An Eye for Quality
Discerning Eye in Iowa City is uncompromising when it comes to quality, but never lets an opportunity pass it by.
STORY BY HEATH BURSLEM
“You can’t be all things to all people.” Embracing these eight simple words has allowed Joni Schrup, owner of Discerning Eye in Iowa City, IA, to maintain a consistently high level of eyewear and customer service, and delivered her 11 years of success and a loyal customer base.
Iowa City, IA
Owner: Joni Schrup
Opened Featured Location: 2016
Area: 3,500 sq. ft.
Employees: 5 full-time, 3 part-time
Top brands: Lindberg, Anne et Valentin, SALT., Mykita, Andy Wolf, Theo
Schrup got her start in the optical business in the early 1980s as an optometric assistant working for her neighbor, an optometrist. She later worked in corporate optical, for other ODs and for opticians, dreaming all the while of having her own business. “Opening my own store seemed the next logical step. I only wish I had done it earlier in my career,” she says.
Discerning Eye’s specific origins lie in a long-ago homework assignment. Schrup was helping her son develop a business plan for a college class, when they realized they were onto something. In the summer of 2005 they took it to the bank. Discerning Eye opened in downtown Iowa City before the year was out. She began with one full-time employee, an optometrist who worked one day a week and her two adult children, both college students, helping part time.
In October 2016 the store relocated to its present space, a sleek, bright and welcoming optical with industrial and neo-classical touches. The store is characterized by a sophisticated branding that is consistently applied – including across the store’s elegant online presence – but discreet enough to keep the focus on some stunning eyewear (Lindberg, Anne et Valentin and Salt Optics are among her top sellers). A former art gallery, Schrup knew it would be perfect for showing off her carefully curated collections. It was also large enough to accommodate a growing staff, including a full-time contracted optometrist, Dr. Dan Wolfe.
One thing that has remained constant is an uncompromising focus on quality in terms of both eyewear and service. “From the beginning, we focused on bringing premier products to the area with top-notch customer service to ensure that our customers would have an enjoyable and fun experience choosing eyewear. We only sell eyewear from independent optical companies, which allows us to focus on quality and sell only what we truly love.” This is a business that knows and feels comfortable with its target market. “We sell luxury eyewear and we don’t apologize for our prices,” Schrup says.
She likes to keep collections together, allowing each to stand on its own and tell its individual story.
“We have found that grouping sunglasses in one area but still by collection is a very successful strategy,” Schrup says. “We utilize a large center table for seasonal displays or highlighting a brand or color palette. We have a lot of fun switching out merchandise on this table.”
Being located in the heart of a college town doesn’t have to mean catering solely to starving students. The University of Iowa campus literally surrounds downtown, so foot traffic includes professors, administrators, students and local professionals. “Our clientele is a well-educated and well-traveled group. They often continue to purchase from us even after moving away,” Schrup says. In an echo of that fateful homework session a decade earlier, when it came time to work out how to tap the city’s impossible-to-ignore student market, Schrup did what she does best: She came up with a plan. The result is FOCUS by Discerning Eye, a store within a store that targets the student demographic. (See ‘Fine Story.’)
Ultimately Schrup’s undeniable success seems to boil down to some pretty simple — even homespun — wisdom. “Treat people the way you would want them to treat you,” she says, adding after a moment, “...or your Mom!”
PHOTO GALLERY (24 IMAGES)
5 Cool Things About Discerning Eye
1. FULLY BAKED. Schrup bakes something — cookies, bars, shortbread, ginger snaps, even candied bacon on occasion — for her customers every day. “Customers are always asking for my recipes and we keep copies handy at our front desk.”
2. FRAME-OUS FACES. The store’s Wall of Frame features professional photos of customers in their new eyewear. “We give them a copy to show our appreciation,” Schrup says.
3. MOVING TALE. When moving location in 2016 (it was less than a block) customers and friends were recruited into a human “bucket brigade” to help out. “It was great fun and they were rewarded with free pizza,” Schrup says.
4. BIRTHDAY BASH. To celebrate its 10th birthday, Discerning Eye held a trunk show and gave away $10,000 in prizes. “There was a line down the block waiting for us to open that day.”
5. HOLIDAY SPIRIT. For the past 10 years, the business has donated a portion of its December sales (its busiest month) to the Crisis Center of Johnson County. To date it has donated almost $50,000.
Schrup knew that with 20,000 University of Iowa students and young professionals passing by her door every day she needed to find a way to tap into that market. The optical’s basement level houses a store-within-a-store, FOCUS by Discerning Eye, targeting that demographic. “It’s really taking off! We feature tiered package pricing with cool frames and the tag line ‘Online price. In person service,’” she says. The idea is to give customers with less to spend an opportunity to purchase affordable eyewear without the lack of service, repairs and fitting that come with ordering online. A single price ($165) for a frame and single vision lenses, offered with full service, has proven to be the right recipe.
WHAT THE JUDGES SAID
Focus, a store within their store, with the tagline “Online price. In person service,” is as savvy a move as I’ve seen in this industry. Great concept on so many levels. They display professional photos of their customers on their walls and give the customer a copy? How cool is that? — Robert Bell, The Eye Coach, San Francisco, CA
The vibrant storefront color scheme differentiates this store from its neighbors, popping off the sidewalk and welcoming the passersby. Nice community engagement. — Jack Verdon, Verdon Architects, San Francisco, CA
Nice eclectic space with a fun use of two stories. My favorite aspect of this optical is their connection to their local community. I have no doubt that their investment in the community is paid back to them by the support of their surrounding businesses. — James and Dr. Laura Armstrong, Alberta Eye Care, Portland, OR
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 edition of INVISION.
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