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America's Finest

Optician’s Success Secret? ‘It’s Not Rocket Science. Just Listen to People’

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Located in central Illinois, Specs Around Town offers a cozy boutique setting within a rather expansive geographical area. The downtown Bloomington shop serves clients from Chicago (two hours north) and St. Louis (two hours south), as well as Peoria and Champaign-Urbana. Even so, the experience clients receive is personal, customized and unique. Always unique.

Quick Facts

Julie Kubsch OWNER: Julie Kubsch
LOCATION: Bloomington, IL
URL: specsaroundtown.com
OPENED: 1998 (mobile), 2001 (storefront)
AREA: 1,200 square feet
EMPLOYEES: 5
TOP BRANDS: Theo, Anne & Valentin, Francis Klein, Face a Face, Lindberg, JF Rey, Barton Perreira, FEB 31st, Andy Wolf, Wissing, l.a.Eyeworks
FACEBOOK: facebook.com/specsaroundtown
TWITTER: @specsaroundtown
INSTAGRAM: @specsaroundtown

The shop’s eyewear selection and a high level of customer service are what Julie Kubsch and her team consistently offer. And Kubsch is grateful for the assistance she’s had from social media in growing her client base. “The number of times we’ve had people new to our area, but maybe who’ve always worn Theo or Lindberg, do a search and say, ‘I drove an hour and a half because I see you carry Theo’ … that never would have happened 20 years ago,” she says.

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When new clients arrive, Kubsch, or someone on her team, will offer them a brief tour of the shop to ensure they understand the overall layout. Kubsch notes that pulling frames and sitting down for a try-on session is always the goal, but the priority is each client’s comfort level. “Some people are more comfortable just browsing because they are maybe intimidated,” she says, “but when you let them browse they often don’t know where the heck to start.”

When the Specs Around Town staff observes what Kubsch describes as a “deer-in-headlights situation,” they step in. “It’s good if we can wrangle them a little bit and get some conversation going to find out a little more about their lifestyle, what they do, how they do it, and what kind of look they’re going for.” Armed with these details, the staff can make educated suggestions. Kubsch describes how the next step of the process often unfolds, saying, “We’ll hand somebody something to try on and at first they’ll give us a look like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And then they put it on and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I never would have picked that up on my own!’”

As for Kubsch’s direction to her staff, it’s the same as what she strives to do herself: “just listen to people.” She says, “What we do is not rocket science. Unfortunately Illinois is not a licensed state, so to find anybody that has any background or training is really, really far and few between. I’ve really lucked out [with my employees].”

“We don’t want to overwhelm people,” she says. “If you have somebody new here they’re overwhelmed to begin with. And then if you immediately say, ‘We can make you a pair of glasses! You just have to pick from those 8,000 different colors and decide if you want them matte or polished,’ you can lose someone really fast. You’ve got to get to know who you’re working with.”

On the marketing front, Specs Around Town keeps in touch with clients — current and potential — through the use of several social media platforms. “We are Instagrammers and on Twitter and Facebook,” Kubsch says. Last winter, the shop also did a new commercial, which can be found on the boutique’s website.

From making coffee, to cleaning floors, at Specs Around Town, “Everybody does everything,” Kubsch says. “I feel very lucky that everybody in the crew I’ve had over the years pretty much gets that and is willing to all row the boat in the same direction.” And that would clearly be the right direction.

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Five Cool Things About Specs Around Town

going mobile: When Kubsch first considered starting her own business, she pondered getting an ice cream truck— Good Humor style. As the plan became more real, her eighth grade daughter suggested a Volkswagen Beetle and the plan evolved into a mobile optical in 1998. “I haven’t had a Beetle since 2008, and two weeks ago, a guy told us he knew about us because, he said, ‘I always saw that Beetle driving around.’”

A True Community Garden:  Specs Around Town participates in Bloomington’s Adopt-a-Pot program, wherein they oversee a large flower pot near their location. “We have a huge tomato plant, it’s like killer size,” says Kubsch, who grew up gardening and established this year’s pot as a community garden. “We’ve got green beans, green peppers, basil, oregano. If you’re cooking tonight and want any [vegetables], take some.”

Eyz on The Road: The original Specs Around Town Beetle featured vanity plates, BUGEYZ4, and Kubsch still uses the plates on her current, non-opticianry vehicle. She says, “People have a hard time with it. We get Bug Easy, Buggies. I’m like, ‘It’s bug eyes!’”

Holiday, Celebrate! Each winter in downtown Bloomington, local businesses participate in an event called Live Holiday Windows. “I must say, feather in our cap, we probably have the most creative [display] every year,” Kubsch says.

All Ears: When they come into the shop, clients often take notice of the nine-foot-tall corn cob with many big eyeballs. It’s affectionately named Cornea Ears Looking at You, and lives in a large flower pot.

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What the Judges Say

ANDREA HILL: Your back story of direct delivery is terrific. Using your clients in your ads is so smart, but getting them to come sit in your window suggests some kind of crazy loyalty.

COLLEEN GALANTI: The shop has an awesome eclectic feel to it. The community charity work is fabulous and important.

Mike Karlsrud: This place is just sassy! The exterior reminds you of walking into a storybook. I love the detail devoted to play and creating an environment that is family focused.

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

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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.”

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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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