years, selling everything with a lens from cameras to microscopes to spectacles.
But yesterday’s headlines can’t tell the story of why Erker’s Fine Eyewear has seen 20 percent growth in each of the past three years. For that, credit a blend of innovation and business smarts that have helped Erker’s battle big-box and online competition, make its own line of eyewear and even become the U.S. distributor for several high-end European brands.
The first optical laboratory west of the Mississippi River, Erker’s was founded in 1879 by A.P. Erker and his brother, August. Great-grandson Jack Jr. leads the business today, along with his sons, Jack III and Tony. Erker’s calls itself “the oldest optical company in the United States still owned by the descendants of the founding family.”
Erker’s flagship store is in the same Olive Street building it moved to in 1902 in anticipation of the St. Louis International Exposition of 1904. Back then, the location meant lots of walk-by traffic from tourists who wanted pens, postcards and trinkets commemorating the World’s Fair, for which Erker Bros. served as the official photographer. It’s still a prime piece of real estate.
The family eventually turned its focus to the eyewear trade, growing its empire to 17 locations in the St. Louis metropolitan area, many attached to ophthalmology practices. But as insurance companies gained power and chain stores began their rise in the last quarter of the 20th century, Erker’s set its sights on becoming the region’s first destination retailer for high-end eyewear. It’s a passion the family now pursues in just two stores: the flagship downtown location and another in Ladue, which each carry more than 8,000 frames.
The collections run deep: Erker’s stocks 90 percent of the collections from its top brands. “We hate it when people leave, so we really love to have a ton of product,” says Jack Erker III. But affordability is another issue. Erker works on weekends in the stores to see what is selling. “I noticed people trying everything on and loving everything,” but with many frames priced from $500 and up, too many people were leaving to buy somewhere else. “We cringed every time that happened,” he says.
Although Erker’s wanted to make more frames available at lower price points, family members realized that would mean selling many of the same frames big box stores carried — a move they believed would entice the chains to set up storefronts nearby. So the company decided to launch its own eyewear brand, NW77th. Starting with a dozen styles in three colors, the NW77th line has grown to 60 styles. That’s as big as it’ll get, Erker says, though they’ll edit the collection to add new models and retire others.
With NW77th eyewear now sold in about 400 retail locations, the launch has been a win-win for Erker’s and fellow independents. “We like to partner with retailers with like mindsets in different markets,” Erker says. “When we are honest to the companies we sell to, long-term relationships equal a long-term business plan for both companies.”
Erker’s has also opened two niche retail locations over the past three years. Eye Roc, located in the Central West End near three universities, carries cool eyewear at more affordable price points. And last summer, after noticing steady sales gains in sunglasses sales, the company opened Soleil. The sunwear-only boutique is at Plaza Frontenac, where Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue are the anchors.
Erker’s two main stores attract customers who sometimes drive from an hour away — people who are willing to spend for quality and who frequently want more than one pair. To encourage this, the shop offers substantial discounts for extra pairs bought at same time: 20 percent off the second pair, 30 percent off the third pair … all the way up to 50 percent off a fifth pair.
In this environment, Erker says opticians must be trained “to be able to sell and not be scared of high-ticket items,” even if $2,000 for two pairs of glasses sounds like a lot of money. As an optician/salesperson, “you have no idea what customers have in their pocket, and it’s not your job to tell them what they can spend,” he says. “If you don’t show it, they’re not going to buy it.”
1A CASE FOR EXTRA PAIRS: Anytime a customer buys two or more pairs of glasses on a visit, Erker’s includes a custom-made hardwood case with a dozen slots as an extra gift. “It looks empty,” says Jack Erker III. “You’ve got to fill it.”
2 YOU’VE GOT (REAL) MAIL: Direct mail is a promotional winner for Erker’s. The business does four large-format postcard pieces a year to its entire list plus other pieces tailored to client segments: people who’ve previously attended a designer’s trunk show, for example. “You’re getting less mail at home, so people look at it,” says Erker. The company also places full-page ads in highend magazines serving the St. Louis market.
3HISTORIC AND HIP: Take a landmark building nearly in the shadow of the famous Gateway Arch. Add modern curb appeal, including red awnings you can see a block away and vivid window displays, and you have a store that beckons downtown workers and Midwest day-trippers who want the latest and greatest eyewear.
4EURO-VISION: The NW77th line is part of Erker’s wholesale division called Studio Optyx, which also distributes three European brands: Monoqool from Denmark, known for its screwless hinge and use of 3D printing technology; Italy’s Derapage, inspired by a love for all things automotive; and Mainhattan, with eyewear animated by the nickname for the high-rise architecture of Frankfurt, Germany.
5ALL IN THE FAMILY: As Erker’s marks 135 years in business in 2014, the family vibe remains strong. “I love strategy, design and building a business,” says Erker. “The cool thing is that I get to do it with my dad and my brother!”
CHARLES LINDBERGH’S goggles were hardly the last celebrity eyewear sold by Erker’s. The business respects its clients’ privacy, but it does a bit of namedropping on its website, claiming notable customers including hometown rap star Nelly, sportscaster Joe Buck, and actors Will Smith and John Goodman.
AIM HIGH. Erker’s targets a high-end clientele at its main two stores and tailors its marketing — from direct mail postcards to store displays and magazine ads — toward people who want to make individual fashion statements with their eyewear.
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