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5 Eyecare Businesses Doing Big Business in Small Niches

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From athletes to non-native speakers, eyecare pros across the country are driving business performance by finding niche demographics.

 

Sometimes a clear path to capturing new business sits in plain view. A patient with limited English struggling to communicate during an appointment. A big-and-tall man seeking large frames. A basketball-crazed teen in need of prescription eyewear on the hardwood. Recognizing the needs of these patient groups and other often-underserved segments of American society and then addressing their needs with equal doses of strategy and sincerity can help an optical business earn new customers, deepen its marketplace penetration and boost financial performance.

Here are five optical businesses that discuss how they spotted a niche group and then crafted a plan to cater to that demographic in practical, profitable ways.

By Daniel P. Smith

 

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THE BIG GUYS

“We’re in an area that’s highly Scandinavian, so there are a lot of big dudes around,” says Nikki Griffin, owner of EyeStyles Optical and Boutique in Oakdale, MN.

About a year ago, one such man of larger proportions walked into EyeStyles and handed Griffin a pair of broken frames. He asked Griffin if she could score him a replacement, noting that his doctor’s office had stopped carrying larger frames. As Griffin researched options for that individual and also reflected on the local market need, it became clear that “big dudes” and their female counterparts failed to earn much legitimate attention.

“There’s nothing out there and you know there’s a market for it, so you say, ‘Why don’t we become the destination? Big guys go to big-and-tall stores for clothing, so let’s become their place for eyewear,’” Griffin says.

In February 2016, Griffin began bringing that vision to life.

She commissioned a custom-made, 4-foot display board featuring frames for men sized 58-65 and women sized 56 and up. Constructed out of pallet wood with pipe flanges holding acrylic frame rods, the merchandising display features a playful graphic of Paul Bunyan and his beloved ox, Babe. The fun, lighthearted visual pays homage to northern folklore well known in EyeStyles’ parts, but also helps the optical shop build a story around its niche efforts.

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The “Paul and Babe Board” presents 80 frame options from the likes of Etnia Barcelona, Fatheadz and Modern Optical’s B.M.E.C. line. The deep selection is a significant departure from the handful of large frames most optical shops carry and has helped EyeStyles gain marketplace traction.

“These people who need bigger frames now don’t have to settle. They can find what they need with us,” says Griffin, who is opening a new, larger EyeStyles location in Oakdale this fall in which the “Paul and Babe Board” will be featured prominently.

 


Nikki Griffin
EyeStyles Optical and Boutique, Oakdale, MN

Ramp up Your Business with the Big Guys

➜ Before Griffin invested in a single pair of big frames, she first investigated the available inventory from manufacturers and assessed the opportunity to make a full, compelling collection. “If you can’t make a collection out of it, then it’s just weak,” she says.

➜ Most “big guy” glasses are of the traditional variety, but Griffin worked to push her selection beyond convention, a mindset characterized by a number of fashion-forward looks from Etnia Barcelona. “Big guys want fashionable eyewear, too,” she says.

➜ One notable observation Griffin’s made of “big guy” customers: “This particular market isn’t big into plastic frames. They prefer metal.”

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THE UNINSURED (OR THE UNDERINSURED)

At EyeShop Optical Center, a 5-year-old operation located on the northern outskirts of Columbus, OH, Dr. Cynthia Sayers noticed an escalating number of self-pay patients and families without any vision coverage.

“It wasn’t necessarily that these patients couldn’t afford vision coverage, but rather that employers simply weren’t offering vision coverage as an option,” Sayers says.

That reality bothered Sayers, who began contemplating potential solutions capable of benefiting patients and her practice.

“Instead of losing these people, I said, ‘Let’s find a way to make it more affordable for them,’” Sayers says.

The result?

The EyeTeam, an exclusive EyeShop membership program in which patients pay an annual fee — $25 for individuals and $40 for families — in return for discounts throughout the year on contacts, glasses and exams.

“It’s kind of like our own little insurance plan,” Sayers says.

