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A Sleek Showcase

Attention to detail, in both eyewear and eyecare, is the calling card of this practice deep in the heart of Austin.

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Optique, Austin, TX

OWNER: Courtney Rhodes, OD; URL: optiqueaustin.com; FOUNDED: 2009; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION:2015; BUILDOUT COST: $500,000; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Design: Michael Rhodes, Construction: Acero Construction; AREA: 2,200 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 7 full-time; TOP BRANDS: Mykita, Lindberg, SALT, Barton Perreira, Garrett Leight, Ahlem, Rolf; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/OptiqueAustin; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/optiqueaustin; TWITTER: twitter.com/optiqueaustin; YELP: yelp.com/biz/optique-austin-2


DR. COURTNEY RHODES OPENED Optique in the heart of downtown Austin, TX, in January 2009, becoming just the second optometrist to open in her area. She and husband Michael, an architectural engineer and builder, designed the office to have a sleek, modern appeal. Rhodes envisioned an optometry office and optical boutique “like no other.” She stocked exclusive, high quality eyewear and set the goal of providing eyecare and service to match.

In 2015, Optique relocated to a new, larger office at the Seaholm Power Plant. Just a year later Rhodes opened a second location about a mile away at the new South Lamar Union development. (Designed by architect Burton Baldridge, the South Lamar Union location was featured in Texas Architect.) For the last nine years, Optique has continually grown with two optometrists and an in-house lab.

Rhodes says that when looking at potential sites for the practice, her choice was guided by “Location, vibe and high foot traffic,” adding that it was always her plan to have multiple practices. “Our patients live or work near downtown/South Austin. They are willing to pay more for high-quality products, value the experience — i.e. they are looking for one-of-a-kind, hard-to-find items that no one else has — and want to find it in an environment that isn’t replicated anywhere else.” She adds that her clients generally want a more customized and personalized experience, and are looking for a one-stop shop to get all their vision needs met. They are the kind of customer that likes to shop at small, local businesses, and that “values creating a long-term relationship with their medical providers.”

Optique is set apart by a cool look and sleek, elegant finishes. Michael personally designed and built Optique’s Seaholm office to serve as a showcase for the Mykita, Lindberg, Rolf, Garrett Leight and other distinctive frames that line its walls, while delivering on Dr. Rhodes’ interest in service excellence. Every detail of the finishings, Courtney says, was “meticulously designed and custom fabricated” to be durable and ergonomic. The result is a timeless, elegant look that is something of a trademark for Michael’s projects. 

“As a small, local business,” Rhodes says, “we prefer to support independent and handmade brands. We value our relationships with these companies. We appreciate their detail, quality and craftsmanship. We want patients to be inspired by their eyewear and feel they are making a personal statement.”  

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Rhodes has set herself the ambitious task of “perfecting the customer’s experience.” This entails analyzing the practice’s operations from start to finish. When the patient walks in, they are greeted at the reception desk/wet bar and offered a choice of sparkling water, wine, or local beer. Snacks are provided and a bag of jelly beans is handed to every patient at their frame dispense. “We pride ourselves by operating on our four core values: approachable, distinctive, proficient and conscientious. I tell my staff to make every decision regarding our patients and practice with these principles in mind.” Rounding out the experience, “We try to communicate with our customers as much as possible whether it be with a hand-written thank you note or phone call to check on them,” says Rhodes.

Rhodes refuses to engage in “pressure sales.” She believes in “fast and easy-going exams,” after which patients are handed off to opticians with a combined 40 years of experience fitting frames. Among Optique’s conveniences are an in-house lab that can often make lenses in one hour, and home/office delivery.

Optique’s attractive website and Instagram emphasize frames and outside events. And while Rhodes hasn’t ruled out the idea of online sales, she believes that “with the current race to the bottom with online retailers like Warby Parker, it is so important now to focus on the customer’s experience. Happy customers are our lifeline, and we depend on their referrals.”

Staff have weekly team lunch meetings and quarterly team-building activities including escape rooms, happy hours, Top Golf, bowling and swimming. At least once a quarter, the store organizes a party, frame pop-up or sponsorship of an outside event. Outings this year have included numerous trunk shows and events related to the SXSW festival and Austin Fashion Week. “They are fun! It gives our patients a chance to come hang out and get to know us. We have drinks, often with a specialty themed cocktail to match the event, and snacks.”

