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A Dallas store where Black is the new black.

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Black Optical, Dallas, TX

OWNER: Gary Black; WEBSITE: blackoptical.com; OPENED : 2016; AREA: 1,198 square feet
EMPLOYEES: 10 full-time; TOP BRANDS: Ahlem Eyewear, Garrett Leight, Jacques Marie Mage, KREWE, Mykita, and Thom Browne; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/blackoptical; YELP: yelp.com/biz/black-optical-dallas; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/blackoptical


HUGE, DISPLAY-FREE WINDOWS invite passersby to peer deep into the spacious gallery that is Black Optical’s Dallas, TX, location. Those whose tastes lean toward striking simplicity, who think more in terms of style than fashion, function or brand, find themselves drawn to the exquisitely curated selection of eyewear they see inside, arrayed unadorned on white shelves that float above dark marble floors.

To owner Gary Black, fine eyewear is “an extension of our love for design,” the store itself a space to display “a small selection of culture we are inspired by.” He opened Black Optical in 2007 after a decade as regional manager for a national sunglass manufacturer. Initial success in Tulsa, OK, was repeated in the larger markets of Oklahoma City and Dallas. A fourth store just opened in Newport Beach, CA. He’s obviously doing something right.

“I’ve done a lot of things wrong too,” Black counters. “I got to make the rookie mistakes on someone else’s dime.”

In 2007, Black wasn’t thinking beyond Tulsa. “The goal was to use Black Optical Tulsa as a vehicle to explore other interests; open a men’s lifestyle boutique, or a record store focusing on jazz music, become an architect.” While building the first showroom, he “came to the realization that Black Optical is the best vehicle for pursuing that passion.”

A veteran of four store openings, Black seeks out “neighborhoods that lean more residential than commercial. We like being a cultural hub for our communities, and we as a team get great joy from our clients and friends visiting to talk about art, music, or films.” Dallas’ Knox neighborhood fits that bill. “It’s the perfect Dallas neighborhood. We are surrounded by an economically diverse income [group], steps away from the Katy Trail, and walkable to Highland Park, the wealthiest neighborhood in Dallas. Our co-tenants are very independently minded, including some of the best restaurants in the city.” This is retail as salon: It’s not only about connecting with a community, but also helping to create one based on shared tastes.

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“We merchandise our frames by aesthetic, not designer,” Black says. The store is devoid of P.O.P. displays; there are no brand- or lifestyle-based areas. “We barely have our own logo on display. We believe service is our best form of branding.” This is genuine “curated” retail: expert product selection combined with close attention to customer service. Without the latter, you’re simply showing off a collection.

The store’s dark Nero and Calcutta marbles offset white gallery shelving and walls, complemented by wood and leather. Black also has a fondness for acetate. When it comes to the eyewear itself, he’s no passive collector; partnerships with designers are a hallmark. “We have collaborated with Ahlem Eyewear, Garrett Leight, and Jacques Marie Mage.” According to Stirling Barrett, founder of New Orleans-based KREWE Sunglasses, “In the art world of eyewear, Gary is one of the pinnacle curators. To have him as a friend and learn from his industry insight has meant a lot to us.”

But is it really possible to merchandise purely by aesthetic? “Completely possible … Great brands do each have their own aesthetics, but there is also commonality. Various designers create aviators, oversized, petite, metals, sculptural, etc. Our expertise comes in discovering great collections and styles that will fit our clients best.” Black prizes his relationships with designers, but ultimately they are secondary. “Designers come and go; they have great collections and not-so-great collections. This is where a little ego comes into play. We make it about us. We have a deep respect for each designer we work with. But we want our clients to buy into Black Optical, not the designers.”

There are practical factors at work, too. “I didn’t start out merchandising by aesthetic. It really came out of figuring out a way to help clients more efficiently. Black Optical Tulsa is 96 feet long. It was taking too much time to walk back and forth. Consumers just want to look good, feel good, and see well. So, it made sense to keep similar ‘fits’ together.”

Black outsources to various labs depending on the frame. “Pricing is so competitive now, and turnaround times so quick. It’s best to focus on what we do best, which is fit frames.”

Given Black Optical’s approach, building a strong team would seem to be crucial. “Ultimately, we want to develop people, while they help develop our brand. We hire with the intent that the candidate will be with us for the long haul, but we also realize this is not a reality for this generation … Our interview process is very slow.”

