Atlanta boutique finds success in an upscale mall
BY JESSE BURKHART
This article originally appeared in the February 2015 edition of INVISION.
Wendy Salle knows the value of having good neighbors. That’s because her business, Salle Opticians, is located where you normally wouldn’t find an upscale eyewear boutique — inside a shopping mall. Then again, Phipps Plaza isn’t your ordinary shopping mall. It’s a high-fashion oasis situated in the affluent Buckhead district of Atlanta, boasting upscale retail outfits like Saks Fifth Avenue, Giorgio Armani and Versace. Her shop is currently sandwiched between Gucci and a restaurant called Twist that sells an 8-ounce center-cut filet for $34. For the type of clientele Salle Opticians caters to, it’s good company.
Salle says that in many optometric businesses, “You walk in and see a big reception desk, and it looks very clinical. This is walking into a boutique, and we do [primary eyecare] as well.” When Salle Opticians moved to Phipps Plaza in 1994 from downtown Atlanta, the store looked positively avant-garde — and it still feels modern two decades later. Rising above an open, inviting layout is a wooden canopy ceiling structure with embedded lighting, the hallmark feature of the shop. There’s no glass separating the customer from the merchandise, so most of the frames are accessible for customers to touch and try on their own. It’s the kind of environment that helps the independent shop emphasize the idea that eyewear is fashion.
“Our forte is lines that you don’t see all over town,” she adds. “We work hard on finding the latest and the greatest. We stay on-trend with clothing fashions, with colors that are coming out for the season, and by going to international shows.”
Being in the South presents a challenge, she notes, because the region’s “fashion tends to be a little bit behind.” So if she wants to stay ahead of the trend curve — as well as the competition — then overseas eyewear scouting is essential.
“Because we shop internationally, we know what’s coming” and can share those discoveries with clients, she says. “It’s important to me to separate ourselves from everybody else.”
Running a full-service eyewear shop is a constant balancing act for the jet-setting Salle, a licensed optician of 28 years who understands the importance of offering a complete eyecare experience. Although the foundation of her business is selecting fashionable eyewear that her customers won’t find anywhere else in Atlanta, she also strives to be sure her customers see well with their stylish glasses.
Salle has a staff of six full-time employees, and each brings a different brand of expertise to the table. Among them are a full-time optometrist, Dr. Amber Zaunbrecher (known to her patients as “Dr. Z”), who specializes in difficult prescriptions and contact-lens fitting. Licensed opticians Bob Reynolds and Brandon Zimmerly are a complementary one-two punch, as the former is known for his technical savvy in the lab while the latter doubles as a trend-spotter. Salle Opticians also teams with Fred Curtis, a master jeweler with 35 years of experience. He’s based in Los Angeles but works with Salle to do custom designs, drawing upon his knowledge of Swiss and German techniques to decorate frames with diamonds, sapphires and rubies.
Blending fashion with function has proven to be an effective prescription for success at Salle Opticians. The business now generates more than $1.5 million in revenue annually, and revenue has increased every year (with the exception of 2008, when the economy went haywire).
But even after decades in business, Wendy Salle is thinking boldly about her business’s future. Salle Opticians is working to connect with customers via mobile technology and social-media marketing. “I’m just now coming to realize that marketing has changed — it will never be the same again,” says Salle, noting that the shop’s website recently received a mobile-friendly revamp. And in even bigger news, Phipps Plaza is renovating in 2015, which means Salle Opticians will get a brand-new storefront — with the mall paying all moving and build-out expenses. Salle relishes the change, for after 20 years in one space, it’s a chance to be rediscovered by people who seek the latest hard-to-find, high-fashion eyewear in Atlanta.
Five Cool Things About Salle Opticians
1. DIY Display: Because Salle isn’t a fan of the standard plastic tubes used for displaying frames, her staff custom-made their own tubes, each of which consists of a piece of stovepipe, padding and a suede-like material. “The beauty of it is that you’re not putting expensive frames in a piece of plastic tubing, and it holds the frames so you can see them very well,” she says.
2. VIP Treatment: The boutique doesn’t run many promotions, but it does reward big spenders for their loyalty. Customers who drop at least $5,000 at the shop within a year become eligible to join its VIP program in which they receive about 10 percent of the money spent on future purchases. That money is transferred to a “VIP” card, which can be used any time.
4. Meet the Master: So where in the world did Salle find an artisan as experienced and talented as Fred Curtis? She says a sales representative made the introduction. With appreciation and admiration, she proudly says, “Fred has perfected the art of taking an eyeglass frame and adorning it with whatever you wish.”
5. Social Savvy: Social-media marketing has become a priority for Salle, who says consultants convinced her that customer reviews are the key to attracting new clientele. So when any customer leaves a complaint or criticism on the boutique’s Yelp page, she replies with an apology — even if it’s not really her fault — and a solution to the dilemma.
F I N E S T O R Y
➤ “When one gentleman came in to pick up his glasses, he brought me a book called Raving Fans. So I thanked him, even though I didn’t know what the book was about. Then he said, ‘I’ve read this book. I give it as a gift because small business owners really need to know how to produce raving fans, and I want you to know that you’ve just made one.” So I read the book after he left, and it was so true. It said that the only way we can survive as independent businesses is to keep the customers we have and make them raving fans. That really stuck out to me.”
B E S T I N S H O W
➤ In August 2014, Salle opened another eyewear shop in Atlanta’s Buckhead district called Vue Eyewear that she says is intended “to bridge the gap age-wise and market-wise.” The new store is located in a strip plaza and offers lower price points, a combination aimed at attracting customers who aren’t inclined to shop for premium eyewear in an upscale mall. “We are marketing it totally separately from Salle Opticians,” Salle says. “It is a different concept, so it is like starting a company all over again.”
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