As for the bottom line: Business, Rhodes says, “is great! We love being in Austin.”

PHOTO GALLERY (13 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Optique

1. CHOICE ITEMS. Staff feature their favorite frames with a “Staff Pick” card. Aside from highlighting key collections, “it also helps spark a conversation between the optician and patient,” says Rhodes.
2. TO YOUR DOOR. Optique’s white Fiat, featuring the business’s ‘See Well, Look Better’ logo, delivers “anything and everything” to patients.
3. HOME TRIAL. Customers can take three pairs of glasses home for 24 hours under a “keep some or none” offer.
4. PRIZE-WINNER. Optique won a Mykita contest for 10 custom-made frames based on an elaborate POP display staff created in the store.
5. HIGH PRAISE. Dr. Rhodes’ husband Michael Rhodes is an architectural engineer and builder who worked on Optique. Among the other projects handled by his firm is a home featured in Architectural Digest.

FINE STORY

Dr. Rhodes is a fitness enthusiast, and provides regular opportunities for staff to live a healthy lifestyle together: monthly team workouts after work (Wellness Wednesday); a weekly allowance for healthy team groceries; participating in the Austin Capitol 10K run as a team; and sponsoring employees in the Austin Marathon. ”

 

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • “Optique’s presence is a “signature” that modulates nicely from one location to the next. The ultra-clean palette is balanced by a pleasing combination of wood, white, and insertions of warm and cool colors. Smart and logical, as if they epitomize the clarity of vision customers will enjoy.” Brent Zerger, l.a. Eyeworks, Los Angeles, CA
  • “Hands down, one of the best exterior storefronts I’ve seen of any retailer, not just optical. My favorite aspect is the “staff picks” card. I’ve been preaching this for years. It’s a natural conversation starter and makes the selling process that much easier.”  Robert Bell, EyeCoach, San Francisco, CA
  • “Both interior and exterior are very chic and mirror the high-end product the optical carries.”  Jennifer Coppell, Tura, New York, NY

After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at heath@smartworkmedia.com.

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America's Finest

You’ll Be Amazed What This Minnesota Practice Did with 1,000 Sq. Ft.

Hint: A stunning optical, exam lane AND plans to put in an edger.

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Wink Family Eye Care of SLP, St. Louis Park, MN

OWNER: Dr. Roman Gerber; URL:winkfamilyeyecare.com ; FOUNDED: 2018 ; ARCHITECT FIRM: Bob Shaffer Foundation Architects; EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time ; AREA: 1,000 sq. ft.; TOP BRANDS: Ørgreen, Etnia Barcelona, MODO, Acuvue Oasys 1 Day, Fresh Day Sphere; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/winkslp; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/wink_of_slp; YELP:yelp.com/biz/wink-family-eye-care-of-slp-saint-louis-park; BUILDOUT COST: $150K


Dr. Roman Gerber had wanted to open his own practice from the moment he graduated OD school in 2011. His dream came true in January 2018.

DR. ROMAN GERBER WANTED to cold-open a practice from the moment he graduated optometry school in 2011. Life circumstances and other opportunities kept that from happening for a few years, but by early 2017 he was scoping out potential locations for his own business in the South Minneapolis/St. Louis Park, MN area.

Things moved pretty quickly and the doors to Wink Family Eye Care of SLP opened on Jan. 15, 2018. Gerber began by seeing patients at Wink three half-days a week, while still working at his previous office; but before the year was out, Wink had gone from one to two full-time employees and was busy enough for Gerber to start working there full-time himself.

Gerber’s prime motivation for choosing the St. Louis Park neighborhood was because that was where his family first settled after immigrating from Russia when he was just 4 years old.

But as he took a closer look at the area, he was surprised at how much busier certain blocks were than others not that far away. The location he eventually settled on benefits from being in a mixed commercial and residential zone with Fresh Thyme and Trader Joe’s groceries nearby, a CVS pharmacy across the street and a busy Starbucks outlet just two doors down.

