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Innovative ‘Store Within a Store’ Concept Lifts Iowa Eyecare Business

One location, two models: The making of a store-in-store success story.

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IN AN ERA of “disruption,” the independent retailer’s greatest asset may be adaptability. Sometimes this means putting your own spin on an existing merchandising concept. One of the savviest examples we’ve found is Focus by Discerning Eye, the “store-within-a-store” opened by Discerning Eye of Iowa City, IA, when it relocated last year. The format usually involves a retailer partnering with a manufacturer, but owner Joni Schrup had a better idea…

Discerning Eye owner Joni Schrup found a way to keep business from walking out the door.

THE IDEA: Discerning Eye opened in Iowa City’s Downtown District in 2005. Last year, Schrup moved to her new location a block away.

In that time, Schrup had discerned a pattern: Students from the nearby University of Iowa would come in for an Rx, leave and buy frames online, then return when those frames needed repairs or adjusting. “We were trying to figure out how to capture that market.” So, Schrup did what she does best: She came up with a plan. No, she didn’t litter the store’s Facebook page with student discounts. She and her team had been trying to decide what to do with the new location’s basement, and the store-within-a-store concept took hold, but with a typically thoughtful twist.

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This store-within-a store would allow Discerning Eye to cater to people who might ordinarily shop online, without upending its core mission. “Buying online is great … until you sit on your glasses. We adjust all the glasses we sell — free.” But the commitment to quality remains. “We only sell eyewear from independent optical companies, which allows us to focus on quality and sell what we love,” Schrup says. The trick was finding lines priced acceptably for this online-leaning demographic, but which met Discerning Eye’s criteria for quality. Researching that “took about a year.”

THE EXECUTION: At Discerning Eye, they do their homework. “From the beginning, we focused on premier products and top-notch service,” Schrup says. Focus carries, among other lines, Brooklyn Spectacles, mó and Tortoise & Blonde. The pricing at Focus is straightforward. “We use a tiered pricing system. Glasses including prescription are $165, and various upgrades are available for another $30 to $60.”

THE REWARDS: Revenue is up, suggesting the space (the new store is 500 square feet larger than its predecessor) has been put to good use. Despite all the planning, the immediate positive impact left her “kind of surprised. We had goals when we opened [Focus] but surpassed them … It’s really taking off.” Schrup is now planning an online presence for Focus. But could moving online lead to “mission creep,” or compromise? “There is  the perception that online equals cheaper,” Schrup acknowledges.

In a way, Focus by Discerning Eye could be read as an effort to move beyond the false dichotomy of online versus brick-and-mortar, with the store-within-a-store creating a new kind of symbiosis. “It took years of searching to find vendors with eyewear that met our standards with prices that are affordable for all.”

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Tackling the complexities of the online arena is something her son, Sam Schrup, is interested in. “He’d love to have an online store,” she says.

Do It Yourself: Open a Store In Your Store

Stay Focused. “Know your market,” says Schrup. While Focus sells affordable frames, Discerning Eye sells luxury eyewear and “we don’t apologize for our prices.

Keep it simple. Focus offers a single price on all its frames including prescription lenses, with a few tiered packages at additional cost (e.g., upgrade to thinner lenses for $30).

Hook, line & … Differentiate your store-within-a-store from your main business with a slogan. Focus’ tag line sums up its mission thus: “Online price; in-person service.”

Do your homework. The mother store grew out of a school project by Schrup’s son. True to form, the pair spent a year researching eyewear before they opened Focus.

QUOTE a poet. For a store willing to challenge convention, invoking Emily Dickinson seems justified: “Much Madness is divinest Sense / To a discerning Eye…” she wrote.

 
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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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Best of the Best

At This Wellness-Focused Pennsylvania Boutique, Eye Health is Just the Start

Combining eyecare and eyewear with a range of self-care offerings, they treat not just the eye, but the rest of the body as well.

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WHEN SISTERS DR. Giulia and Paola Tinari opened Sorella Optique and Eyecare in Paoli, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia, their aim was to go beyond treating vision and eye health in isolation. They see eyecare as an integral part of overall wellbeing and wanted their practice to reflect that.

THE IDEA

Both sisters have been involved in overall health and wellness since their college days. “We’ve always had a strong belief in healing from within and getting to the root cause of any problem,” says Paola. “We think it is important to blend Eastern and Western medicine when treating not only the eye but the rest of the body. When you practice a healthy way of living, then incorporating it into your business is second nature.”

THE EXECUTION

The emphasis on wellness is evident in the products and services offered at Sorella, the advice Dr. Tinari dispenses, and the overall patient experience. “We created a soothing environment so patients feel at ease the moment they step into the office,” says Paola. “Dr. Tinari stresses the importance of good nutrition, not only for ocular health but overall health, and recommends supplementing with various antioxidants including lutein and zeaxanthin, bilberry, asthaxanthin, omega-3, and vitamin C.” Dr. Tinari likes to keep up with studies in nutrition and often recommends anti-inflammatory products to help reduce inflammation especially in diabetic patients or those with a family history of eye diseases like macular degeneration. Sorella offers vitamins at the office for patients to take home and are looking to bring more into inventory.