Consider an individual walking off the street into EyeShop, where a comprehensive eye exam runs $120. If that individual joins the program for $25 and then pays the discounted $60 exam rate, he or she is immediately ahead of the game $35 compared to paying out of pocket. Thereafter, the individual receives such dollar-saving benefits as: a 10 percent discount on contact lens materials; 30 percent off the individual’s first complete eyewear; and a 30 percent markdown on non-prescription sunglasses.

For families paying $40, the savings only multiply.

“That’s where the benefits of this program really kick in,” Sayers says.

Since debuting in February, Sayers says the novel membership program has helped EyeShop, which has about 5,000 individuals in its system, retain patients and drive new patient acquisition as well.

“New clients are much more likely to bite when they find out about the membership program,” Sayers says, adding that the program has also increased EyeShop’s profitability as well as the number of self-pay patients it sees. “The uninsured person is truly shopping around and the EyeTeam membership gives them a reason to visit us. When we explain what the program entails, it’s rare we have someone turn it down.”

 


Dr. Cynthia Sayers
EyeShop Optical Center, Columbus, OH

Ramp up Your Business with the Uninsured

➜ Anytime a patient — new or existing — calls EyeShop, staff tout the membership program. “We want everyone we are in contact with to be aware of the opportunity because we know just how advantageous it is and that it’s an attractive point of differentiation for our business,” Sayers says.

➜ EyeShop’s local outreach includes visiting local businesses that do not offer vision insurance and delivering EyeTeam membership program literature to spur awareness and visits.

➜ Sayers and her team remind clients that their membership benefits cover the entire year. Planting that seed, Sayers notes, sparks repeat traffic and purchases.

➜ With the EyeTeam program in place, EyeShop has been able to retain patients motivated to visit only after purchasing a Groupon deal. While Groupon-inspired visits typically result in a one-time interaction, Sayers says offering the EyeTeam membership has served an attractive bounce-back that has fueled ongoing relationships.

 

THE SPECIALTY CONTACT LENS MARKET

Within a half-mile radius of The Gardens Eye Care, Dr. Rita Ellent’s 2-year-old office in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, NY, sit more than a dozen optical businesses selling eyewear and vision services.

“To say it’s competitive,” Ellent says, “is a drastic understatement.”

Differentiation is the name of the game and something Ellent has developed at The Gardens by dishing out custom-made specialty contacts.

“I saw patients coming in with all kinds of vision issues impacting their personal and professional lives, and as I saw more and more of these patients, it just clicked that this was my niche,” Ellent says.

Earlier this year, Ellent began expanding her practice deeper into specialty contact lenses, eschewing generic soft contact lenses for custom-made solutions tailor made to address a patient’s specific needs and condition.

“I compare it to a custom-made suit rather than one you buy off the rack: Everything is tailored specifically to the individual,” Ellent says, adding that the specialty contacts she has provided patients have spurred significant improvements in quality of life.

“In that way, it’s wonderful to know you’re truly making a difference,” she says.

Though these patients require significant chair time and, at times, handholding, Ellent’s efforts to address their vision problems have propelled the performance of her young practice. The patients, pleased with Ellent’s involved work after years of struggling with other contact lens modalities, have become active cheerleaders for her practice and refer new patients to her office.

“It’s been a fantastic avenue to pursue and dive into,” Ellent says, calling specialty contact lenses both financially profitable and a significant growth opportunity for The Gardens.

And as an added benefit, the specialty work has also energized Ellent professionally.

“From the clinical perspective, I’m seeing a diverse range of cases that’s keeping things interesting and broadening my knowledge,” she says.

 


Dr. Rita Ellent
The Gardens Eye Care, Queens, NY

Ramp up Your Business with the Specialty Contact Lens Market

➜ While Ellent has invested in technology to help her practice, including the recent purchase of a corneal topographer, she considers human relations central to serving patients with unique needs. “The key as a doctor is always listening to patients and understanding their needs and challenges, and this is even more true when the patients present a case that is not run of the mill,” she says.

➜ Ellent continues personally meeting with local ophthalmologists as well as cornea and retina specialists to build a referral network, which she calls “a successful strategy” thus far.

