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Sky’s Not the Limit

This Colorado practice learned to ‘stop being afraid to offer the best’.

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Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, CO

OWNERS: Dr. Sara C. Whitney and Dr. Reed F. Bro; URL: eyecarecs.com; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/eyecarecs; TWITTER: twitter.com/eyecarecs; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/eyecarecs; YELP: yelp.com/biz/eye-care-center-of-colorado-springs-colorado-springs; YEAR FOUNDED: 2001; YEAR OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2018; EMPLOYEES: 8 full-time, 2 part-time; TOP BRANDS: Moncler, Ørgreen, Morel, Lafont, MODO/ECO; AREA: 5,000 square feet; BUILDOUT COST: $210,000; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: YOW Architect, Thomas General Contractors


EARLY ONE MORNING ABOUT four years ago, Dr. Sara Whitney, co-owner of Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs, rubbed her eyes and glanced at her Instagram feed. “Get out of your own way!” the screen implored her. “It was a fitness post, but I immediately knew it was intended to help me improve as a doctor and a business owner. Many of us never come to realize that our only limits are self-imposed.”

Whitney and co-owner Dr. Reed Bro have gone to great lengths to ensure their customers experience a similar epiphany when, walking into the expansive optical, they take in the natural stone walls lined with reclaimed wood shelves, and the sunlit frames they display. “In our practice, ‘I don’t get a frame this year’ is no longer valid,” Whitney says.

Dr. Bro founded the Colorado Springs, CO, business in 2001 after years in a group practice. He realized the only way he was going to provide the level of service he felt comfortable putting his name on was to become an independent owner. The business launched less than two weeks before 9/11. As much as the commercial impact, Dr. Bro recalls bonding over a national tragedy with patients. “Yes, 9/11 was a factor during the start-up … I remember the weeks after 9/11, the appointment schedule was slower and I spent a good deal of time just listening and sharing thoughts and feelings with patients about what we were experiencing.” Once the business was on its feet, Bro knew that to get to the next level, he needed an associate. He made the offer to Whitney in 2010; by 2014 she was a co-owner.

Whitney has learned a lot since then, most of it coming back to the idea of throwing off self-created boundaries. “I stopped being afraid to offer the best. I used to worry that patients would balk at price, but I realize now it’s not within my scope of practice to read minds. I can’t assume someone will think a treatment or designer frame is too expensive for them … My fear as an optometrist is that a patient will come back and ask, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about overnight corneal reshaping lenses? Why didn’t you tell me I could have lenses that block blue light?’”

This year, the business moved into a historic building downtown, adding to its clientele office workers, military personnel and elite athletes in residence at the city’s U.S. Olympic Training Center. With nine employees and two doctors tripping over each other in their previous, 2,500-sq.-ft space, they needed more exam rooms. One day they got wind of an old building that was available, but the agent tried to talk them out of it. “You probably wouldn’t like it,” Whitney remembers being told. “It has concrete floors and exposed brick walls.” She insisted on seeing it. “We knew our search was over.” That space is the 1902 structure that Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs now calls home.
“We are definitely industrial chic!” says Whitney, pointing to the added elements that soften the hard vibe of the industrial space. The result is a welcoming ambience that weds early 20th-century commercial architecture and modern elements like acrylic seating, quartz work surfaces and iPad check-in. “We took a hospitality approach to eliminate the dread many patients feel [in] doctors’ offices,” Whitney says. The retail area is furnished with over-sized leather chairs and plush rugs, and basks in streamed music and sunlight that pours in from skylights in the bowstring truss roof. With natural stone walls and a reclaimed wood wall behind reception, the large space encourages browsing.

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Full-length mirrors give customers a complete picture of themselves in their new frames.
Whitney and Bro make it their mission “to connect the exam dialog to the optical dialog, so we are all speaking the same language to the patient.” Eye Care Center is especially proud of its large specialty contact lens practice, with referrals from as far afield as California.

Their dedication to reaching beyond limits extends to the staff. “We have to re-educate ourselves and any new team members we hire,” Whitney says. The results speak for themselves — business is good, she says. “In July 2018, we hired a full time associate optometrist, a new grad from UMSL, Dr. Taylor Little. We are keeping her and ourselves busy!”

 

PHOTO GALLERY (13 IMAGES)

 

Five Cool Things About Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs

1. BIG SHOTS. Eye Care Center’s patients include Olympic shooters. The best marksmen in the world trust their eyes to their care.
2. BLAST FROM THE PAST. The historic building housing the practice dates to 1902, and was once used as a commercial carriage house. It was acquired in the 1930s by the Van Dyke Motor Company, whose historic sign remains.
3. FOCAL POINT. Eye Care Center has a large specialty contact lens practice. “We believe strongly in the importance of myopia control with corneal reshaping lenses or soft multifocals. We also fit therapeutic contact lenses such as scleral lenses, hybrid lenses, and scleral cover shells,” says Dr. Whitney.
4. SPREAD THE WORD. Dr. Bro will soon begin giving educational talks at contact lens-related industry events nationwide.
5. STREAM ON. Eye Care Center streams a wide variety of music including pop, “throw-back”, coffee house and classical guitar.

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Judges’ Comments

  • The website has strong, thorough content for patients. Their social media platforms are very active, and the Yelp reviews were expertly managed! Natalie Taylor, Artisan Eyewear, Meredith, NH
  • This is really a beautiful practice. I really like all of the natural elements and the open, expansive feel to it. It has a bit of a rustic yet modern look to it. They carry some great frame lines, and seem to do a really good job with their social media. Michael Kling, OD, Invision Optometry, San Diego, CA
  • The interior of this store is by far one of my favorites. It is quite chic with its exposed brick, salvaged wood and industrial finishes. As a customer, I would feel very confident that the opticians know what is hip today and be able to help me select a frame appropriate for me. Jennifer Coppel, TURA, Inc., New York, NY

 

Fine Story

Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs hired Mark Hinton, a respected optician and industry speaker, to teach their team how to create the best patient journey. “He taught us the power of words, to use phrases that say ‘yes’ to customers, and how to ask questions to uncover opportunities,” says Dr. Whitney. “He taught us that ‘sell’ is a dirty word, and that we have the exciting privilege of helping our patients buy. We are giving them permission to get what they need or want by systematically eliminating phrases that allow insurance to dictate what is attainable.” She adds that Hinton visited to see the new space in June, to reinforce what staff had already learned and “to teach them how to guide patients through the patient journey in our new — as Mark would call it — ‘Eyecandyland.’”

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

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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America's Finest

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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