hen Melissa McCulley was practicing optometry in downtown Minneapolis, she noticed a number of cool, funky eyewear shops peppering the Twin Cities area.
In her hometown of Fargo, ND, however, tradition and the status quo ruled. Many of the city’s eyecare providers were solid professionals, but there was nothing dynamic or contemporary about their practices.
“I’d hear stories of people driving from Fargo to Minneapolis some 250 miles away to get glasses,” McCulley says. “It was a light-bulb moment for me.”
In 2006, McCulley returned to Fargo and launched McCulley Optix Gallery in the city’s burgeoning south end. An area ripe with new home developments, modern schools and a swelling population, McCulley immediately targeted children and families, confi dent she could more easily land new customers rather than dislodge rooted adult customers from their familiar routines.
McCulley created a kid-friendly offi ce featuring a miniature table, children’s toys and a television, touted the benefi ts of a full-fl % $edged eye exam over the basic school vision screening and began off ering vision therapy to children, something she could easily accommodate as her upstart business worked to build its clientele.
“All of this established us as a place where kids were welcome and cared for,” McCulley says.
A decade later, McCulley Optix Gallery is thriving. Fargo’s go-to destination for kids’ eyewear, the shop continues to reap the benefi ts of McCulley’s calculated, decade-old bet on children and families.
“The beauty of taking care of children is that when parents come to check out our offi ce, we have an opportunity to become the eyecare provider for their entire family,” McCulley says. “That piece has been a major part of our overall success.”
Earning family business, however, is far from a case of “build it and they will come.” Parents demand trust and patience, quality and value, convenience and care, safety and selection for their children as well as themselves. Here’s how eyecare shops across the country are accomplishing just that.
By and large, Dr. Nathan Bonilla-Warford of Bright Eyes Kids in Tampa, FL, says pediatricians are not “super comfortable” talking about vision, so Bonilla-Warford makes outreach a priority.
Throughout the year, he spends one-on-one time with local pediatricians and their staff members, providing lunch and in-service training. These visits, he says, allow him to answer questions and demonstrate how he and his team practice evidence-based care. Furthermore, Bonilla-Warford can scope out the pediatric office himself and identify key decision-makers.
Almost immediately following one of these visits, Bonilla-Warford says, referred patients appear at Bright Eyes Kids.
“And once these doctors have one or two patients they’ve referred leave happy, referring us just becomes the norm and that makes a giant impact on our practice,” says Bonilla-Warford, who does similar meet-and-greets with occupational therapists, physical therapists, educational specialists and other youthservicing professionals. “It takes a lot of coordination and activity, but we really only need to do it once to have a big impact.”
Get to Know the School Personel
In Holland, MI, Beth Cassar of Complete Eye Health and Contact Lens Center has reached out to local school nurses and hand-delivered eyecare kits featuring a small screwwith driver, miniature screws, cleaners, cases and contact lens solution that help nurses troubleshoot minor problems. This gesture has helped Complete Eye Health build sturdy relationships with the school nurses, whom Cassar calls key influencers within their respective communities. The nurses will often send kids to the shop who are in significant need and, in some cases, have even called to make appointments.
Dr. Nathan Bonilla-Warford of Bright Eyes Kids Tampa works with local pediatricians and other youth-serving professionals to drive kids through his door.
Lambaria Eye & Optical in Davison, MI, meanwhile, connects with counselors at nine area schools. Lambaria provides each counselor 10 vouchers for a free eye exam and free glasses. Counselors can then distribute the vouchers to students screwwith vision needs, particularly those without the means to purchase glasses.
Spotlight Family-friendly Service
While word of mouth drives much of the traffic into Lambaria’s State Road storefront, the office actively markets its kid-friendly vibe on back-toschool billboards, print advertisements, email blasts and social media, including YouTube videos. “We are not afraid to mention that we’re a kid-friendly practice because we know that everyone knows someone who has kids,” Lambaria office manager Alissa McKinstry says. In Tampa, meanwhile, the mere name Bright Eyes Kids leaves no doubt as to the shop’s target clientele and its sensibilities. “The name alone absolutely makes a difference,” Bonilla-Warford says.
Lambaria Eye and Optical places an emphasis on targeting 30- to 45-yearold women, driven in large part by a boutique-style office that offers a chic, contemporary counter rather than the more traditional offices in town. After all, the first step in earning family business, McKinstry contends, is appealing to mom. “When you earn mom’s business, she’ll trust you to see others in her family as well,” McKinstry says.
From the dentist to the doctor and, yes, even the eyecare shop, children, and even adults, can be turned off by overly clinical experiences. At McCulley Optix, McCulley dials down the traditional sterile feel. She ditches the white lab coat, talks directly to children and will even turn on a movie in the exam room. “It’s the exact opposite of a clinical experience and that helps put the patients at ease,” McCulley says. Similarly, Bonilla-Warford rejects the clinical vibe at Bright Eyes Kids. As children are often nervous and unsure at the start of an appointment, Bonilla-Warford prioritizes jokes and games before clinical work. He also employs a “no-drama drops system.” Bonilla- Warford first lets kids decide if they want their eyes open or shut for eye drops. He then distracts them by talking about the movie Up, a poster of which is tacked to the exam room’s ceiling. “It makes kids much more comfortable and relaxed, which is also a way to get better clinical information,” Bonilla-Warford says.