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Black Optical’s online presence is well tended and responsive. On various platforms, you’ll find references to everything from early ’70s Stevie Wonder to the Kenyan spectacles sculptor Cyrus Kabiru. But it’s not as intimidating as all of this may sound. There are fun lines of kids’ eyewear, and the cultural references run the gamut from Ed Ruscha to the grilled cheese sandwich — American classics both.

In one posted photo, Grace Kelly, circa 1950s, pores over a book by Jacques Cousteau. “At heart, we are explorers and learners like Cousteau and Kelly,” says Black. “[She] is the perfect example of not only iconic beauty, but incredible intelligence as well.” You’ll search in vain for a logo in the interior of Black Optical Dallas, but if there had to be one, that image might serve.

PHOTO GALLERY (8 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Black Optical

1. Video star. If Terrence Malick made online eyewear ads, they’d look like Black Optical’s video collaboration with Jacques Marie Mage, which seems to delight in walking a similarly fine line between art school pretense and visual profundity. Some clips plug events, some make aesthetic points, others educate. One shows you how Black Optical’s handmade leather cases are created.

2. Staff benefits. Under a “wellness reimbursement” plan, the company contributes $150 a quarter to any activity that contributes to an employee’s healthy lifestyle, be it a gym membership, massages, or registering for a 200-mile bike race. After seven years, staff get a paid 30-day sabbatical. And continuing education is encouraged, even at work; Black is building a leadership book library.

3. Designer collabs. At Black Optical, inspiration’s a two-way street. “Our collaborations have taken various forms. Sometimes it’s limited frame color/lens color runs, sometimes using precious materials like 18K gold mirrors or wrapping frames in Oklahoma-sourced bison leather.”

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4. POP free. “We avoid all P.O.P., logos, and branding; even our [own] branding is virtually nonexistent,” says Black.

5. It’s not. “There is nothing cool about us. We are just a group of passionate nerds,” says Black. If you’ve been within a block of one of Black Optical’s stores, it’s hard not to scent some Warholian irony here. But he’s not just being, umm, cool. “While I was building Black Optical, two books inspired the brand: Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, and Chasing Cool.  The latter probably best explains why I don’t think Black Optical is ‘cool.’”

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • Their billboards are magnificent! With ‘We believe service is our best form of branding,’ it’s no wonder they offer a 30 day paid sabbatical to employees on their seventh anniversary.” Robert Bell, The Eye Coach, San Francisco, CA
  • They have turned a small optical in Oklahoma into a brand recognized across state lines. Their advertising is targeted at those more likely to look for deals online, making their success in that demographic even more impressive!” James and Dr. Laura Armstrong, Alberta Eye Care and Cathedral Eye Care, Portland, OR
  • Great presence on Instagram. Brand looks playful and fun. Store looks clean and modern.” Jim Sepanek, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, DeRigo REM, Sun Valley, CA

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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America's Finest

This NYC Eyewear Boutique is Simultaneously Fashion-Forward and Enamored with the Past

Bond 07 by Selima is a magnet for eyewear fanatics.

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Bond 07 by Selima, New York

OWNER: Selima Salaun; URL: selimaoptique.com; FOUNDED: 1993; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 1998; EMPLOYEES: 18 full-time, 2 part-time; AREA: 1,600 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Selima Optique, Ottomila 8000, Megane & Me, Groover Spectacles, Smoke & Mirrors;FACEBOOK: facebook.com/Bond07bySelima; INSTAGRAM: @selimaoptique; YELP: yelp.com/biz/bond-07-new-york


A NATIVE OF THE French Riviera, Selima Salaun began her career working for luxury frame designers in Europe before moving to New York to manage the Alain Mikli boutique. She opened her first retail boutique in New York’s SoHo district in 1993, and quickly established it as a hot spot for creative personalities, who were drawn to the handmade craftsmanship of her Selima Optique frames. Her ability to customize frames into unique pieces, and her equally unique personality (anyone who has had the opportunity to interact with Salaun knows she’s one of the great personalities of the optical world), have become highly valued and made her, among other things, something of an ECP-to-the-stars.

Both a trained OD and a licensed optician, Salaun credits much of what she’s achieved to her French schooling. Going to school in Morez, the “optical capital of France,” she was required to learn “everything from design to doing eye exams, lens cutting, soldering — I really mean everything.”

