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Minnesota optician creates destination boutique unlike any other.

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EyeStyles Optical and Boutique, Oakdale, MN

URL: marshallpierce.com; OWNER: Nikki Griffin; OPENED: 2012; RENOVATED: 2016; AREA: 1,200 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 2 part-time; TOP WATCH BRANDS: Coco Song, Dolabany, Etnia Barcelona, Etnia Kids, Louis Luso Jr., Proof, Rudy Project, TC Charton, TC Charton Kids, Tomato Glasses; WEBSITE: eyestylesoptical.net; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/EyeStylesOptical


I’VE NEVER BEEN ONE for coloring inside the lines,” says Nikki Griffin, recalling her mindset as she founded her own optical after 15-plus years, on and off, working for others as a licensed optician. When it opened in Oakdale, MN in 2012, EyeStyles Optical and Boutique promised the “freedom of choice” she’d aspired to.

Describing her early ambitions, Griffin speaks more in terms of a “vision” than a business model. She had plans, but fate steered her in an unexpected direction. “The clinic I worked in closed. When I asked to buy the fixtures, they told me to take whatever I wanted. Um, okie dokie…” She grabbed what she could and repurposed it for her place in suburban St. Paul.

EyeStyles’ first incarnation cheerfully sold eyewear alongside garden signs and salsa — the vestigial “Boutique,” which served its purpose, creating a draw in a store opened cold with no doctor. In 2016, Griffin relocated to build the “chic dispensary” she’d always wanted, in a spot with better visibility. “Our strip mall is anchored by a busy sandwich shop. It brings day-to-night foot traffic right by our door.”

These days Griffin sticks to eyewear, and it’s working for her. “Business is great and we are profitable! It is a struggle to be the little guy, but we believe in the grassroots power of old-school opticians combined with good coffee and conversation.” She keeps her antennae up. “When I opened, I used all the demographic research my business plan had to offer to build a frame mix. That went out the window when I built a reputation for wearing and merchandising exciting colors and designs. Never underestimate your crowd. They’re more receptive than you’re giving them credit for.”

EyeStyles’ interior could be described as rustic industrial. Barnwood display frames, illuminated by metallic rail lighting, surround an assemblage of fun, even surrealist touches: vintage photos (with stories attached), steamer trunks, a wallpaper accent wall above a faux fireplace that Griffin says, “sums up our tongue-in-cheek attitude to a T.” She wanted a clean design “with glam accents. I am a girly-girl but I have always loved industrial aesthetic. I had a 76-year-old man go home to get his wife and bring her back to the store to see the design. That was the biggest compliment ever.”

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The curios aren’t mere eye candy. “We are P.O.P. free. We let the fixtures become a base for props that are relevant to the display.” A confessed “frame junkie,” Griffin steers clear of mainstream brands. “I don’t carry big-box product. My staff have autonomy to say yes to pretty much any request. We have all been in a situation where you know someone has the ability to do something for you but won’t. Our customers know that if there is a way, we’ll find it.”

The eyewear mirrors her own taste to a degree, but staff and customers are listened to. “TC Charton was just added. The quality is superlative; the unique fit features great for our demographic. Dolabany is a huge supporter of the independent.” There’s a following for Coco Song, and “Etnia Barcelona is a workhorse.” The emphasis is on independent brands with their own natural markets. “The exclusivity they offer helps build my brand as an independent.”

Griffin is always looking for vendors who can drive traffic through store locators. This includes vision plans. “I view them as another ‘store locator’ and spend a lot of time educating people to calculate the value of their plan. I think we have one person a year who wants what their insurance covers with no upgrades.” All marketing bases are covered. Griffin cross-markets with her neighbors. “And we are building a cohesive brand using car graphics and social media. Complacency is a killer and consistency is key.”

EyeStyles’ three-frame LifeStyle Packages are its signature. Single-vision lenses run as low as $499; progressives are $899. Package customers are asked for a referral. “I wanted to disabuse people of the notion that you have to sacrifice service and quality for price.” She negotiated pricing with her lab based on three-pair sales. “It’s been wildly successful.”

While she appears to be allowing herself a period of consolidation, Griffin is not the type to rest on her laurels. Time for an in-house lab? “I may add finish work in the future, but my relationship with my lab gives me ultra-competitive pricing.” A second store? “I would love to. But I never want to grow so big or quickly that we lose the culture we have created.”