Promote Specialty Services
During her first year in business, McCulley had a few parents ask about children’s vision therapy. She accommodated those early requests and continues to do so. Today, McCulley Optix is one of only two stores in 114,000-resident Fargo offering the service and McCulley says the specialty continues to attract patients and bolster her shop’s reputation as a pediatricfriendly office. Bonilla-Warford says offering services such as vision therapy and orthokeratology distinguishes his office from a technological and credibility standpoint. “When people see the specialty services, they see the long-term comprehensive plan of care we offer and are incentivized to come back,” he says.
When Tammy Heldt arrived as the new manager at Aardvark Eyewear, a dispensary business inside the Chicago- based pediatric ophthalmology practice of Dr. Lawrence Kaufman, shifting the warranty service was among her first actions. She ditched the shop’s longstanding warranty that covered only defects and instituted one that honored more general wear and tear. Thereafter, she altered the shop’s purchasing habits to favor inventory from manufacturers with a demonstrated track record of offering quality, well-fitting frames and standing behind their product. “With kids eyewear, in particular, forgiving warranties are critical,” Heldt says.
Give Parents a Look
At Complete Eye Health, Dr. Kevin Cassar often invites parents to sit in the exam chair. He will then blur their vision to help them understand what their child sees. “This helps parents explicitly understand what their child is facing,” says Beth Cassar, adding that the exercise also prevents parents from feeling sold on potentially unnecessary interventions or products. “We want and need the trust of our patients and that is something you earn over time with education and honesty.”
Speak Kids' Language
The father of two children, Bonilla-Warford knows lots of kids love Legos, which is why he invites kids to trade Lego figurines with him during their visits to Bright Eyes Kids. It’s a stealthy way to show kids that the business speaks their language. “It’s a totally easy and simple way to make their visit fun and memorable,” Bonilla-Warford says. Find a few things the kids in your area respond to — be it Minecraft, Pokemon, Shopkins, Matchbox or football and baseball cards — and offer it up as a reward for an exam well done. In no time, they will be begging their parents to take them back to your practice.
In an effort to provide a better fit, Heldt adds custom comfort cables to many of the children’s frames she sells. Parents subsequently rave about how well the glasses stay on their child and Heldt consistently fields referrals from parents who have learned about the custom comfort cables from parents of current or past Aardvark patients. “This has been big in driving new business our way,” says Heldt, adding that fit is more critical with children than adults given the younger set’s general activity level. “Six months in the life of children’s frames is like six years to adults.”
At Complete Eye Health, the Cassars bunch family appointments together, a risky move, but one Beth Cassar says families with multiple bespectacled individuals love. The office will book parents and siblings together and take the entire family to the exam room at the same time. This means parents make only one trip to the office, there is less wait time between appointments and kids aren’t left unattended in the waiting room. “It’s easy and convenient for [families] and makes the patient experience better,” Cassar says, adding that her team “uber-confirms” the appointments with text, email and phone reminders to limit no-shows.
InfantSEE allows Dr. Melissa McCulley to introduce her practice and staff to new families.
InfantSEE, an 11-year-old public health program managed by the American Optometric Association Foundation, allows children between 6 and 12 months to receive a free infant eye assessment from participating eyecare providers. McCulley Optix has been a member of the InfantSEE program for much of the shop’s 10-year existence, and McCulley calls InfantSEE a no-hassle way to connect with families, proactively address any vision needs and get parents and kids acquainted with her shop. The typical first appointment, McCulley says, is a five- to 10-minute vision screening in which McCulley checks the health development of the eye. She explains to parents what she is assessing, when they might return and spotlights different services her shop offers, such as vision therapy and treatment of eye diseases like pink eye. “InfantSEE is a free opportunity for the family to meet me, interact with our staff and see our office, and it has definitely helped us establish ongoing relationships,” McCulley says.
No Excuse Replacement
Forgiveness is divine as well at Lambaria Eye and Optical. The 4-year-old shop offers children under 10 a no-excuse replacement once in the first year. Initially an offer limited to particular frames, the offer now applies to all of Lambaria’s youth eyewear selection. “This takes the pressure off parents as well as kids,” says McKinstry, who has used the program herself to replace her own 5-year-old daughter’s glasses. McKinstry says only about 10 percent of qualifying patients ever need the replacement, and many of those instances are covered under a manufacturer’s warranty. “The risk versus reward is wonderful for us and parents appreciate that they don’t have to pay extra for a warranty,” says McKinstry, adding that the opportunity to build a longterm relationship “more than pays” for any replacement costs.
Keep the Pediatricians in the Loop
Whenever a child visits Bright Eyes Kids for an eye exam, staff ask parents for permission to send a simple one-page evaluation report — on Bright Eyes letterhead — to the child’s pediatrician. Parents value that their pediatrician is kept in the loop, while doctors generally appreciate the clinical communication as well. “It’s a more passive marketing tool, but one that’s proven very effective,” Bonilla-Warford says. “It opens everybody’s eyes to what we do.”
Carry a Wild Selection
Over the last decade, Aardvark’s inventory has grown from about 300 frames to nearly 1,000, including frames Heldt has designed exclusively for the shop and a handful of select partners. Having such an expansive selection with price points ranging from $75 to $280 enables Heldt to find numerous frames that offer the precise fit she wants at styles and price points patients can appreciate. “For any patient, I’m going to have about 25 great fitting frames because of our deep inventory,” she says. Heldt notes, however, that wide selection alone isn’t enough to drive repeat business and fuel a shop’s bottom line. “Selection draws people in, but it’s the quality of the fit that keeps them coming back,” she says.