Philly entrepreneur sells it all, including city-themed eyewear
BY CASSIE OWENS
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 edition of INVISION.
Clifton Balter likes to say that as a child he was always selling something: “baseball cards, window washing, tie-dye T-shirts. As long as it was legal.” At age 12, when he needed his first pair of glasses, his mother, Joyce, took him to Philadelphia-area chain Glasses Galore. The owner, Mark Miller, asked Joyce on a date, and the rest is family history. Miller became Balter’s stepfather, Balter has been working in optical shops ever since — and in 2003, he opened his own.
The original InnerVision was around the corner from the shop’s current home in one of Philadelphia’s ritziest neighborhoods, Rittenhouse Square, with a decor melding modern minimalism on the main sales floor with Victorian Italianate glamour upstairs. The street-level showroom displays models from independent brands including Oliver Peoples, l.a. Eyeworks and Barton Perreira. Balter says that with a focus on smaller brands for eyewear shoppers who seek different looks, “independent retailers can live outside of the shadow” of the big chains.
While its main-floor parlor at first glance can seem small, InnerVision stocks 2,500 frames. Upstairs, a dedicated showroom for Philly EyeWorks (Balter’s eyewear line; more on that later) greets customers, leading them to InnerVision’s optometry practice. See-through acrylic chairs arranged in the waiting room offset the stained glass windows, fireplaces and elegant boiserie-style paneling. There’s a basement, too, with winding stairs descending to the eyewear workshop. Splotches of dye stain the wall. With time, it might start to resemble a Jackson Pollack, but not yet.
Admittedly inspired by the hit eyewear line l.a. Eyeworks, Balter launched Philly EyeWorks last summer. The line includes 12 models in an array of customizable colors and sells through its own website (PhillyEyeWorks.com), including a customer-friendly try-on-at-home service that lets shoppers test up to four frames at home before confirming an order. Designs for the Philly EyeWorks line have locally inspired names: one is called Franklin; another is called Yo Adrian. (The Love Park more closely resembles the glasses Talia Shire wore in Rocky, but the Yo Adrian is more popular.)
In-store business still “dwarfs” online sales, but Balter sees the website emporium as a chance to experiment to with other streams of revenue. His enthusiasm about the line’s potential is high. “It’s got so many possibilities,” he says. “All these years of selling other people’s brands, it’s a chance to possibly do it my own way.” And with a $149 price point — which includes single-vision lenses with AR, anti-scratch and UV coatings plus shipping — the line is well-positioned to compete against other online sellers who don’t hand-finish their products the way Philly EyeWorks does.
Balter continues to build his team, adding staff as he finds the right people. “I really love being here and doing this, so I need (my team) to have eagerness, willingness, commitment, grace, skill, intelligence,” he says. “It’s not a shortcut kind of place.”
Thanks to the shop’s downtown location, both tourists and city-dwellers can drop in and seek same-day service. Balter works with three other opticians, a customer service representative and on-site lab manager to meet demand with service standards inherited from his stepfather’s shops: same-day (if not one-hour) turnarounds on single-vision lenses. And with Shamir’s “In No Time” lab just three blocks away, it’s possible for InnerVision to offer speedy turnaround even on progressive lenses.
After all, success as an independent eyecare professional means superior service and forging personal connections. “Some people care about price. Some people care about lenses. Some people care about delivery time. You add it all up, and you remember it,” Balter says. “You go into these stores where the people don’t care. You were there yesterday, and they don’t remember you. That’s impossible for me.”
2. FAMILY CONNECTIONS: Balter’s brother, Jason, is in the eyewear business as well, working with their stepfather at Glasses Galore. And Balter’s wife, Emily, is also an optician and helps him run InnerVision.
3. COOL LOCATION: Rittenhouse Square, where InnerVision is located, is also home to swank eateries, fashion retailers and one of the city’s most famous parks, from which the neighborhood draws its name.
4. CREATIVE SPACE: Despite the prime location, InnerVision’s 3,000 square-foot space had sat vacant for almost two years before InnerVision took it over in 2011. “It’s really a challenging space, because some of the rooms are smaller,” Balter says. “We had to think about how we were going to lay it out for a long time.”
5. PRICE RANGE:The shop is known for providing both pricey and affordable options. Every Philly EyeWorks frame costs $149. On the high end, the shop offers one of the largest selections of Lindberg designs in the city.
F I N E M O M E N T
➤ Balter doesn’t like to boast, but customer reviews do the raving for him on Yelp and via Demandforce. Here’s a snippet of what one Yelper had to say: “My first impression was positive. Immediate attention shortly after walking in the door that was not pushy or overbearing ... The customer service gets an A+ for attentiveness, no pushy sales tactics and seemed honest when I tried on glasses (that were) not flattering.”
L O C A L P R I D E
➤ In Philadelphia parlance, a “whiz wit” is a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and fried onions. For Philly EyeWorks, it’s a round retro style and a nod to the grub many Philadelphians might pick up after a night in the bars. Philly EyeWorks won the award for “Best Eyewear Delivery” — yes, that’s correct — in 2014 by Philadelphia Magazine. Balter hints that more designs, like pentagonal frames, are on the way.