It’s hard to imagine someone like Griffin allowing that to happen. “Now that we have a beautiful optical,” she says, “it’s more important than ever to ensure our passion for eyewear is more than window dressing. It’s about building a picture album of your life and style. It’s about having fun and encouraging people to express themselves.”

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FINE STORY: A DISTINGUISHED HERITAGE

Gracing EyeStyles’ walls are photos from a remodeled home in St. Paul’s historic Rondo district. “We adopted the Townsends, and enjoy telling visitors what we know about them,” says Griffin, who tried unsuccessfully to return them to the family. “The photos are a rare glimpse into St. Paul’s history. We have a full album including a large photo of Martin Luther King Jr. taken when he visited St. Paul. We believe they are … of the Rev. CT Townsend and his wife Edna.” Learn about the Rondo neighborhood here: invmag.us/101701

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About EyeStyles

1. STUDY HALL. Griffin runs a study group for employees and aspiring opticians during off-hours. “Our little group is designed to boost understanding, discuss difficult and challenging prescriptions, learn dispensing tricks and sales techniques. We use different resources including TOPS dispensing manual, Laramy K videos, and the System for Ophthalmic Dispensing among others.”

2. TOMATO GLASSES. EyeStyles is one of just 30 or so U.S. stores selling these innovative frames for babies and young children. Griffin memorably likens fitting a child to “wrestling a greased pig.” But, she hastens to add, “Once you make a pair that fit, and stay on their little noses, the reward is incomparable. Special needs kids struggle exponentially more with fit issues.” EyeStyles reached out directly to the Korean firm to carry them.

3. DECORATED DOC. EyeStyles’ doctor, Sara Mabie, OD, received a well-deserved nod recently when the store was named “Best Place for an Eye Exam” in a local paper’s readers’ choice poll. Mabie’s skills include fitting gas permeable contact lenses. She’s also a dab hand with kids. “I enjoy doing pediatric exams and am so happy we can offer eyewear that fits so well,” Dr. Mabie says.

4. BUNYAN BOARD. Griffin decided something had to be done about the “largely one-note” merchandising that afflicts the men’s segment. “We work hard to emphasize unique shapes and color schemes in our men’s selection, as well as offering a 90 piece XL men’s display which is branded with local folk hero Paul Bunyan.”

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5.  ONE FOR THE BOOKS. The lab EyeStyles uses offers a discount on second-pair sales within 30 days of the original invoice. Griffin sniffed an opportunity: “We created a bookmark; the back offers the recipient 50 percent off another pair of lenses, has a use-by date and a space for the price. The bottom has our logo on one side and the name of the referrer on the other. Our patient gets a discount and refers someone all in one marketing piece.”

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

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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High-End Optical Retail Doesn’t Have to Be Cookie-Cutter ‘Minimal’ — Here’s Proof

At Great Spectacles in Stockton, CA, Lynda Winter’s eye for quality and cozy brand of elegance make for a perfect fit.

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Great Spectacles, Stockton, CA

OWNER: Lynda Winter; URL: bakersfieldeyecare.com; OPENED: 1990 (renovated in 2015); AREA: 982 sq. ft inside, 250 sq. ft. patio; EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time, 2 part-time; TOP BRANDS: Face a Face, Chanel, Dita, Anne et Valentin, Gucci, Chrome Hearts; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/bakersfieldeyecare; INSTAGRAM: @greatspectacles


LOOKING BACK, LYNDA WINTER’S long career in eyewear has a fated quality; she was placed in her first optical job by an employment agency at age 18. “I learned to listen and problem-solve.” A professional lifetime of selecting and dispensing later, fitting and adjusting is still, in her view, the core of what she does. It’s just that now she does it in her own thriving, strikingly original optical, Great Spectacles in Stockton, CA.

In 1990, Winter opened Great Spectacles in a 650 square foot location with no visibility, relying on word of mouth — something she does to this day. Another constant has been meticulous inventory building. Winter joined C&E buying group, slowly built up her credit and didn’t shy away from expensive models. “Specific frames were ordered; I had one that was $500.” But she knew what she was doing. “I listened to the desires of each customer; slowly I secured select vendors. It was my desire to only carry quality products. Business was consistent.”

In 2002 she moved to an upscale shopping center. November 2015 marked 25 years in business. “It was time for a facelift. We moved out for several months and upgraded everything. Vaulting the ceiling exterior and interior created volume without adding to the 950-square foot footprint. Environmental LED lighting, skylights and a focal point prism fringe chandelier enhanced the space,” which was made warmer and more inviting.

