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OUR COMPANY, SMARTWORK MEDIA, had its initial success with INSTORE, a magazine for American jewelry retailers. Launched in 2002, it had, within a few years, become the most popular magazine in its market, overcoming a crowded field of rivals.

After INSTORE’s success, our team sought new markets to reach and inspire with our winning formula: fun-to-read, actionable self-help content; motivational/energizing stories from the front lines of the business; lots and lots of faces and opinions from within the community; all wrapped and packaged in a consumer-magazine quality design.

We sought a field with a large population of independent businesses. And we didn’t care how many other publications there were in the market because we were confident that, if our publication was different enough and stayed on mission, we’d earn the time of our readers.

To launch INVISION, I directed production of a prototype edition in September 2013. While the magazine has developed tremendously over time, the bones of the INVISION model were there from the start — feature stories on independents, lots of bite-sized, quick-read expert tips, a profile of one of “America’s Finest” optical retailers, plus “Real Deal”, a real-life business problem for eyecare pros to share solutions. (We even had a tiny little Brain Squad — though it started off as “The Eye Squad.”)

To test the concept, we printed and mailed a few thousand copies and distributed some at Vision Expo West. Even with the limited launch, initial reaction was extremely positive. Said one reader, “If your future issues are anything like your first edition, you have a fan for life.” Said another: “Love, love, love this magazine!” (Pro tip: If you make or sell any kind of product, you know you’re on the right track when you get a “triple love” comment from a customer.)

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INVISION has come a long way since September 2013, and I’m incredibly proud of how it’s grown and matured — first under the stewardship of original editor-in-chief, Julie Fanselow, and for the last eight years under the passionate and brilliant guidance of current editor-in-chief
Dee Carroll.

The magazine you receive 10 times a year is truly one of the finest magazines in all B2B media. And I’m not just saying that — in 2019, INVISION won best single issue in the Neal Awards, the most prestigious prize in the most prestigious contest in all of business publishing.

We have shared a lot of information over the last 10 years, and we hope our publication has helped you. In the pages to come, we’re riffing on one of our old columns “If I owned…” and distilling a decade of the best ideas we’ve presented over the years into our dream optical business alongside a timeline of the ups and downs we’ve faced together.

INVISION at 10: Our Notes from a Decade

IF WE OWNED…

ONE OF THE PILLARS of our coverage over the past decade has been INVISION’s annual America’s Finest Optical Retailers (AFOR) competition. A successful business is more than the sum of its parts, but here we’re indulging in a thought experiment, selecting outstanding elements from a decade’s worth of AFOR honorees, Best of the Best profiles, and Benchmarks roundups that, when combined, add up to something like our “dream eyecare business.”
Spaces and experiences

Exteriors: Dr. Matt Barber opened his new office in 2020 with a mission to raise the bar on eyecare in Fort Worth, TX. CHROMA Eyecare + Eyewear (1st Place, AFOR 2022) has achieved that in one of the most striking optical spaces ever to grace the pages of INVISION. As one of the judges of the 2022 AFOR competition put it, CHROMA—housed in a modern tilt-wall concrete building — is “eyecare as an artform, as monumental…”

And while we’re on the outside looking in, window displays have been a focal point of creativity for many of our AFOR subjects. At Uber Optics in Petaluma, CA, (1st Place, AFOR 2023), owner Nancy Revis has changed hers every month for the past 10 years with the help of designer Siobhan Haslam. “My windows have to tell a story,” says Revis. “People come in just to tell me how much they love [them].”

CHROMA Eyecare + Eyewear

CHROMA Eyecare + Eyewear

Interiors: Moving indoors, if there’s one thing a decade of profiling eyewear spaces has taught us, it’s that every optical needs a bar. When Todd Rogers Berberian opened Todd Rogers in Andover, MA (1st Place, AFOR 2018) in an 1840s building that had previously been a bar and grill, he repurposed the original bar as checkout desk and dispensing table. “It’s been stained, drooled on, spilled on, I’m sure thrown up on,” shares Todd. “I love that it has holes in it, dings and cigarette burns all over it. It tells a tale.”