➜ For those looking to break into the specialty contact lens niche, Ellent suggests attending any industry meetings or lectures geared toward these niche markets. “Network, ask questions and use others’ experiences as a learning curve rather than relying solely on your own trial and error,” she says.

 

THE NON-ENGLISH SPEAKERS

Dr. Texas Smith proves an old doc can learn new tricks. At age 73 and in his 51st year of practice, the high-spirited Smith recently completed his second semester of conversational Spanish at Sacramento City College. Smith didn’t make the effort — two nights each week for the entire academic year — to scratch some longstanding intellectual itch, but rather to better serve patients at his namesake office in Citrus Heights, CA.

“These are my patients and if I can do things to help them feel more comfortable during their visit, then I’m going to do that,” Smith says.

In Citrus Heights, where the U.S. Census reports that one in five residents speak a language other than English at home, Smith calls returning to the classroom for conversational Spanish — the area’s dominant non-English language — a wise move, even if Spanish speakers represent fewer than 10 percent of his patient roster.

“Rarely a day goes by that I don’t encounter a Spanish-speaking patient,” he says.

Though Smith’s academic efforts have not necessarily generated a more robust bottom line for his practice or produced a flood of new patients, it has undoubtedly endeared him to the Spanish-speaking patients he does see and also served to streamline appointments.

“You’re not necessarily doing it to get more patients, but to make things more efficient, effective and comfortable for the patients you have while they are present,” he says. “When patients see I’m trying to communicate with them on their level, they become so much more relaxed and that helps everything move along better.”

Smith often jokes with his Spanish-speaking clientele that he will work on his Spanish as best he can during their appointment if they promise to work on their English as best they can.

“They appreciate my effort and it puts them at ease, which is a big part of the battle we face as doctors,” Smith says.

 


Dr. Texas Smith
Dr. Texas Smith, Citrus Heights, CA

Ramp up Your Business with Non-Native Speakers

➜ The easiest way to accommodate non-native speakers, Smith says, is to hire an employee fluent in the area’s most prominent foreign language, whether that is Spanish, Polish, Mandarin or another tongue. “People are always more comfortable speaking in their native language and if that’s something you can offer patients, they’ll certainly appreciate it and remember it,” he says.

➜ Smith suggests doctors and optical staff leverage technology to guide a non-native speaker’s appointments in a more positive, productive direction. He specifically points to Google Translate, which provides translation between English and more than 100 other languages. “At the minimum, you can pull up Google Translate on a tablet and have that by you when you’re serving non-English speakers,” Smith says.

 

THE ATHLETES

At Wilson Eye Center, a 35-year-old practice in Valdosta, GA, staff consistently noted how few bespectacled children wore eyewear during soccer, basketball and other athletic endeavors.

“Parents often thought it was good enough that their kids were in glasses at all,” Wilson Eye Center optical manager Brenda Powers says.

Given that the vast majority of kids’ eye-related injuries derive from sports — as high as 90 percent by some estimates — the Wilson team looked to reverse that prevailing philosophy and attack its most pressing obstacle: cost.

In April, Wilson staffers traveled to Vision Expo East on a mission to find more economical sports frames.

Weeks later, the 9,700-square foot office unveiled a sports-specific display featuring 18 pieces of sports eyewear from Hilco. Flanked by sports paraphernalia and photos, the merchandising display showcases different styles, colors and customization options, including the ability to personalize frames with a school name or an athlete’s jersey number.

The line extension’s May debut helped staff get comfortable with the sports-specific product throughout the summer and also generated a degree of buzz with customers before Wilson Eye Care spotlighted the sports eyewear in its annual back-to-school promotion in August. In addition to its routine discount on children’s frames and lenses during the annual fall promotion, the practice offered sports eyewear with polycarbonate lenses and scratch coating for $135.

“Introducing the sports eyewear during the back-to-school season was such a natural fit,” Powers says.

While the early response to the sports eyewear has been steady at Wilson Eye Care, Powers believes the best is yet to come, especially as leadership has marked expanding the sports eyewear business a top priority in 2017.

“There’s no doubt parents are talking about it and that awareness is growing,” Powers says. “That along with the sheer number of kids playing sports makes us really optimistic moving forward.”