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Gerber estimates that about half of his patients are in the 20-39 age group, and they’re an important segment for Wink. “However, that still leaves half of our patient base as younger than 20, or 40 and older. We try to cater to everyone.” Figuring out the ways to cater to each group has been a learning experience, he says. “We understand that many of our Millennial/Gen Z patients may prefer to communicate through secure email/text so we try to accommodate that. Although some of our Gen X/Baby Boomer patients would prefer phone calls, it has been surprising to me how many of our patients from those generations also prefer text messages.”

The store’s décor and distinctive green color scheme were inherited from Wink’s partner business, Wink Family Eye Care in Chanhassen, MN, with a few embellishments. The store’s cool feel, sleek materials and careful, efficient use of space offer a lesson in how to make the most of a smaller space. Explains Gerber: “With our young hip demographic, we focused on a classier optical. The walls are lined with stinkwood and showcase our frame lines beautifully. We have a small, 1,000 square foot, flag-shaped space. We wanted to fit a pretest room, exam room, office, and future edger without sacrificing our optical. Our architect worked tirelessly to fit all of these components and to allow a natural flow.”

Eyewear is merchandised by brand, with Tracey Eggerstedt, Wink’s technician/paraoptometric/optician extraordinaire organizing and reorganizing constantly. Once again, it’s a constant learning curve: “It’s interesting to see where people look at glasses and which locations are ‘hot spots,’” Gerber says. He adds that the store’s online focus is primarily on building brand awareness. “We like to educate our patients while still showcasing our fun vibe.”

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Gerber strongly believes in listening to staff, treating them with respect, and empowering them. “Take care of your staff and they will take care of your patients,” he counsels. Before every eye exam, staff call on the patient’s medical and vision insurance to ensure there are no surprise bills. Eggerstedt focuses on pre-testing, frame styling, and learning everything about ocular health. “She enjoys being quirky with our patients and getting to know each one,” Gerber says. But all of the staff do a little bit of everything. “Kristin [Cannon] is our contact lens guru. She loves working with scleral lenses and doing difficult insertion and removal trainings.” The key to achieving great service, Gerber says, is to “treat every patient as if they were your family. We really try to empower patients and give them information to make the decisions for themselves. Everybody’s life is different and all we can do is educate our patients on all their options.”

PHOTO GALLERY (20 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Wink Family Eye Care of SLP

1. PARTNERS IN FINE. Wink Family Eye Care of SLP has a partner practice, Wink Family Eye Care in Chanhassen, MN, another America’s Finest Honorable Mention. They share staff, records and a website, but are run as separate businesses.

2. MEET & GREET. The Wink team are huge believers in networking and spend about five hours a week meeting other small businesses in the community, looking for ways to help each other out.

3. WILL TRAVEL. Gerber has made charity trips to Honduras, India, Mexico and Peru, and for two years helped build clinics in The Gambia, West Africa.

4. AWARD WINNING. Staff member Tracey Eggerstedt was named Paraoptometric of the Year in 2018 by the Minnesota Optometric Association.

5. EASY ON THE EYE. The store’s green color theme was chosen on the basis that the green wavelength of 555nm is the easiest for the rods in the retina to see.

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • Great logo, clean marketing materials and excellent use of that eye-popping green. Very clean and “shoppable” store layout. Nathan Troxell, PPG, Monroeville, PA
  • Refreshing in its simplicity and direct messaging. A solidly cool business. Leigh and Todd Rogers Berberian, Todd Rogers Eyewear, Andover, MA
  • While they obviously take the medical side of their business very seriously, there is a quirky, fun side that is evident in their marketing materials and social media posts. I like the community involvement, both local and global. Beverly Suliteanu, Westgroupe, Ville St-Laurent, Québec, Canada

 

Fine Story

Wink Family Eye Care of SLP owner Dr. Roman Gerber’s approach to choosing the precise location for the practice was downright scientific. In early 2017, while looking for places in South Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, MN, he says, “We ran a geospatial analysis (a gathering, of imagery, GPS, satellite photography and historical data for specific geographic coordinates, i.e. a street address or postal code) on a few spaces that were available. We were aware the area was changing rapidly, but it was great to see whether our assumptions about traffic patterns were correct. For the most part they were.”

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America's Finest

A Second Optical Location Hitting the Next Level of Candy Crush in Cleveland

People said their business would be ‘too funky’ for the Midwest but they proved their critics wrong.