Green space: Our dream optical wouldn’t be complete without a garden. In fact, we want one just like the 250-sq.-ft signature patio Lynda Winter created at Great Spectacles in Stockton, CA (Honorable Mention, AFOR 2017). Accessed through French doors, its striped awning, artificial lawn and water feature create a calm, cozy spa vibe, with outdoor mirrors allowing customers to get a sense of how their frames look in the light of day.

Uber Optics

Uber Optics

The experience: Truly standout businesses take a wholistic view of the customer experience. Dr. David Moore, owner of Clear Eye in Fort Worth, TX (HM, AFOR 2018) designed the “Clear Experience” — a customized approach to service where patients are asked to pre-select not just an arrival treat (cappuccino, chocolate, craft beer) when they book, but also the scent and music that will greet them. After their purchase they receive a text with details on their frames and links to the brand’s story, and post-visit, patients are mailed a personal handwritten “thank you” note and custom cookie in a special Clear box. Staff follow up with a call a few weeks later to make sure the customer is satisfied. We imagine they are.

We’ll be stealing these too, thanks… Blount County Eye Center in Maryville, TN (HM, AFOR 2016) has a drive-thru window for quick eyewear/supplement pick-up and drop-off; and at The Eyeglass Lass in New London, CT (HM, AFOR 2019), one entire wall is painted with bold eyes: the perfect spot for selfies and “new look” glamour shots.

INVISION at 10: Our Notes from a Decade

SHOW OFF THE EYEWEAR

Frame displays: Unique, beautifully crafted eyewear — it’s the jewel in your crown. Finding a way to present it that does justice to this artwear worn on the face is one of the qualities that sets our AFOR honorees apart. We admire the way Gary Black, owner of Black Optical Dallas (HM, AFOR 2018), opts to merchandise frames “by aesthetic” rather than brand, designer, or lifestyle in his stunning optical, where white walls and gallery shelving are offset by dark marble floors.

Like Black, our dream optical would eschew P.O.P. displays and branded corners, and it would definitely take a cue from Vancouver, BC’s The Optical Boutique (HM, AFOR 2019), where frames can be found residing in antique drawers, draped over old books and perched atop ancient typewriters.

Black Optical Dallas

Black Optical Dallas

Styling: But our imagined perfect optical business doesn’t just sell frames: it’s a destination boutique where people come to be styled. In this department, few rival Gogosha Optique in Los Angeles, CA (HM, AFOR 2021). Says owner Julia Gogosha: “We get to know the person and understand who they are, not just on a superficial level or the look they want, but also how they want to express themselves on any given day.” An optician might present up to 25 different options in a variety of looks that will complement a person’s facial features and fit their lifestyle. From there, they’ll narrow it down to a few finalists. “When you match the right frame with the right person, both light up,” she adds. Gogosha offers styling sessions online or in person at its very cool “vanity pods.” These wheeled styling stations allow customers to undergo a transformation on the patio overlooking L.A.’s iconic Sunset Boulevard.

LAB: Of course, our hypothetical optical has a lab! Over the years numerous businesses have shared with us the competitive boost they get from in-house edging. Some of you even proudly display your edger out in the open (The Novel Eye, HM, AFOR 2023). But in terms of sheer capacity and scope of lab operations (which take place in full view of the optical) we’ve yet to see an independent eyecare business that matches Empire Optical (2nd Place, America’s Finest, 2019). “We can cut virtually anything,” explains owner Christian Hargrove. “We use Satisloh freeform equipment for our surfacing, and our finishing is a combination of Essilor Instruments and DAC edgers; both wet and dry edging options for different styles of lens cuts.” Empire specializes in wrap Rxs and often exceeds the ranges most “brand” labs can handle. “We always take an Rx in and see what we can do, even if we are just learning from the experience,” says Hargrove. “We can combine lens materials from various manufacturers with freeform designs from other manufacturers to create custom combinations no one else makes. It allows for a lot of creativity from our customers, and the ability to make almost anything we can dream up.”

