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A ‘Crazy Idea’ Turns Out To Be Genius For Alberta Eye Care

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During her third year in optometry school at Pacific University in Forest Grove, OR, Laura Armstrong and her MBA-wielding husband, James, decided to make their long-term home in Portland. That decision alone wasn’t striking, especially given the vibrancy that fills the 610,000-resident city along the Pacific Coast. But alongside the couple’s decision to settle in Portland, the Armstrongs concocted another plan: They would build an optometry practice reflecting their own style and values. It was a bold decision given that Portland is rich in a few areas: weird, foodies and optometrists.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 edition of INVISION.

 

Quick Facts

LOCATION: Portland, OR
URL: albertaeyecare.com
OPENED: 2013
AREA: 2,100 square feet
DESIGNERS: DECA
EMPLOYEES: 12
TOP BRANDS: Andy Wolf, SHO Eyeworks, l.a.Eyeworks, L.G.R., Cutler & Gross
FACEBOOK: facebook.com/AlbertaEyeCare INSTAGRAM: @albertaeyecare
PINTEREST: pinterest.com/albertaeyecare

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“It was a crazy idea to start one,” Dr. Laura Armstrong says.

As the couple began connecting with bankers about a loan, they kept waiting, even expecting, for someone to chide their effort,but rejection never came. “We just kept getting further along in the process,” says James, a forensic accountant.

In 2011, the Armstrongs signed a lease for a yet-to-be-constructed storefront on NE Alberta Street in Portland’s Alberta Arts District, committing themselves, and their futures, to a dirt lot. “We only saw a photo of what the building was going to look like,” James says.

One bold move after another eventually birthed Alberta Eye Care, a fullservice eye health clinic and optical boutique that invites patients to “See Portland Better.”

With thoughtful service including exams, refractions, contact lens fittings, about 600 frames and in-house lab services as well as a stroke of neighborly luck, the 3-year-old practice has emerged as one of Portland’s premier eyecare destinations.

In a once-downtrodden neighborhood now full of ambitious restaurants, swanky bars, posh boutiques and art galleries, the Armstrongs designed the practice to match the neighborhood’s creative vibe with a space decidedly unclinical. “Our goal is to promote a proactive approach to eye health, so we wanted something that felt more like a boutique, a place where people wanted to be and to return,” Laura says.

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A mid-century modern space characterized by simple lines, geometric-inspired elements and an uncluttered look, Alberta Eye Care’s 500-square-foot retail area is heavy in recycled wood, industrial elements like a polished concrete floor and a touch of whimsy, best characterized by Snellen chart papers floating out of a vintage typewriter carrying messages. There’s a pair of live-edge benches in the wait- ing area, a barn door to the pretesting room and a cedar reception desk. The credenza under the display cases and optician desks feature reclaimed wood from the Yangtze River Delta flooding. The Armstrongs selected the pendant lighting to complement the orangehued wood.

The Armstrongs have been able to build a thriving practice that corralled $1.2 million in sales in 2015

“There’s a lot of old looking new,” James says.“We thought through every aspect of the design to optimize what we were trying to accomplish.”

Practicality, however, never took a backseat to style. “We didn’t cut corners on functionality for the sake of aesthetics,” James says. “Everything had to have a purpose.”

In the end, the Armstrongs knew the frames needed to shine.“It’s always about the eyewear,” Laura says.

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With an aversion to traditional frame boards and manufacturer POP materials,the Armstrongs worked with their designer to display eyewear in various compelling ways. Reclaimed barn wood covers walls in the retail area while recessed boxes with LED lights showcase the eyewear. In the windows, industrial cables suspend boxes crafted from recycled Douglas fir. It’s a design funky enough to fit Alberta’s creative vibe, yet soft enough to appease any neighborhood newbie deciding to pop in.

And people do pop in — often thanks to Salt & Straw, the ice cream shop next door that emerged as a foodie phenomenon just as the Armstrongs opened. “This has spurred walk-in traffic and definitely helped to build our reputation,” James says.

