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Roc Solid

A California transplant took the reins at this St. Louis optical and never looked back.

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Eye Roc Eyewear, St. Louis, MO

OWNER: Tony Erker; MANAGER: Jason Little; URL: eyeroceyewear.com; FOUNDED: 2011; EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time, 2 part-time; AREA: 700 sq. ft.; TOP BRANDS: Barton Perreira, Valley Eyewear, Dita, Erker’s 1879, iGreen, Shamir, Essilor, LifeScape, Acuvue; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/eyeroceyewear; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/eyeroceyewear


SITUATED IN THE heart of St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood, Eye Roc Eyewear is a fun, lively business that wears its personality on its sleeve and truly embodies the spirit of independent optical retail. It also has some serious pedigree, being owned by the Erker family, who have been in the optical business since 1879, making them the oldest optical family in the US, according to manager Jason Little.

Eye Roc itself, however, is very much the baby of Little, a California transplant whose love of surfing and ’80s and ’90s rock is evident before you even walk in the door, and whose mission is to “make the patient feel they are the rock star in the room.”

Eye Roc Eyewear owner Tony Erker (left) and manager Jason Little.

Eye Roc Eyewear owner Tony Erker (left) and manager Jason Little.

The Erkers opened Eye Roc in 2011, looking to bring affordable, independent eyewear that was fashion-forward to the Central West End. Beyond that honorable mission, however, the store didn’t really become the distinctive destination it is now until Little took over as manager in 2015. “I wanted to make it my own shop… that would reflect the music I like, the eyewear I like and the atmosphere I like. When I go to work at Eye Roc, it feels like I’m going into a part of my own house or into a part of my past that I enjoyed. The posters go back to the ’80s and ’90s, reflecting the pop culture I associate myself with, such as The Breakfast Club and Pearl Jam. The ’80s and ’90s are still very much in fashion, especially in eyewear, so I thought they went well together.”

Little alternately likens Eye Roc’s vibe to a “Cali surf shop” (band posters on the wall, surfboard in the corner, guitars hanging behind the cash wrap) — and a laid-back coffee shop (rock music from every decade playing; local art for sale on the walls; coffee, tea, and snacks always available). Central West End is an upscale neighborhood dotted with hotels, restaurants and other boutiques. Eye Roc’s clientele includes college students, professionals and tourists, but the common denominator is a hip sensibility.

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The owners give Little wide latitude to experiment with a range of marketing strategies, and he takes full advantage, utilizing postcards, social media postings, and email blasts to update customers on new products, special events and other happenings going on in the store; trunk shows are frequent. At these events, “We make sure one of our optometrists is on hand for walk-in exams to simplify the buying and ordering process,” he says.

The store’s frame selection tends towards the edgy and unique (Eye Roc makes prominent use of the hashtag #wedontlikeboringeyewear) including premium brands such as Dita, Giorgio Valmassoi, Philosopheyes, Barton Perreira, iGreen, Monoqool, Valley and l.a.Eyeworks, as well as the owner’s self-produced Erker’s 1879 line. Little says offering private label “cuts middle man costs and allows us to work with various price points and offer styles that can’t be found anywhere else.” Sales staff work on a non-commission basis, “so our motivations are purely to make wearing glasses and seeing clearly a fun and exciting experience,” he adds.

The store’s online presence is active, and patients have long had the option of scheduling their exam digitally, even before COVID made it routine. Eye Roc’s Instagram is filled with images of patients modeling their frames.

When COVID hit in March Little basically went solo and limited his hours of operation. As an “essential business” he was available for emergency eyewear repairs or to set up an urgent appointment with an OD. It was very quiet during the first few months of COVID, but, “Amazingly, Eye Roc never closed nor did it slow down much overall,” he says. CDC guidelines and protocols, including sanitizing and masking, were followed. Patients continue to be scheduled an hour apart to limit the number of people in the store.

Eye Roc Eyewear staff pose outside the store

The store’s frame selection tends toward the edgy — Eye Roc makes prominent use of the hashtag #wedontlikeboringeyewear.

A strong sense of community fosters the word of mouth that Little credits for Eye Roc’s growth. “We have partnered with local artists, DJs, photographers, and builders who have directly improved our business,” he says, citing as an example two customers who ended up making key contributions to the look of the optical and storefront. “Last year a carpenter we know built an enormous display stand for our store that really highlights some of our favorite brands. He also built us a sidewalk sandwich board, which was painted by a local artist that really stands out next to other standard advertisements nearby.”

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Eye Roc Eyewear’s success and local status as a St. Louis destination spot draws customers from California, New York and even Canada and Puerto Rico, says Little, adding that the clientele includes celebrities both local and national, among them news and sportscasters, judges, Oscar-nominated filmmakers and musicians.

PHOTO GALLERY (19 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Eye Roc Eyewear

1. PRIVATE LABEL. Eye Roc carries three eyewear brands developed by the Erker family: Erker’s 1879, NW 77th and Copper Hinge.

2. SURF’s UP. Yes, that’s a surfboard you see. St. Louis may be a long way from the ocean, but manager Jason Little brought a piece of it with him from California, striving for a “Cali surf shop” vibe with the store’s features and décor.

3. FACE THE MUSIC. Yes, those are real guitars. In fact, Eye Roc’s optometrist has been known to play one in the optical from time to time.

4. SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS. Eye Roc’s owners, the Erkers, provided Charles Lindbergh with the state-of-the-art aviation goggles that helped him make his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

5. LAID BACK. In the poster-lined optical, pre-COVID, customers could lounge in sofas, browse magazines, watch videos on TV monitors, enjoy Little’s collection of ’80s and ’90s rock tunes and help themselves to stickers.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

  • This is an example of a business that understands its market. They are millennial focused with price points that compete with companies such as Warby Parker.  I like their use of their own white label frame brands. They pack a lot into a small space and seem to retain a very cool, casual and fun vibe within their business. — Lance Anderson, OD, Professional Eye Care Associates of America (PECAA), Portland, OR

Fine Story: A hallmark of Eye Roc Eyewear is a lively and creative approach to marketing that is based in community engagement. “When we have trunk shows, we will have a DJ or some musician come in to play,” says Little. “We really make it a fun place to visit. We will set up a bar with food and snacks while the customer shops. I have had live bands play. One summer we hooked up with the hotel down the street and got to set up tables and sold sunglasses poolside.” The business also participates in activities with neighborhood programs and associations. “Our community association hosts events that bring our businesses together at all times of the year,” he says.

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 [email protected]

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SPONSORED BY ESSILOR

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