The practice’s website also links to PRN, an online vendor of a range of vitamin formulas designed to bolster many aspects of eye and vision health, including products targeting the health of the macular and retina regions of the eyes, and “Dry Eye Omega Benefits,” a formula designed to ease symptoms of the condition, among many others.

Sorella’s dry eye practice also makes use of the MiboFlo Thermoflo treatment. Says Paola: “Dry eye is very prevalent in today’s society. MiboFlo targets inflammation in the meibomian glands. Just like getting a deep tissue massage, this treatment offers patients relief by breaking down inflammatory byproducts and improving their tear film.”

Alongside their independent frame lines, Sorella Optique and Eyecare makes space for body care products such as Zents, a line of organic lotions, soaps, body washes and other items containing ingredients ranging from oolong tea to sandalwood and orris. The products claim to relieve conditions such as psoriasis and eczema, as well as provide de-stressing effects.

To get the wellness message out, the practice relies heavily on its active Instagram presence and has plans to launch a monthly blog that patients will receive via email.

THE REWARDS

The Tinari sisters find the ongoing self-education and patient-education that a devotion to wellness entails enhances their lives as businesspeople and as ECPs. “We recognize that people today have an interest in bettering themselves. We love offering patients alternative ideas to help heal and be preventative in their journey to wellness,” Paola says.

Like any niche, wellness is a passion, says Tinari. “What is it that you are passionate about in our field? If you love seeing pediatric patients and dread geriatrics, then stop, focus on what you are into. You may lose a few patients but gain so much by doing what you love all day long.”

Do It Yourself: Create a Wellness-Oriented Practice

  • HEAL THySELF. “Take care of yourself first,” says Paola Tinari. “If you are burnt out, your patients can sense it and your business will suffer.”
  • CROSS-MARKET. Setting yourself up as a wellness-focused practice opens up joint marketing opportunities; sound out a local spa or vendor of body care goods.
  • UP YOUR SERVICE GAME. In this field, excellent customer service is even more important than ever. Be prepared to always “do what is best for the patient.”
  • pick the right tEAM. Not everyone’s cut out for this line of work. Positivity and creativity are key, says Tinari. “Get rid of toxicity and your business will flourish.”
  • EDUCATE. Create a blog or newsletter to keep patients updated on the latest products and services.

 

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Best of the Best

Sports Vision Training Can Be a Game-Changer for Your Practice

These Ohio vision therapy specialists demonstrate how they help see their athletes succeed and their practice grow.

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Vision Development Team founder
Dr. Alex Andrich

AT THE VISION DEVELOPMENT Team in North Royalton, OH, founder Alex Andrich, OD, and his wife Patti, an occupational therapist and a partner in the practice, offer standout vision therapy, treating kids with learning disabilities, brain injury patients and those with stress-related vision problems, to name just a few. But one aspect of their practice that really sets them apart is their top-flight sports vision training, which has helped Cleveland-area athletes of all ages, from school kids to adult professionals, address vision problems and improve their performance.

THE IDEA

Sports have always been a big part of the Andrichs’ lives; the couple met on Ohio State University’s alpine ski racing team. Alex also has a background in competitive beach volleyball and race-car driving, while Patti trained with the U.S. Olympic gymnastics squad. This competitive exposure allowed them to see how small improvements in skills can translate into big gains in performance. With vision being such a big part of sports, it was a natural fit for the couple to open a practice specializing in vision training.

THE EXECUTION

The practice as it exists today was built on Dr. Andrich’s background in VT. “Sports vision training is vision therapy practiced at the highest level,” he says. He took courses in advanced VT techniques and eventually obtained board certification through the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD). He also says the education and training offered by organizations working in vision therapy such as the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association (NORA) and the Optometric Extension Program Foundation (OEPF) provide excellent models on which to build vision training.

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A typical VT case would be a child with eye-tracking difficulty causing reading problems, but as Andrich explains, “When a successful outcome is achieved the child can read better — but they can also hit a baseball better. Utilizing the latest vision therapy tech has also helped to advance my sports vision practice.”

“We go beyond looking at the eyeball and treat vision as a whole-body sense,” says Andrich. “In baseball it is important to see the ball clearly but the visual system tells the motor system critical information about ‘where’ and ‘when’ so the motor system can respond accurately.”

For the past year, Andrich has served as vision coach for the Cleveland Indians, a role he also performs for the Cleveland Monsters hockey team and the Gladiators, the city’s arena football team. He’s responsible for the refractive and ocular health needs of the athletes, but a big part of what he offers has to do with performance. Depending on the sport, he will test the athletes on up to 20 visual performance skills, then put together a training plan for each athlete. “All athletes require core vision skills like eye tracking and eye teaming, but certain sports like baseball require really fast visual reaction and processing speeds, whereas a hockey player benefits from good central/peripheral vision integration,” he says.