For a couple that once termed its daring entry into Portland’s optometry scene a “crazy idea,” the Armstrongs have been able to build a thriving practice that corralled $1.2 million in sales in 2015. That success spawned the opening of a second office, Cathedral Eye Care, near Portland’s Cathedral Park last August.

“It’s surreal to think of where we were five years ago, but we just keep putting one foot in front of the other and it’s led to something really special,” Laura says.

 

Fine Story: Private-Label Eyewear

Alberta has a branded in-house frame line called Community. Produced by SHO Eyeworks, the Armstrongs pick a collection of frames and stamp them with the Alberta Eye Care logo. When a customer purchases a Community frame, 10 percent of the proceeds go to a local organization.

“People here take pride in where they live and it’s beneficial to have a deeper story we can share,” James says.

Though there is a financial risk in stamping their logo on them, Laura says those concerns are offset by a lower price and the branding and marketing benefits.

“Plus, having something exclusive is another way we can’t be usurped by online shops,” Laura says.

 

5 Cool Things About Alberta Eyecare

1. CHEERS: Alberta Eye Care offers complementary beer and wine to its adult patients. “After an eye exam, of course,” Laura says. The hospitable effort accelerates each Halloween when the office provides the parents of trick-or-treaters homemade Jell-O shot eyeballs.

2. ADD-ON SALES: Alberta Eye Care hosts a rotating gallery wall spotlighting the work of local artists. “And we’ll even sell a piece here and there,” James says.

3. MOODY BLUES: For all of the unique design elements the Armstrongs pack into their 500-square-foot retail area, the most remarked-about feature is perhaps the simplest: the Sherwin Williams Moody Blue paint color that encircles the space. “We’ve had numerous people come in off the street solely to ask about the wall color,” Laura says.

4. POP, POP, POP: Alberta Eye Care has hosted trunk shows for both Andy Wolf and l.a.Eyeworks, emptying out its entire retail area and displaying only the complete collection of frames from the featured company — a branded pop-up of sorts. “People love getting a taste of the entire collection and seeing the array of colors and styles available,” she says.

5. CURATING COST: The Armstrongs believe quality eye health should not be impacted by one’s income. To maintain financial flexibility they accept most insurance, including Oregon’s Medicaid plan, and have implemented multiple cost-savings measures, including the purchase of stock contact and ophthalmic lenses, operating an in-house edging lab and carefully curating a selection of frames covering multiple price points.

 

What the Judges Say

ANDREA HILL: Alberta Eye Care recognizes that you can’t deliver a quality experience without quality employees, which is key to success in retail today. Also key is community involvement — and they’re doing a great job with that.

DR. TANYA GILL: This is a inspiring brand concept come to live, breathe and happy dance. Everything is on point. The doctor, the space, the website, the thoughtful signage, the branding and the little details make it so special. I’m a huge fan.

MICHAEL KARLSRUD: I love the vibe of this business. It comes through every element of design. Most impressive, I love that it somehow captures the essence of Oregon. I can only image that when patients arrive they feel like they’ve walked into a magazine story of their lives. Very well done.

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America's Finest

A Florida Optical That Offers A Slice of European Style

Along with an inspiring tale of overcoming adversity.

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OPTIK! European Eyewear, St. Petersburg, FL

OWNERS: Anja and Edin Jakupovic; URL: optikstpete.com; FOUNDED: 2016; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017; EMPLOYEES: 1 part-time; AREA: 1,500 square feet; FACEBOOK:facebook.com/optikstpete; YELP: yelp.com/biz/optik-european-eyewear-saint-petersburg-2; INSTAGRAM:@optikstpete; BLOG:optikstpete.com/blogs/blog; TOP BRANDS: Wissing – OPTIK! bespoke line; Etnia Barcelona; Lafont; FHone; Dutz


QUALITY,” BELIEVES ANJA JAKUPOVIC, co-owner with husband Edin of OPTIK! European Eyewear in St. Petersburg, FL, “does not know a competitor.” In its confidence and sense of commitment, the statement says a lot about how the couple overcame adversity to establish a proudly high-end optical catering to the Tampa Bay area’s mix of the youthful and the seasoned, from tourists and artists to retirees.