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3RD Place: EYE CANDY OPTICAL PINECREST | Cleveland, OH

Next Level Candy Crush

People told these optical biz owners that Cleveland wasn’t ready for ‘funky, futuristic and weird,’ but they proved them wrong a second time.

OWNERS: Steve Nelson and Anton Syzdykov | URL: eye-candy-optical.com | YEAR FOUNDED: 2012 |YEAR OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2018 | AREA: 2,000 sq. ft. | EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time | FACEBOOK: facebook.com/EyeCandyOpticalCle | INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/eyecandycle | TWITTER: twitter.com/ECO_Cleveland | YELP: yelp.com/biz/eye-candy-optical-beachwood | TOP BRANDS: Sospiri, Matsuda, Face à Face, Dita, Theo | BUILD OUT COST: $1.1M with equipment | ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Helen Rogic, ONE Interior (one-interior.com), and Jeff Bogart, Bogart Architecture, Inc.


Like many business ideas, Eye Candy Optical was born of a need. Steve Nelson, who launched Eye Candy Optical with Anton Syzdykov in Cleveland, OH, in 2013, recalls: “We couldn’t find fashionable glasses in our hometown.” They set out to change the local optical landscape by bringing a world-class eyewear shop to the city “based equally on fashion and function.” As industry outsiders, they felt they could avoid tunnel vision and preconceived notions. Of course, it’s one thing to identify a need — it’s how you go about filling it that matters. Eye Candy Optical’s founders were determined to do it with flair. “We asked ourselves: ‘What if Victoria’s Secret and House of Blues opened a glasses shop?’” The result was their first store in Westlake, west of downtown. Five years later, Nelson and Syzdykov opened a second location in the Pinecrest mixed-use development in Orange Village, one of Cleveland’s upscale eastern suburbs.

The goal with the second location wasn’t to duplicate the success of the first, but to build on it. “We had built a store that could compete with the best New York, LA, London or Paris shops,” says Nelson. “Sadly, many industry people, neighbors, competitors said we would fail. The shop was ‘too funky, futuristic and weird’ for the Midwest. Fast forward to today; we are very successful and have opened a second location.” Incorporating their five years of experience, the new location takes the strengths of the first store to the next level with added creature comforts, a superior lab and the latest in exam-room gear.

According to Nelson, it took several years to find the right space. “It was more than finding the right location, it was finding the location within the location,” he says. “We insisted on a spot caddy corner to the Whole Foods for the best visibility and parking.”

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It took many tries before they hit on the right design. “Truthfully we almost blew it and created an awful space that was fun but tantamount to a medical office instead of a sexy shop. We had to go back to basics and really recreate a better version of our first location. Sometimes you have all the answers right in front of you.” He acknowledges Helen Rogic from ONE Interiors, who did their displays, as a key contributor. “Without her … I don’t know how we would have tackled this project. She’s an amazing talent.”

“Sexy, cool, and very rock n’ roll” was the look and feel Nelson and Syzdykov were going for —fitting for a store just miles from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The optical’s layout is based around a circle of custom European displays by ONE Interior surrounding a coffee bar offering real Italian espresso and artisan teas.

When opening their second location in Cleveland’s Orange Village, Nelson and Syzdykov focused on the ‘location within the location’.

A large open window allows customers to see directly into the lab. Behind the center wall is a hallway that leads customers “back stage” where they find a first-class lounge with designer couch, bar seating and fridge with drinks and snacks. This area houses the state-of-the-art exam and pretest rooms, plus the “sexiest bathroom in optical with techno music and lights.”

Disappointed with the quality and selection in the mid-market category, the pair decided to design and manufacture their own frame line, Sugar Specs. It was a lengthy learning process and has been both labor and capital intensive, but well worth it, they say. “We set out to improve our position in this important price category by taking the bull by the horns. This is not simply choosing a design from a box of samples; instead we do our own hand and 3D drawings and get inspiration from our staff and customers,” says Nelson. They offer about 15 models in four colors and are working on getting it up to 50 models in the next 24 months. Frames are made from premium acetates or titanium with European hardware.

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The way Nelson and Syzdykov see it, they have “a vested interest in making customers look awesome.” What they strive to deliver, they say, is not just an amazing pair of glasses, but compliments and social validation from each client’s friends, peers, and relatives — with some fun along the way.