 


Brenda Powers
Wilson Eye Center, Valdosta, GA

Ramp up Your Business with Athletes

➜ In the months after the sports eyewear arrived at Wilson Eye Care, staff visited team practices and also distributed fliers showcasing the new eyewear to parents, especially those heading to a sports practice. Opticians, meanwhile, pointed out the new sports eyewear during children’s visits. “There are plenty of opportunities to highlight what we offer here and we need to take advantage of those,” Powers says.

➜ Moving forward, Wilson Eye Care will place a particularly high emphasis on education, noting how sports eyewear improves vision and protects athletes. Powers and her team will specifically look to develop personal relationships with coaches and also plan to visit athletic centers like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club to promote the value of sports eyewear with well-placed influencers.

 

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We Asked ECPs Which Famous Names Bought Their Eyewear

And boy did they get to bragging….

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FOOTBALL ICONS, RECLUSIVE troubadours, presidential candidates, Hollywood A-listers, and childhood heroes: We asked our readers to indulge in a little shameless bragging and tell us about some of the famous faces that have propped up their eyewear.

Rick Rickgauer, Vision Associates
Girard, PA

“The day Gene Hackman stopped in I happened to be off,” recalls Rick Rickgauer of the day the bona fide Hollywood legend strolled into a LensCrafters in Tuscon, AZ. (Rickgauer has since moved on to Vision Associates in Girard, PA.) “My lab manager called me to tell me Mr. Hackman was in the store. ‘If I drive all the way down there and you’re lying to me,’ I told him, ‘I’ll $#@* you over good.’ So, I hopped in my car and drove the 30 minutes to work. And there he was, all 6’4” of him in all his star quality. I’ve seen Gene Hackman in more movies than I can count. I don’t know what I expected of him, at the time, but he was the most mild-mannered person. Totally oblivious that he was a major motion picture star.” But it was baseball legend Ken Griffey Sr. that left Rickgauer nearly speechless. “I was a bumbling idiot. In the mid-’70s I was a huge Cincinnati Reds fan when they were known as the Big Red Machine, winning multiple World Series along the way. Ken G was a big cog in that machine. His son, Ken Griffey Jr. was all the rage. One of the best players ever to play the game. I proceeded to tell Ken G that, to me, he was the original Ken Griffey, not his famous son.” In retrospect, Rickgauer wonders if it would’ve been better if he had been speechless. “To this day, I still feel like an idiot for saying that.”

Nancy Revis, Uber Optics
Petaluma, CA

Nancy Revis, owner of Uber Optics in Petaluma, CA, had heard that singer/songwriter, actor, and one of her personal heroes, Tom Waits, a resident of neighboring Occidental, was often spotted in her town. “Why was he not coming into my shop?” she asked herself. “I have the cool eyewear and he has cool taste! Tom Waits always has cool eyewear on!”

Then about seven months ago, Revis and staff members Jess and Elizabeth were having what they thought was a regular workday. “Elizabeth was closing a sale at the computer desk and in walks a woman, a younger woman — her daughter — and Tom Waits! I instantly started sweating. It was actually happening — Tom Waits was walking into my store. Everything seemed to slow down and I started to sweat.” Revis managed to get a greeting out, and “Tom went right over to the sitting area and just chilled out. He was watching me help his wife and giving feedback. Nodding only. He looked so cool. Crazy huge grey curly hair. I offered him water but he declined. He sat there and grabbed a Rolling Stone. I mean… Tom Waits was sitting in my store and reading a Rolling Stone. Jess hadn’t seen that he was in the shop because she was checking in jobs. I walked to the back and all I said was… ‘Oh my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’ and then walked back out. She came out and her facial expression said, ‘HOLY S**T!’ His wife loved cat eyes and so do I … so, I ended up selling her an Oliver Peoples that I wear… the Marienella in black.”