Anja and Edin’s families fled war in Bosnia in the 1990s and lived in Germany as refugees before migrating to the U.S. After working in the optical field for 12 years, from big box stores to luxury boutiques (including a stint in which Anja returned to Germany to learn the ropes as an optician), she and Edin established OPTIK! in 2016, achieving a goal she had set years earlier — to open her own optical before she turned 30.

“As refugees we truly understand what staying strong means and bouncing back from hardship. We had to start life again not once but twice, and that experience … gave us the determination to do bigger and better things in life in order to have a better future,” she says.

OPTIK! is located in a high-rise condominium on centrally located Beach Drive. Anja describes the clientele as “Upper-class Baby Boomers that are in that stage of their life where they do not want to look the same as everyone else … We also cater to a lot of local artists that truly enjoy being ‘different.’” Almost as soon as the store opened, it began to attract VIP customers including members of the Tampa Bay Rowdies professional soccer team and IndyCar drivers.

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She designed and furnished the store herself; renovations were done with the help of Edin’s friends and family. Inspiration for the modern rustic floors, mid-century modern chairs and chandeliers came from fashion and home design magazines, and intensive online research. The frames are displayed on white floating shelves, “and we will soon feature a custom pegboard accessory section that we are in the process of building,” Anja says.

The store’s focus is independent European eyewear and accessories, and its best-selling line is its own bespoke OPTIK! frames from Germany. Customers can have these customized in any of thousands of color combinations via the online store. “No frame will ever appear twice on our shelves because we believe everyone should have their own individual look,” she says. The store works with independent labs to source advanced lenses.

OPTIK! didn’t waste any time establishing a presence in the neighborhood; among other community-based activities, it collaborated in a women’s book club, then held a trunk show exclusively for its members. At the end of its first year, the business held an exclusive party for residents of the Parkshore Condominium Plaza, which houses the store. “The event was a wonderful way to establish a ‘meet and greet’ with the residents that live above the store and introduce the brand to the community,” says Anja. In a move that typifies its marketing, OPTIK! even fitted out the local mailman (see Fine Story, page 63). The Jakupovics also give all their customers several business cards to hand out to friends or anyone who approaches them about their glasses.

Anja believes consistency in branding and service equates to quality in customers’ minds. “We keep our ads consistent … The same goes for our branding in store.” Every visit to OPTIK! starts with a ‘Welcome!’ and ends with “Please refer us to your friends and family,” she says, adding that consultations are never rushed and always come with a complimentary latte, macchiato or espresso from the mini coffee bar. “We walk our clients to the door, as if they were guests visiting our home.”

OPTIK!’s e-commerce shop is a logical fit for an optical with a private label, though Anja says it functions primarily as a “brand-recognition tool,” allowing for “heavier content on our website and therefore driving more traffic to the shop. It has helped people get an idea of who we are.” Additionally, it also features OPTIK!’s smart, nicely illustrated blog, which is strong on eyewear-related fashion posts and updates on the latest accessories.

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The resourcefulness and determination that were once necessities for survival have translated into business success for the Jakupovics. Says Anja, “As businesspeople, we have embedded this strength into our blood, and that is the only way we know how to operate now. If you want to do great things in life, you must take risks.”

PHOTO GALLERY (26 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About OPTIK!

1. GOT POLYGLOT? Anja and Edin Jakupovic both speak English, Bosnian and German; the latter in particular comes in handy in St. Petersburg’s tourist market.
2. GIRL BOSS! A self-taught entrepreneur, Anja draws inspiration from people like Sophia Amoruso, who also established her first business in her late 20s with no professional help and very little money.
3. SHOW TIME. OPTIK! always schedules a pickup time for eyewear, says Anja, “to ensure we prepare the final product on a presentation tray.”
4. GIFT WITH PURCHASE. All clients get a small thank you gift (it could be a box of European chocolates or a complimentary OYOBox for their eyewear collection) and a personal handwritten thank you card.
5. WEATHER REPORT. As far as sunglasses go, it’s hard to beat St. Petersburg, FL, as a location for an optical. The town holds the Guinness World Record for logging the most consecutive days of sunshine (768 days).