Gogosha Optique

Gogosha Optique

The Optical BoutiqueNOV

The Optical BoutiqueNOV

We’ll be stealing these too, thanks… The repurposed blueprint drawers used to house frames at SOMA in Boston, MA (2nd Place, AFOR 2021); the custom glass and wood boxes that showcase Eclectic Eye’s (1st Place, AFOR 2019) 1,200-frame collection in Memphis, TN, lining the walls and hanging from the ceiling; the flashcards for each frame brand with three talking points that sales staff at Ziegler Leffingwell Eyecare, in New Berlin, WI (HM, AFOR 2018) carry with them; and the “Staff Pick” cards that the opticians at Optique in Austin, TX (HM, AFOR 2018) use to feature their favorite frames and spark conversations between optician and patient.

INVISION at 10: Our Notes from a Decade

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MARKETING AND COMMUNITY BUILDING

We’ve been endlessly impressed by the way the optical retailers we cover leverage their independent eyewear and personalized service to build and maintain loyal customer bases. Our dream optical is taking cues from these fine practices…

IRL: OPTIK! European Eyewear in St. Petersburg, FL (HM, AFOR 2018) got together with neighboring boutiques and held a “Milan-style” fall fashion show in late 2021 with 15 models, a DJ, a red carpet and illuminated lounge-style furniture in a pedestrian area outside its front doors. The show drew 250 guests, who sipped wine and munched on charcuterie as the models — mostly customers — strutted their stuff. Attendees went home with swag bags packed with goodies from the participating stores. (Best of the Best, Oct. 2022.)

Metro Optics Eyewear in Bronx, NY (HM, AFOR 2017) showed us that if you can’t bring the community to you, you can go to it, purchasing a mobile autorefraction tool and designing a pop-up screening room for use at schools and neighborhood events. Along with a printed screening result, patients leave with a giveaway as an incentive to visit Metro: a branded lens cleaning cloth packaged with a savings card toward any out-of-pocket costs. Staff also bring a laptop and secure Mi-Fi connection so they can sign up patients with no insurance for Metro’s Vision Club.

INVISION at 10: Our Notes from a Decade

Georgetown Optician

OPTIK!

OPTIK!

Online: Our dream optical can only hope to emulate the artful use of Instagram by the team at Georgetown Optician in Washington, DC (Benchmarks, Oct. 22). On @georgetownoptician, they offer a beautifully curated tableau not just of the stunning independent eyewear they carry but of all things visually inspiring, from the worlds of painting, sculpture, fashion and beyond.

And over on Facebook, Oxford Eyes in Orlando, FL (HM, AFOR 2020) showed us how online community building is done. To enhance relationships between clients and industry reps, the business created its own Oxford Eyes Insiders page, which owner Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson describes as an “exclusive community of eyewear enthusiasts.” Reps from Blackfin, Lindberg, Lafont and elsewhere have joined.

INVISION at 10: Our Notes from a Decade

INVEST IN THE TEAM

Hiring: The art of management. Rivers of ink have been spilled on the topic at INVISION over the past decade; but sometimes all you need is a brainwave. Here’s one we’ll be using: Whenever possible, Modern Eye in Philadelphia, PA (3rd place, AFOR 2014) hires former restaurant employees. “They’re organized, they multitask, they think on their feet,” Mitch Gillette says. “It totally trumps having experience in the field.”

Selina McGee, OD

Selina McGee, OD

Team-building: Speaking of hiring, we’ll be making a very attractive consultation offer to Dr. Selina McGee, owner of Bespoke Vision in Edmond, OK (HM, AFOR 2022). Her efforts to nurture her staff are tireless. She has held full-day retreats; created a Huddle Room in the office to “talk about what we’re grateful for, and what our intentions are;” and gives staff fun name badges with titles like “Master of One or Two” and “Director of First Impressions”. McGee also developed a “message map” laying out what the practice does and why, and holds a Vision Board Day for staff every December to reflect on “where each teammate wants to go for the next year”. On their annual Empowerment Day, the office is closed so staff can work on team and personal growth.