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Musicians seem drawn to Uber. Revis recalls John McCrea, of the band Cake, as being “so super cool. I asked if he would model for me but he didn’t want to. But, I was so stoked that he bought glasses from me. He was hilarious and sweet.” And she has struck up something of a friendship with actor and pioneering punk rocker John Doe of the band X. “He became my customer the moment I opened because Pat with Moscot was his friend… he sent him a pair of glasses and I was the liaison. He let me take his photo wearing Moscot on a few occasions. Just recently he was in town performing with the Psychedelic Furs and swung in to say hi. He fell in love with a pair of sunglasses and modeled them for me. I told him to let me take his photo wearing the sunglasses that he loved… He sent me a pic of himself in NYC wearing the Moscot sunglasses.”

Other memorable Uber clients include Oscar-winning movie sound designer Chris Boyes, songwriter George Merrill and the actress Jane Levy (and her mom).

William Chancellor, Eye Can See Eyewear
McDonough, GA

As an Army veteran, William Chancellor says it was a personal pleasure to sit down and dispense to Herman Cain, the former presidential candidate from the Atlanta area, who has a history of offering praise and support for the military. (The experience took place at Chancellor’s previous office, DePoe Eye Center, which has several Georgia locations. He is now the practice manager and licensed optician for Eye Can See Eyewear in McDonough.) “Having the pleasure of meeting him in person was a wonderful experience. He was very humble and authentic. Who can’t appreciate his quote, ‘Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.’” Chancellor recalls dispensing Silhouette Eyewear to Cain. “I would listen to his syndicated talk show daily and supported him in his bid for the White House in 2012.”

Julie Uram, Optical Oasis
Jupiter, FL

Jupiter, FL, is home to a disproportionately high population of sports pros. Not surprising, then, that Julie Uram often looks up to find former football players stooping to squeeze through her doors. “Well, it seems as though I have many retired football players or coaches [coming in]: Joe Namath, Ron Wolf and Dan Henning. Funny story about Joe Namath, the other day a customer recognized him and asked if he would speak to his brother on the phone. Joe did and told him when he was in the area they should get together! Then the guy was all excited, and Joe said, ‘Oh, I was really just kidding…’ It was quite a funny moment.”

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Tom Brillante, OD, Decatur Eye Care
Decatur, GA

The Atlanta area now rivals Southern California as a center of the U.S. film industry. So much so that these days you’re as well positioned in the Peach State as on Rodeo Drive for superhero sightings. Ask Dr. Tom Brillante of Decatur Eye Care in Decatur, GA — or at least ask his employees. He spotted Cress Williams of The CW’s Black Lightning. “I didn’t know who he was, but the rest of my staff did. Such a nice guy! For a superhero, I expected him to be a lot more arrogant. Maybe his other super power is humility.” Kevin Bacon and Billy Bob Thornton filmed a part of their indie film Jayne Mansfield’s Car right downstairs in the courtyard. Most recently — and most personally thrilling for unashamed retro-soft rock fan Brillante — was his brush with Peter Olson, one of the lead singers for “the greatest ’70s/’80s cover band of all time — Yacht Rock Revue. Definitely check them out, they tour the country throughout the year and I’ve probably seen them about 10 times now,” Brillante says.

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America's Finest

Want to Know What ‘Start-to-Finish’ Service Really Looks Like?

This Fort Worth, TX practice reinvented itself into a boutique optical with high tech examinations.

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Clear Eye Associates + Optical, Fort Worth, TX

OWNER: David Moore, OD; URL: cleareye.com; FOUNDED: 2007; YEAR OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Norman Ward Architect, EyeDesigns, and Entirely Interiors; EMPLOYEES: 12 full-time, 1 part-time ; AREA: 11,000 sq. ft.; TOP BRANDS: ic! berlin, Rolf, Dita, Barton Perreira, Face à Face; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/ClearEyeOptical; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/cleareyeoptical; YELP: yelp.com/biz/clear-eye-associates-optical-fort-worth-2


EXPERIENCE,” SAYS DR. DAVID Moore, “is in the eye of the beholder.” Put another way, each patient has preferences unique to them, whether they care most about time, convenient and upfront pricing, carefully curated and unique frames, or a high-tech examination experience.

‘In today’s market you have to do a little of everything to be competitive,’ says Clear Eye owner Dr. David Moore.