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • Location, location, location! Very smart to be part of the retail community at one of the most desirable buildings in the area. There is a deep passion here. They’ve certainly put in the years learning the biz from the ground up to realize their dream. Robert Bell, The Eye Coach, San Francisco, CA
  • The business cards, logo and sandwich board are lovely. The blog is very interesting, definitely original content. The accessory board display is charming. Online presence channels pure love of eyewear. Natalie Taylor, Artisan Eyewear, Meredith, NH
  • I love the spaciousness. It feels organized which makes it easy to shop. A unique experience that any customer will enjoy. Smart to use locals as brand ambassadors. Jennifer Coppel, TURA, Inc., New York, NY

 

Fine Story: A Word of Mouth Brainstorm

Taking word-of-mouth marketing to new heights, OPTIK! decided to look around for local individuals they felt could benefit from a new pair of quality glasses. They found the perfect candidate in the local mailman, who wore over-the-counter readers for years. “We invited him in and educated him on our eyewear and lenses,” says Anja. “As a thank you for his daily service and to help him look and see his best, we offered him our state-of-the-art digital progressive lenses with all the necessary treatments and coatings completely complimentary.” The mailman later purchased a beautiful Lafont frame from OPTIK!; he gets daily compliments and has spread the word around town. “Not only does his new look change the way he sees and feels, but it has also drastically increased our client-referral base,” says Anja.

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6 of the Best Out-of-the-Box Ideas Dreamed Up by Optical Retailers

2018 has been a year for creativity in the eyecare business.

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IF INDEPENDENT ECPS share a common trait, it must be creativity. Here are six of the best out-of-the-box ideas dreamed up by optical retailers we’ve come across in the past year.

A Glaring Solution

“My area is overwhelmed with opticals and the only way to be truly successful is to differentiate yourself,” says owner Kevin Kretch of Eyes on Chagrin in Woodmere, OH. One of the many ways he does this is by removing demo lenses before showing frames to customers. “99 percent of our Rx glasses have anti-glare coating and most demo lenses do not,” says Kretch. “Therefore, cosmetically, the frames look nicer with no lenses at all than the demos on the shelf.”

Conversation Pieces

At Optique’s two locations in Austin, TX, owner Dr. Courtney Rhodes prides herself on making a study of what makes for top-flight service. Since 2009 she has analyzed what her team does from start to finish to find ways to improve her customers’ eyecare experience. One very cool touch that has resulted from this is having staff choose their favorite frames and place “Staff Pick” cards by them. Aside from highlighting certain classic and newer lines, “It also helps spark a conversation between the optician and patient,” says Rhodes.

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Sweet Surprise

How many eyecare practices come with a dietary warning? “Not for the calorie conscious!” entreats David Moore OD, owner of Clear Eye Associates + Optical in Fort Worth, TX. “Our customers receive a delicious custom cookie with a personalized handwritten note delivered to their home after their visit.” And that’s AFTER they’ve scarfed down the cappuccino, chocolate and craft beer available in the store while waiting in the comfortable lounge area!

In-House Bridge-Builder

One of the most consistent messages we hear from eyecare biz owners is that B2B networking almost always translates into better service for customers. So the benefits of having a networker-in-chief should be obvious. “We promoted our receptionist to Public Relations Coordinator,” says Holly Andersen, co-owner of Uptown Eyes in Fayetteville, AR. Twice a month this staff member creates gift baskets and goes to local businesses to share the store’s mission. Focusing on local businesses has not only been a great resource for the practice, but also helped Andersen and co-owner Megan Baureis build relationships.