In an age when high-end retail seems to default to minimal/industrial, Great Spectacles has authentic charm. Winter adds homelike and vintage touches to an elegance that is more than worthy of the fine eyewear on which she focuses. “Nothing cookie cutter here.”

The painted green, ombre-design front door suggests “a linen fabric or a vintage Japanese vase.” It opens onto a mahogany front desk with a built-in display that is changed every few months. Overhead, optical prisms gleam from the chandelier. Winter came up with the store’s structural and cabinet designs herself.

The signature patio is accessed through French doors, extending the appearance of space. A striped awning, artificial lawn and water feature create a calm, cozy, spa vibe, with outdoor mirrors allowing an assessment of your new frames in the light of day.

As for the eyewear, “At the end of the day, classic shapes and quality remain unbeatable.” Winter and staff hand-pick every frame and only buy one of each. “Every company has classics; a good designer will create a shape that makes you do a double take,” she says. When it comes to merchandising, she’s tried every angle. “Currently we display by brand, mixing men’s and women’s, sun and ophthalmic.”

Staff are loyal and valued. “I purchase lunch daily and we eat together. This is a very family-feeling practice. Continuing education is a paid benefit as well as trips to Vision Expo. Each employee has vacation, sick leave, a $300 yearly eyewear allotment and a retirement plan. Holiday bonuses are the norm.” To Tara Heredia, a 19-year veteran, “Coming to work is like coming home… customers are like family. We’re thanked daily for helping them — even as they pay their bill.” Sydney Humphrey, who handles the social media accounts, finds “working with our customers is incredibly rewarding… I feel fortunate to work in a beautiful environment.”

Winter’s sales playbook is concise: “Be honest! We are in a service business and are not salespeople. If the frame doesn’t fit or look good, tell them.”

She describes Stockton as “diverse with varying lifestyles. Our luxury product is not a fit for everyone, [but] … we have customers of many years that have built wardrobes of eyewear they can’t live without.” Business has been “consistently good.” The store only has one sale a year, beginning mid-January. “We go over styles that aren’t working, companies that do not stand behind their product and frames that are sold for less on the Internet” and discount those.

Nearly 50 years after being placed by that recruitment agency, Winter gets referrals from all over Northern California. Some of her clients have been seeking her out since the 1970s. The rewards haven’t diminished. “I loved the business at $1.35 an hour as much as I love it now.”

PHOTO GALLERY (6 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Great Spectacles

1. PRIVACY PLEASE. There is a private fitting room with a sliding barn door closure and large two-way mirror so things are private but not claustrophobic.
2. SIGN ON THE LINE.  All reps fill out a vendor agreement laying down what is required when returning product, and other lines they represent. “It confirms to a new account that we are serious about our business.”
3. KEEP IT CLEAN.  Printed custom 12×12” and 6×6” cleaning cloths are given to each patient when they pick up their new glasses.
4. DOCS IN THE FAM.  Lynda Winter’s son and daughter-in-law are ODs in Colorado. She considered asking them to join her practice, but thought better of it. “The three of us needed to make our own way in the industry,” she said. “I love having them available for answers.”
5. MINI MUSEUM.  Winter’s extensive vintage collection is displayed at the entrance and rotated every few months. “Hardly a day goes by without a comment on them,” she says. They also feature in “Throwback Thursdays” on the store’s Instagram account.

FINE STORY: CHINES ART INFLUENCE  

Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of harmonizing one’s environment, influences the layout and in-store features at Great Spectacles, starting with its green front door. “A green front door represents growth because it is the shade of green plants in nature,” explains Winter. It also means prosperity because it is the same color as U.S. currency. Importantly, the entrance is free of obstacles and a small box of coins with a red ribbon is always in the “wealth gua,” the area where the money changes hands. There is also a lucky bamboo and (we’re glad to hear) a closed restroom door.

 

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • The interior makes me think I’m going to be comforted in this warm, rich space. I wouldn’t doubt if they have the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies wafting through the air. Robert Bell, The Eye Coach, San Francisco, CA
  • The exterior front potted plants extend a warm welcome letting customers know what to find on the inside while the rear outside space is a secret garden. Jack Verdon, Verdon Architects, San Francisco, CA
  • “I love the patio and the testimonials.” Jim Sepanek, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, DeRigo REM, Sun Valley, CA

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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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