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The practice’s large, high-ceilinged therapy room gives the team room for on-site vision training using sports equipment.

THE REWARDS

Dr. Andrich says the main reward he derives from being a sports vision training practitioner is seeing his athletes succeed. “The best athletes set themselves apart by the amount of work they put into their sport,” he says. “Sports are competitive by nature, so the elite athlete is always looking to improve performance. Improving vision skills gives them a competitive advantage and success on the field.” And off the field, having sports vision as a part of his practice has definitely allowed it to grow, he says.

Do It Yourself: Practice Sports Vision Training

  • NETWORK. Get involved with colleagues who are doing sports vision by joining the International Sports Vision Association (sportsvision.pro).
  • START SCOUTING. Offer vision screenings for local high school and college or university sports teams.
  • BONE UP. Enroll in training that can lead to certification. Outfits that deal with vision therapy, including NORA (noravisionrehab.org) and COVD (covd.org), are ready to help.
  • CHAIR CHAT. The OD should ask each patient that comes through his exam lane about sports participation to start a dialogue.
  • GOT GEAR? Andrich has invested in eye-tracking and performance-testing equipment, including virtual reality.

 

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Spice Up Your Frame Selection with This Strategy That Probably Never Occurred to You

It gives patients a reason to visit based on product assortment rather than discounts.

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PERRY BRILL, GENERAL MANAGER at Brill Eye Center in Mission, KS, was looking for something new to base the practice’s marketing effort on, and knew that having new brands always generates more excitement than just saying you’ve got a refresh. Always one to shy away from typical optical business plans, he hit on a novel concept.

THE IDEA

Tired of brands wanting 30-plus-piece orders, he decided to try bringing in micro-collections of 10-20 pieces every month to create some email and direct-mail hype. He wanted experience with more brands quicker than his usual once-every-six-months, large brand buy. “A retailer should always have a flavor of uniqueness. Restaurants have seasonal menus and opticals should have seasonal eyewear. Give patients a reason to visit based on product assortment rather than discounts,” Brill says.

THE EXECUTION

Perry Brill

To curate a micro-collection of eight to 15 pieces, Brill says, connect with “ma and pa” frame vendors, who he says are just happy to have representation of their eyewear in any city. The easiest way to find these vendors is to go to Vision Expo, find the smaller booths and ask their minimum purchase. “Don’t expect the booths to be fancy!” he says. “Just observe the eyewear for quality and personality before making judgments. Most people will be super transparent and love your idea of creating seasonal collections.”

Brill says a small micro-collection should cost between $500 and $3,000. So far, he’s been impressed with the number of luxury or quasi-luxury brands that let him dabble with smaller orders. Being in the Kansas City area, he says, “It’s pretty easy to have exclusivity, with everyone selling bread and butter.”

The small collections now represent 10 percent of his inventory, which he figures is about right, as he wouldn’t risk going deep into the more obscure pricey stuff anyway. “I’m okay if it doesn’t sell quickly since the investment was slim.”
Micro-collections that have worked well for Brill include:

  • Ethnicity: “Asian and global fitting with acetate built-up pads and special wider temples. Don’t need a ton of frames but enough to tackle difficult-to-fit. Opticians need to up their game with fitting standards. The moment you solve frames on cheek issues — patient for a lifetime.”
  • Lucas De Stael (shown): “Ultra luxury for the high rollers and lover of texture and design. Made of leather, stone or cork. Retails for $1,000-plus.”
  • Sospiri: “Ultra luxury for the fancy woman who wants to shine — literally. Most jeweled frames are tacky; these are classy. $1,000-plus. People that want jewels want it! They will go find it if you don’t have it.”

THE REWARDS

Brill says the main benefit of ordering micro-collections is they give you a reason to engage with patients via social media and email. In such a competitive environment, and having access to great independent collections, it’s fun to test the waters with new product all the time, he says. And from a patient perspective, Brill believes that when they walk into an office they always want to see something new. “Carrying the same branded collections is easy, but having lots of collections gives patients choices and a tour around the world of independent eyewear. My optical is used to rapid change and every optician always wants to show what’s new.”

Do It Yourself: Micro Order Luxury Frames

  • PRIDE OF PLACE. Label an area in your optical with catchy signage that says something like: “New season eyewear, feel invigorated.”
  • DON’T SWEAT THE… “Don’t think too hard,” says Brill. “If the frames are bad sellers, the risk was low and you don’t need to worry about returns.”
  • HAVE FUN. “Go funky, always!” is Brill’s motto. This is your time to try wacky new inventory you would never go 50 frames deep in.
  • TAKE YOUR TIME. The key to selling such frames is sitting the patient down, explaining to them the brand story and frame characteristics.
  • GET THE WORD OUT. Inform your patients you have something cool and new in stock. “Thank goodness for email campaigns,” says Brill.

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