Next-Level Recycling

Do your patients feel a twinge of guilt as they peel open and discard another daily contact lens foil pack? Whether they do or not, how much thought have you given this? At Falls City Eye Care in Louisville, KY, owner Michael Martorana OD and his wife Theresa have thought about it plenty, especially since they learned that these foil packs are so small they often get sifted out of the process at recycling plants and end up in landfill anyway. Now, they staple a note to every contact lens order that goes out, stating that patients who save their foil packs and return them to Falls City Eye Care will get a $20 discount on their next year’s daily contact lens purchase. “We also pledge the foil packs will make it to TerraCycle, a company that makes sure plastics that typically get sifted out of a traditional recycling center are, in fact, recycled,” says Theresa.

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Upgrade, Don’t Discount

Scarsdale, NY practice Eye Designs of Westchester were looking for a way to offer patients referred by other doctors a major incentive without using a monetary discount. Their solution was to offer free upgrades to blue light-blocking lenses. “In this situation,” says office manager Harris Decker, “the patients get a more advanced lens and we get to keep the value of our frames and lenses at a premium. Doctors that refer to us like this will plan [to do so], because they can be assured their patients will not only get a high quality product, but a blue light blocker as well.” Decker says the key for ECPs is to offers a value without making their products less valuable. He advises other ECPs to think about adding something at no charge, as opposed to discounting a certain percentage. “We’ve even begun to do this with patients not referred by other doctors,” he says. “If someone is spending thousands on a new pair of glasses, we might upgrade them to blue light blocking technology instead of offering a discount.”

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Cool Ideas and Clever Lighting Create the Ideal Frame-Selection Setting at This LA-Area Practice

A host of cool touches combine to create the perfect frame-selection setting at this Los Angeles-area practice.

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Optical Connection, Studio City, CA

OWNER: Armen Kanberian; URL: optical-connection.com;FOUNDED: 2002; LAST RENOVATED: 2017; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRM: VVP Designs; EMPLOYEES: 3 full-time; AREA: 1,500 square feet;BUILDOUT COST: $35,000; TOP BRANDS: Jacques Marie Mage, DITA, Sama, Barton Perreira, Thierry Lasry; FACEBOOK:facebook.com/opticalconnection; TWITTER:@opticalconnect; YELP:yelp.com/biz/optical-connection-studio-city;INSTAGRAM:@opticalconnection


WHEN ARMEN KANBERIAN SET up Optical Connection in Studio City, CA, in 2002, his aim was clear: “To give spectacle wearers more choices in a market that’s been tainted by mass-production.”

The name of the business’ home city, a well-heeled corner of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, reflects its close relationship with the movie industry, which dates back to the silent era. “I always loved Studio City and I knew it was a hub for the entertainment industry,” said Kanberian. But while Optical Connection has a distinct glamour about it, he doesn’t seem that interested in showily linking his clientele to the industry. To his mind, the main quality his customers share is that they “want something special.” To oblige them, Optical Connection has created what Kanberian calls “a culture of people who love independent brands and appreciate our knowledge and unique eyewear.”

After securing a loan from relatives, Kanberian set about planning a “minimalist, modern design.” The interior is simple, smart and elegant with a blue, gray and white color scheme that is applied throughout the store and its branding, starting with the spectacles-like “OC” logo. The subdued hues allow the store’s first-class lighting effort to do the work and let the eyewear take center stage. Most of the store’s wood and paint finishes are gray, while the display shelves, showcases, desktops and furniture are neutral/white, offset by blue accent walls. According to Kanberian, “The lighting…draws the visitors’ eyes immediately into the extraordinary frame collections, making them the focal point of the store.”

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Optical Connection is set apart by a host of cool touches from the seating to the brightly lit frame trays to the selfie wall — all of which serve frame selection. Cleverly, the store’s signature hashtag, #WELLFRAMED, adorns the selfie wall. “Recently we had a client who bought a dress with glasses and came in just to take pictures with the selfie wall,” says Kanberian. It’s just one of multiple showcases designed to allow customers to view and try on eyewear. “We want our clients to feel comfortable and [that they] have our full attention,” Kanberian says.