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When she moved to Manhattan, she soon developed an obsession for SoHo, which was then the epicenter of art and culture. “Walking around I found this stunning store for rent. It was derelict but my husband Jean-Marie totally renovated it and made it the jewel it is today.” The keys to a good location, she says, are “Atmosphere, ambiance, fun neighbors. It’s about a feeling.” So far, she’s found that feeling in six locations: four in NYC, one in Santa Monica, CA, and one in the Place des Vosges in Paris. It was in 1998 that she ventured north of Houston St. to open Bond 07 by Selima. This is a true NoHo boutique, with the eyewear displayed largely by aesthetic, color or theme, much of it in small brightly hued trunk cases stacked on antique wooden tables, and in retro glass cabinets. Fun, colorful eyewear-related artwork adorns the walls and thoughtfully curated window displays.

Bond 07 is a key outlet for Salaun’s passion for vintage styles. (This goes beyond the eyewear: In among the Marc Jacobs shoes, Balenciaga dresses and even brightly colored tableware, advertised on the store’s Facebook page recently were a vintage Gucci leather jacket and a vintage Christian Dior set once worn by Gladys Knight.) The store holds a large vintage eyewear archive along with contemporary lines. Her own brand, Selima Optique, is largely inspired by styles originating from sources in fashion and cinema, but she says her greatest source of inspiration has always been her daily interaction with clients.

Rounding out the service is a part-time OD in Salaun’s SoHo store; Selima also has her own lab.

Entering Bond 07, a customer can be in little doubt that the eyewear selection is going to be part of a broader fashion experience, though Salaun acknowledges that most of the store’s clients are already, in her words, “eyewear fanatics” who are looking for a new, unique pair of frames. “When working with customers,” she says, “you start to develop a psychological understanding of their character and personality. It almost turns you into a therapist in some ways, as you grow closer with them and they start to feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts. This is a very important and valuable characteristic of developing strong relationships that last beyond the store itself.”

Illustrating this, most of the frames created for the Selima Optique brand are named after Salaun’s friends, colleagues, and clients. “Every frame has a history,” she says. “Most employees who have worked at Selima Optique have a frame named after them.” Salaun’s fashion cred is part of her brand; the possibility that a trip to Bond 07 could get you styled by Salaun herself is held out as a genuine selling point.

Selima Optique’s online store is, unsurprisingly, a prominent feature of the website, but Salaun is still a firm believer in the idea that online plays a supporting role. Asked if she sees online sales as a must, she says, “As a designer, absolutely, but as an ECP, not really. Bricks and mortar are very important.”

Ultimately, Bond 07 is a celebration of creativity, but Salaun sees this as a two-way process: “Many times, our customers inspire us as much as we hope our creativity inspires them!”

PHOTO GALLERY (14 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Bond 07 by Selima

1. WHO LET THE…? “We have seven dogs running around to entertain our customers and clients,” Salaun boasts.

2. MAKEOVER Bond 07 has its own hair salon, located inside the store — Suite 303.

3. MODEL NEIGHBOR Salaun occasionally has to wade through the paparazzi scrum outside the home of Gigi Hadid, who lives directly opposite. Though her frames have appeared in so many fashion editorials, they may very well be there for her.

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4. MONEY SPINNER During a recent holiday season, Bond 07 put out a spinning wheel; with every sale, the customers got a spin of the wheel, determining a free gift ranging from a free tote bag to a frame.

5. MUSIC TO MY EYES Selima Optique, Salaun’s eyewear brand, has its very own entry in Gagapedia, the “free online encyclopedia on everything Gaga.”

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • A masterful blend of chic narrative elements and objects that extend the conversation and context of eyewear. An environment of stylish discovery! Brent Zerger, l.a. Eyeworks, Los Angeles, CA
  • Selima has some really unique, creative fashion ideas. She does a great job with adding color to a vintage, New York look. Very nice brand. Michael Kling, OD, Invision Optometry, San Diego, CA
  • The window display has enough contrast and visibility to draw in a passerby. The custom website illustrations are charming. Instagram is meticulously curated. Natalie Taylor, Artisan Eyewear, Meredith, NH

 

FINE STORY

Salaun has crafted custom frames for stars including Bono, Liv Tyler, Madonna and many others. Lady Gaga is frequently photographed in Selima Optique frames. Some celebrities come in knowing exactly what they want, while others are happy to let Salaun style them. “Michael Jackson, for instance, wanted something based on a vintage Dior brooch. It was very labor intensive but fun creatively. Bono was like, ‘What do you see me wearing?’”

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America's Finest

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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