It’s a lesson Moore learned over 10 years in private practice at Clear Eye Associates + Optical in Fort Worth, TX and fully implemented by introducing a new concept in 2017; an optical boutique procuring mostly independent lines. “The idea was the easy part. Overcoming, retraining and rethinking how the current consumer wants to shop has been the challenge. The age-old idea of personalized service, customer experience, and product expertise has become the linchpin for growing the business,” Moore says.

Central to the concept is customer immersion in what Moore refers to as the “CLEAR experience,” from the time they book and select their arrival item — be it a cappuccino, chocolate or craft beer ­— to the personal handwritten “thank you” note and custom cookie that arrive for them in the mail in a special CLEAR box. Staff follow this up with a call a few weeks after the customer has received the product to make sure they are satisfied.

For those who haven’t booked, “We try to impact our patients prior to their appointment so we begin with a tailored check-in experience. Our staff presents a menu, with offerings ranging from chocolate to cappuccino or a seasonal cocktail.”

According to Moore, the store and the service are designed around creating an experience and offering products that appeal to the aficionado. “Our intent is to cater to people that want to feel special, where their time is valued, and their needs are met.”

EyeDesigns and architect Norman Ward were able to create a modern design with Lum lighting that highlights the detail of the frames and allows customers to look their best.

Frames are displayed by brand but in a carefully controlled way. “We want patients to recognize brands from distinct signage that looks like our store, versus our store looking like 20 different brands,” Moore says.

When Moore discusses pricing policy, the value he places on being “upfront” and “transparent” quickly becomes apparent. But he admits that achieving this goal is complicated by the presence of so many different insurance plans with different pricing.

“Our team has done a great job learning the plans and developing methods to more quickly give accurate pricing for customers,” he explains. “For uninsured customers, we have selected products that provide value and state-of-the-art fashion while fitting within their budget. We feel that giving customers lens pricing first then allowing them to select the perfect frame is the most transparent way for customers to purchase spectacles.”

Moore says digital marketing is second only to personal referrals as a driver of growth at Clear Eye. “We do well with Google, Facebook, and are growing our Instagram presence. What we have learned is that in today’s market you have to do a little of everything to be competitive. Photography is key to making everything pop.”

Having an on-site lab is important to Moore because it enables the practice to customize lenses and lens shapes. And quick turnaround is something they pride themselves in. “Our Mr. Orange edger helps us do this,” says Moore. “The edger has been great for us. Although we are a boutique optical, we want to provide the most comprehensive eyecare possible.” The practice prides itself on a full range of equipment as well as top-level dry eye treatment.

This no-stone-unturned approach would seem to be Clear Eye’s signature achievement, whether it’s online, at reception, in the optical or the exam lane. As Moore defines it: “Expertise and personalized service in a modern, clean aesthetic that provides a unique experience for our customers.”

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Five Cool Things About Clear Eye Associates + Optical

1. QUICK CLEAN. Clear Eye’s optical features the OpticWash, a device Moore describes as a “car wash for glasses … an ingenious inven­­tion that does a great job of cleaning frames and lenses.”

2. GET THE MESSAGE. Patients are sent a text after their glasses purchase with details on their frames. The text contains links to the product’s brand story so that the customer can learn more about their frames prior to them being completed.

3. SMELL OF SUCCESS. The list of items offered to patients prior to their arrival goes beyond just drinks and sweets; even the music and scent have been selected specifically for customers.

4. NO SURPRISES. Price transparency is one of Clear Eye’s core goals. To ensure this is maintained, the practice makes a point of working up special handouts with pricing information on lens benefits and cost.

5. FULL TREATMENT. Clear Eye takes special pride in its dry eye treatment. “Dry eye impacts our core demographic to such an extent we felt the need to have the technology to solve this problem for our patients,” says Moore.

