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An Eye for Quality

Discerning Eye in Iowa City is uncompromising when it comes to quality, but never lets an opportunity pass it by.

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Discerning Eye, Iowa City, IA

OWNER: Joni Schrup; URL: discerningeyeoptical.com; FOUNDED: 2005; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2016; AREA: 3,500 sq. ft.; EMPLOYEES: 5 full-time, 3 part-time; TOP BRANDS: Lindberg, Anne et Valentin, SALT., Mykita, Andy Wolf, Theo; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/discerningeye ; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/discerningeye ; YELP: yelp.com/biz/discerning-eye-iowa-city


YOU CAN’T BE ALL things to all people.” Embracing these eight simple words has allowed Joni Schrup, owner of Discerning Eye in Iowa City, IA, to maintain a consistently high level of eyewear and customer service, and delivered her 11 years of success and a loyal customer base.

Schrup got her start in the optical business in the early 1980s as an optometric assistant working for her neighbor, an optometrist. She later worked in corporate optical, for other ODs and for opticians, dreaming all the while of having her own business. “Opening my own store seemed the next logical step. I only wish I had done it earlier in my career,” she says.

Discerning Eye’s specific origins lie in a long-ago homework assignment. Schrup was helping her son develop a business plan for a college class, when they realized they were onto something. In the summer of 2005 they took it to the bank. Discerning Eye opened in downtown Iowa City before the year was out. She began with one full-time employee, an optometrist who worked one day a week and her two adult children, both college students, helping part time.

In October 2016 the store relocated to its present space, a sleek, bright and welcoming optical with industrial and neo-classical touches. The store is characterized by a sophisticated branding that is consistently applied – including across the store’s elegant online presence – but discreet enough to keep the focus on some stunning eyewear (Lindberg, Anne et Valentin and Salt Optics are among her top sellers). A former art gallery, Schrup knew it would be perfect for showing off her carefully curated collections. It was also large enough to accommodate a growing staff, including a full-time contracted optometrist, Dr. Dan Wolfe.

One thing that has remained constant is an uncompromising focus on quality in terms of both eyewear and service. “From the beginning, we focused on bringing premier products to the area with top-notch customer service to ensure that our customers would have an enjoyable and fun experience choosing eyewear. We only sell eyewear from independent optical companies, which allows us to focus on quality and sell only what we truly love.” This is a business that knows and feels comfortable with its target market. “We sell luxury eyewear and we don’t apologize for our prices,” Schrup says.

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She likes to keep collections together, allowing each to stand on its own and tell its individual story.

“We have found that grouping sunglasses in one area but still by collection is a very successful strategy,” Schrup says. “We utilize a large center table for seasonal displays or highlighting a brand or color palette. We have a lot of fun switching out merchandise on this table.”

Being located in the heart of a college town doesn’t have to mean catering solely to starving students. The University of Iowa campus literally surrounds downtown, so foot traffic includes professors, administrators, students and local professionals. “Our clientele is a well-educated and well-traveled group. They often continue to purchase from us even after moving away,” Schrup says. In an echo of that fateful homework session a decade earlier, when it came time to work out how to tap the city’s impossible-to-ignore student market, Schrup did what she does best: She came up with a plan. The result is FOCUS by Discerning Eye, a store within a store that targets the student demographic. (See ‘Fine Story.’)

Ultimately Schrup’s undeniable success seems to boil down to some pretty simple — even homespun — wisdom. “Treat people the way you would want them to treat you,” she says, adding after a moment, “…or your Mom!”

PHOTO GALLERY (24 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Discerning Eye

1. FULLY BAKED.   Schrup bakes something — cookies, bars, shortbread, ginger snaps, even candied bacon on occasion — for her customers every day. “Customers are always asking for my recipes and we keep copies handy at our front desk.”
2. FRAME-OUS FACES.   The store’s Wall of Frame features professional photos of customers in their new eyewear. “We give them a copy to show our appreciation,” Schrup says.
3. MOVING TALE.   When moving location in 2016 (it was less than a block) customers and friends were recruited into a human “bucket brigade” to help out. “It was great fun and they were rewarded with free pizza,” Schrup says.
4. BIRTHDAY BASH.   To celebrate its 10th birthday, Discerning Eye held a trunk show and gave away $10,000 in prizes. “There was a line down the block waiting for us to open that day.”
5. HOLIDAY SPIRIT.   For the past 10 years, the business has donated a portion of its December sales (its busiest month) to the Crisis Center of Johnson County. To date it has donated almost $50,000.

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FINE STORY

Schrup knew that with 20,000 University of Iowa students and young professionals passing by her door every day she needed to find a way to tap into that market. The optical’s basement level houses a store-within-a-store, FOCUS by Discerning Eye, targeting that demographic. “It’s really taking off! We feature tiered package pricing with cool frames and the tag line ‘Online price. In person service,’” she says. The idea is to give customers with less to spend an opportunity to purchase affordable eyewear without the lack of service, repairs and fitting that come with ordering online. A single price ($165) for a frame and single vision lenses, offered with full service, has proven to be the right recipe.

 

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • Focus, a store within their store, with the tagline “Online price. In person service,” is as savvy a move as I’ve seen in this industry. Great concept on so many levels. They display professional photos of their customers on their walls and give the customer a copy? How cool is that? Robert Bell, The Eye Coach, San Francisco, CA
  • The vibrant storefront color scheme differentiates this store from its neighbors, popping off the sidewalk and welcoming the passersby. Nice community engagement. Jack Verdon, Verdon Architects, San Francisco, CA
  • Nice eclectic space with a fun use of two stories. My favorite aspect of this optical is their connection to their local community. I have no doubt that their investment in the community is paid back to them by the support of their surrounding businesses. James and Dr. Laura Armstrong, Alberta Eye Care, Portland, OR

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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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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