The emphasis is on “independent,” “unique,” and “out of the mainstream” eyewear sourced from around the world (see Top Brands, p. 59) and clients get sneak peeks at trunk shows every couple of months.

More than one of our judges were struck by Optical Connection’s skilled use of social media, particularly its well-followed Instagram, which Kanberian describes as “an integral part of connecting with our clients and branding what is trending. We also connect with our clients to promote our trunk shows and events.” He has found it’s a particularly effective way of promoting lesser-known eyewear lines. “In the last few years, with independent brands our clients have appreciated the stories we post.”

Kanberian goes to special lengths to praise his team’s contribution to Optical Connection’s success (see Fine Story, at right) starting with Dr. Ruth Lipson, an OD with over 30 years’ experience who has been with the practice since day one. Her optometric services are enhanced by the store’s on-site lab, which Kanberian says improves turnaround time and responsivity to special requirements. The practice is not a provider with any insurance companies, but will help clients submit out-of-network forms.

Distilling the lessons he’s learned during more than 16 years of running the business, Kanberian attributes Optical Connection’s success to “being honest and listening to our clientele. Seeing the final product when my clients come to pick up their glasses are all the reasons why I continue to keep the business fresh.”
 

PHOTO GALLERY (15 IMAGES)


 

Five Cool Things About Optical Connection

1. PHOTO OP. Optical Connection’s selfie wall is decorated with patterned wallpaper from the U.K. and the business’s signature hashtag, #WELLFRAMED, in neon. Kanberian credits L.A.-based VVP designs for helping him realize his vision for the store.

2. REACHING OUT. For the past decade, Optical Connection has been participating in events at more than half a dozen neighborhood schools, and making donations to them. “This gives us an opportunity to get to know the community,” Kanberian says.

3. PAWSITIVITY. For the past year, Optical Connection has been selling gift items on behalf of animal-rescue charity Tails of Joy. All proceeds go to the organization.

4. CONNECTIVITY. Optical Connection’s well-tended Instagram has more than 5,000 followers. And regularly informs clients about trunk shows and other events, as well as lesser-known independent frame lines.  

5. LOOKING GOOD. The practice’s branding scheme, from its spectacles-like “OC” logo to its tote bags to the wall of its optical feature a sharp, common three-toned color scheme that work well with the store’s sophisticated lighting.
 

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • The store interior is chic and designed towards a client relationship where the optician is the central conduit in the frame selection discussion. The selfie wall was a great solution to an area in the store that was serving no function. Cultivating relationships with local schools is a great way to bring Optical Connection to the attention of busy parents and demonstrate the practice’s commitment to the community. Brent Zerger, l.a.Eyeworks, Los Angeles, CA
  • The interior of this place looks great. I really like the use of the lights in both the displays and above them. Great looking seating and other small touches. The Instagram images are fantastic and make me want to stop by this place and shop. Michael Kling, OD, Invision Optometry, San Diego, CA
  • The lightbox portraits in the walls are such a unique feature, as is the neon #WELLFRAMED sign. The light-up frame trays are awesome. Great branding through gift bags. The high-end photo shoots do a lot to elevate the brand. Natalie Taylor, Artisan Eyewear, Meredith, NH

 

FINE STORY

Optical Connection owner Armen Kanberian repeatedly singles out his staff for their contribution to his business’s success. “I am so thankful to have an amazing team with knowledge and exceptional customer service. We have the best, most experienced opticians. Among them is Janine Willenberg from Australia. She wins most of our clients from the word ‘Hello’ with her bubbly self. Her experience and expertise are the best, along with her being passionate about helping our clientele see and feel great.” Another key player is Dr. Ruth Lipson, the in-house optometrist. “The newest addition is Dr. Tamar Kaloustian — their long experience brings so much to the business,” Kanberian says. The team meets for quarterly meetings and coaching by vendors in the newest products and technology, and gets to know customers at the practice’s trunk shows multiple times a year.

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