Thinking back on Eye Candy’s arrival on a staid Cleveland optical scene six years ago, Nelson says, “Look, we were different. People are always afraid of what is different. We were unapologetic when we said, ‘We are going to be the sexy rock ’n’ roll optical in Cleveland.’ Be bold, be brave, and stick to your vision.”

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Nathan Troxell: The Eye Candy Optical brand and persona is embraced throughout the entire patient experience and across all consumer touch points. Terrific connection to their home city by embracing the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the attitude that goes along with it.

Stirling Barrett: Eye Candy Optical is showing that eyewear can be creative, exciting and fun. They care not only about getting customers in a frame that looks great, but they also have a fun approach in getting their customers to try new styles and push their comfort zone.

Beverly Suliteanu:This is a serious business that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Fun, cool spirit throughout, from interior design to frame collections, marketing material and online platforms. They are quite high tech and appear to put as much emphasis on the substance (eyecare) as they do on the style (eyewear).

PHOTO GALLERY (28 Images)

5 COOL THINGS ABOUT EYE CANDY
 OPTICAL

1 EDGE ON THE COMPETITION. Eye Candy’s lab has a commercial edger from MEI Italy that allows the practice to make glasses on demand in minutes.

2 GET WITH ‘THE PROGRAM.’ Eye Candy staff wrote their own POS and accounting software that integrates with their edgers, labs, and medical equipment, simply called “the program.” A major undertaking, the end result is a streamlined system that has cut the average transaction time by 50 percent.

3 2020 VISION. The new store has the latest Visionix and Reichert pre-test and exam equipment for faster and more accurate exams.

4 IN THE MOOD. Eye Candy uses the SONOS system to set up to four different music stations. “The mood needs to be different on the retail floor versus the exam room,” says Nelson. They have everything from oldies and lounge to metal and techno.

5 WOW FACTOR. A front display window includes an advanced LED light show. The idea, says Syzdykov, is to “dazzle customers with an ever-changing screen with inspirational photos, sayings and memes, and to make it fun.”

Fine Story

“We are really proud of the ‘Eye Candy Process’ we utilize to get the customer to their perfect frame,” Nelson says. To do this, opticians and stylists are asked to pull five to seven frames for each client that “push their fashion comfort zone,” in a variety of colors, styles and price points. “Then we play a game called ‘Hate/Don’t Hate.’ If they ‘don’t hate it’ it stays in the tray.” (They used to say, “Like/Hate” but customers found the word “Like” too committal.) More frames get pulled, the cream rises to the top, and, eventually, the customer can be certain they found the best frame. It sounds simple but it takes a very skilled person to lead the process and consider the client’s style, facial features, skin tone, color palette, occupation, and the image they want to project. “Try doing that at a chain store! Here we are all psychologists, detectives, artists, and stylists!”

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America's Finest

America’s Finest Optical Retailers 2019 Winners Announced!

This year’s winners are eyecare business masterpieces designed to inspire.

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Edgar Degas

Despite a basis in medicine, running an exceptional independent eyecare business isn’t a science… It’s an art. A fine art. And nothing demonstrates that more than the top three winners of this year’s America’s Finest Optical Retailers contest. Nothing cookie-cutter here; our first, second and third place winners all demonstrate an individuality that cannot be replicated and a creativity that is quite literally hard to beat.

“I had so much fire in me and so many plans.”
Claude Monet

In speaking with this year’s honorees, many expressed a dissatisfaction with the more traditional routes eyecare has to offer. Sometimes burnt out, or otherwise just not interested, each determined that corporate optometry or a big box setting just wasn’t for them. Not fulfilling enough, not creative enough, not welcoming enough to big ideas and even bigger dreams.

“To create one’s own world takes courage.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

So they each took the leap. And they went BIG. Each pursued their idea of what an eyecare business should be. Whether they started from scratch or changed an established business, are a business in their infancy or have several generations behind them, each of this year’s honorees changed and tweaked their businesses to fit their most authentic expression of experience.

“A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.”
Salvador Dali

But none of these businesses came about by happy accident. The businesses recognized this year have achieved their success through passion, creativity, hard work and an unrelenting drive to offer superior products and service to their customers. They are dreamers. They are doers. They are thinkers and they are artists. They are, in short, an inspiration.

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