We’ll be stealing these too, thanks… At Milwaukee Eye Care in Milwaukee, WI (HM, AFOR 2020) staff get $30 a quarter each in “practice bucks” to give to fellow employees as a “thank you” for going above and beyond to achieve patient satisfaction; and at Huxley Optical in Minnetonka, MN (HM, AFOR 2021) employees receive monthly education budgets to spend on lectures, books or study resources for ABO certification.

EXCEPTIONAL EYECARE

Patient flow: The ability to keep all the parts of an optometric practice moving efficiently is one of the things that sets our AFOR winners apart. We’ll be borrowing ideas liberally from Uptown Eyes in Fayetteville, AR (3rd place, AFOR 2020), whose team meets periodically to role-play every scenario of patient care. “We call this our ‘polish,’” says owner Dr. Megan Baureis.

A little discreetly deployed tech can help things, too. At eyeSMILE Vision + Dental, in Hays, KS (HM, AFOR 2022), a greeter monitors patient flow with the help of video cameras placed throughout the building, and all staff wear headsets to ensure constant communication regarding guests’ experience.

Eyes on You

Eyes on You

Exam rooms: When it comes time to building our dream exam lane, we’ve got some AFOR beauties to inspire us. At Todd Rogers (1st Place, AFOR 2018), the exam room combines fancy tech with memorable visual touches including a giant blue hand-shaped seat and a retro, wall-sized chart of the functions of the eye. At Spring Hill Eyecare in Spring Hill, TN (HM, AFOR 2019), many of the artifacts reclaimed from an 1870 farmhouse originally on the property have found their way into the exam rooms, each of which is themed: travel, garage (featuring a 1940s truck door), trains (working light and crossing signs); and music (with 100-year-old instruments).

Eyecare: Over the past decade we’ve profiled numerous eye doctors who do a great job of communicating to patients the benefits of emerging technologies and products. In 2024, one specialty that is increasingly being adopted by eye docs is aesthetics and spa services — and it is one that our dream eyecare biz will be embracing wholeheartedly.

Showing us the way is Eyes on You in Seattle, WA (HM, AFOR 2023 – profiled in this issue!). In the kind of forward-looking move our AFOR profiles celebrate, the practice recently purchased IPL and other equipment to treat conditions like dry eye and ocular rosacea, but then began utilizing it to provide aesthetic services, treating sun damage, age spots, spider veins and other issues, and bringing on board a staff RN and master aesthetician. Their willingness to innovate prompted one of our AFOR judges to write: “The industry moved from jewelry stores to practices in the last century and now this practice is moving from a practice solely focused on eyewear to future spa treatments. This requires risk taking [and] nothing ever changes without risk.” That quote could be interpreted as a worthy tribute to all the truly fine practices we have profiled over the past decade.

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KIDS’ STUFF

Finally, ECPs who specialize in examining, treating and fitting children — the latter activity was once memorably described to us as “like wrestling a greased pig” — deserve special recognition. Much of their brilliant work is done in specialty practices and vision therapy clinics that are beyond the scope of what our AFOR-based “dream optical” can realistically incorporate. But our America’s Finest profile subjects have included several practices that have gone the extra mile to make kids feel at home.

In the late 2000s, as her initial business, Eye Candy in Delafield, WI, was getting off the ground, Paula Hornbeck was fielding a growing number of inquiries about children’s eyewear. “There was a major need for quality children’s eyewear,” she says. “I couldn’t let it go on.” Her solution? Eye Candy Kids (HM, AFOR 2015), for which she transformed Eye Candy’s 700-square-foot storage space into a dynamic children’s optical boutique, connected to the mother store by a hallway.

Eye Candy Kids

Eye Candy Kids

Special mention should also go to the “jungle play room” for young patients at Ziegler Leffingwell Eyecare in New Berlin, WI (HM, AFOR 2018), replete with a starlit ceiling, dragonfly lights, Brio train set and lots of other toys. (And all kids get an ice cream cone Rx after their exam.)

INVISION at 10: Our Notes from a Decade

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