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • Interesting color scheme; the natural wood looks great and is a contrast to the whites. Offering craft beer is a great idea too. Mick Kling, OD, Invision Optometry, San Diego, CA
  • The “CLEAR” logo is handled in a very nice way, where it is important to the conversation but does not dominate it. Their dedication to making information accessible to the customer is evident in their materials, and the delivery of a customized cookie and a handwritten note is a charming touch. Brent Zerger, l.a. Eyeworks, Los Angeles, CA
  • Texting a customer cool details on the frame they’ve purchased is CLEARly brilliant and impactful! Their “Seeing Good” campaign is wonderful: they donate generously AND they’ve “branded” it. One of the best URLs I’ve ever seen; simple and in line with their overall brand. Robert Bell, EyeCoach, San Francisco, CA

 

Fine Story

Clear Eye donates 100 frames each month to a local charity clinic as part of its “Seeing Good” campaign. “Although we don’t publicize or market this, we feel that local is important. We are fortunate enough to be able to partner with Community Clinic in Fort Worth, which is run by the University of Houston College of Optometry. They see thousands of patients a year at little to no cost in the First Christian Church downtown. Donating frames is our way of helping the local community.”

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Best of the Best

This California Lens Lab Has an Inspiring Recovery Story

They were burned to the ground in last year’s wildfires. Six months later, they’re thriving.

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SOMETIMES, THE THINGS that make you the best of the best are born of tragic necessity. On Nov. 8, 2018, the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century, raged through the Northern California town of Paradise, destroying it entirely. Eighty-six people died in the blaze, which destroyed more than 18,000 structures. Among them was Paradise Lens Lab, which the day before had just celebrated its seventh anniversary.

THE FIRE

“I was headed to work a little before 7am,” recalls owner Gary Bates of that day. “It was a clear day but off to the side, where the sun was coming up over the hill I could see either clouds or smoke around the sun.” After about an hour at work, Bates headed to a lookout point 200 yards away. “The flames … were racing up the hill towards the back of the lab.”

A brief discussion about what they might be able to save was soon abandoned. “The Fire Department was telling people it was time to run.” There were five staff including Bates working that day; all got out, but all lost their homes. A few days later it was confirmed that the building and all its equipment was lost.

The rebuilt Paradise Lens Lab in Chico, CA. ‘It took us about three weeks to get our first edger and start the buildout,’ says owner Gary Bates.

THE REBUILD

That weekend, Bates and wife Tammy’s first thought was to move to Oregon. “But we just decided we had too many people relying on us. We had to give it a shot. That day we were out looking for commercial real estate” in Chico, CA, 15 miles west of Paradise.

Already reeling from the loss of his business, a second shock followed: “I thought I was insured fully, you know, rookie business owner.” Bates’ insurer informed him that on the $400,000 worth of equipment and stock he’d lost, he was covered for just $3,500. Help was at hand, however. Prior to opening Paradise Lens Lab, Bates, who’s been in the optical industry since 1989, had worked at Coburn Technologies. He was able to marshal some contacts there to get some edgers delivered within a matter of weeks. Later, Satisloh came through with a donation of brand new digital equipment. And a group of local doctors he does a lot of work for gave Bates $50,000 to help him start back up. “The generosity and kindness was amazing right after the fire,” he says. Most importantly, Bates’ customer base came through, pledging to stay with him.

Not everyone was so helpful, though. According to Bates, one major industry player “actually tried to poach my business. They went into all my shops, and promised them all this awesome pricing to ‘help them out.’”

Thankfully, things moved fast. “It took us about three weeks to get our first edger and start the buildout.” He was able to take some customers back almost immediately, though some were asked to be a little patient, as he didn’t want to underserve anyone. “Within a month and a half we were able to get them all back and provide excellent service for them all.”

THE POSITIVES

Many in this situation would see it as an insurmountable setback. But the Bateses have been rewarded for their determination. He says that whereas before Paradise Lens relied on conventional surfacing, with the new equipment, they can now process digital freeform lenses. Amazingly, business is actually up about 32 percent from before the fire. “We’ve gotten more customers; people have reached out to us wanting to give us their business.” And while they still live in their travel trailer, because of a post-fire housing shortage, they’re philosophical. “At least we have a travel trailer,” Bates says.

The rebuild at Paradise is now fully finished. “We’ve been complete for about three months now. It took us just a little over three months to build out and get all the equipment, get everybody trained and up to date,” he says.

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