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Best of the Best

This Business’s Sandwich Boards Whip Up Its Customers’ Appetites For Eyewear

Providence Optical has mastered using sandwich boards to attract passersby.

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Sandwich boards from Providence Optical

A selection of sandwich board designs from Providence Optical’s Onega Astaltsova.

THERE’S NOTHING REVOLUTIONARY about using a sandwich board outside your optical. They’re ubiquitous in front of bars, coffee shops, or any business that can afford some chalk. But like all effective advertising, it’s the singer not the song. Onega Astaltsova uses chalkboards to sing the virtues of her Providence Optical shop in Providence, RI. And it works. 

THE IDEA: “The idea to use chalkboards stemmed from a desire to create a certain feel for the business,” she says.

“I took into account the atmosphere of the street where our shop is located because I wanted our signage to harmonize with the vibe of the surrounding businesses. At the same time, it had to be something eye-catching that’s easy to spot from some distance and, of course, it had to be distinctive.”

Her sandwich boards are the kind of fun, playful optic that her clients have come to expect. 

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“It’s a sort of chain reaction from our overall aesthetic — our window displays, the interior of the shop, our product lines and our blogs.  The whole package of our communication with our clients has an inner harmony.”

THE EXECUTION: The materials are the easy part. Anyone can buy a sandwich chalkboard and chalk. Astaltsova uses real, basic chalk, not chalk paint, which is an imitation. 

“I add some soft pastels, which I collected in large quantities when students of the local school of design (Rhode Island School of Design) left them on the sidewalk after graduation. If I need to put something out just for one day and I don’t want to remove my previous work from the board yet, I use a black foam poster board, draw on it and insert it in the frame on top of the previous one.”

THE REWARDS: The idea was to use the sandwich boards to communicate with the community. It’s not so much about helping a sale, but rather creating the opportunity for a sale.

“We greet visitors by letting them know of local events, such as a dog show taking place in the area. One of the most fun boards I created was to congratulate a couple on their wedding day — our store was on the route between the church and the reception!”

Ten years into running her business, Astaltsova has used the success generated by her creative sandwich boards to start making eyewear for editorial photo shoots for apparel companies and runways in wood, acetate and 3D-printing.

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“I like going to professional trade shows to watch the growth and evolution of eyewear designers and to check out the latest technologies.”

She’s also spent the past six years writing for a professional optical publication in Russia, called Magazine (OpticMagazine).

Do It Yourself: Take Your Sandwich Board Skills to a New Level

  • Use Caran D’Ache Neocolor Crayons for a smudge-resistant, chalky look that’s removed with water. Astaltsova also recommends the Posca Paint Pen, which makes opaque lines.
  • Here is a fun project: Make your own projector! You can trace a photo of eyewear from a magazine or an image printed from your computer. Enlarge it and project it onto the board. 
  • Do a Google search for chalkboard workshops coming to your town. For example, the group Better Letters is offering a four-day workshop at the beginning of July in Minnesota.
  • You can achieve a consistent look with ready-made lettering stencils, or you can make your own. If you can’t draw, write some quotes or fun facts about optics on a board.
  • Get a few boards to give yourself enough time to work on each one. You can display one while you work on the next. That way, you can take your time, be creative and make it look just right.

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 21 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at editor@invisionmag.com.

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Best of the Best

An Iowa OD Who Developed an Industry-Leading Neuro Rehab Specialty

Offering glasses just wasn’t enough.

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DR. DEANN FITZGERALD STARTED practicing optometry in Cedar Rapids, IA, in 1984. In 2006, she founded the non-profit Spanda, Inc., which combines optometry with other healthcare specialties and took her as far afield as Kenya. Soon, she decided to expand Spanda’s activities to her own community. Spanda opened Cedar Rapids Vision In Motion (CRVIM), a vision wellness and rehab clinic, in 2007. What started as a 1,600-sq. ft location with an occupational therapist and a single employee now occupies 6,000 sq. ft and employs two athletic trainers, seven therapists and two ancillary staff.

THE IDEA

A Door Opens

Vision therapy was on Fitzgerald’s radar screen from her earliest days in optometry, but it took some time for her to embrace it. “I originally went to school with the thought of providing therapy but Cedar Rapids was very medically oriented, with the University of Iowa just 20 minutes away. Which made it very difficult at first to want to do therapy.” But by the 1990s — the “decade of the brain” — she sensed a door opening.

THE EXECUTION

Bridging the Gap

Dr. DeAnn Fitzgerald

CRVIM deals with a larger variety of diagnoses and issues than we can list. The services Fitzgerald’s team have developed bridge “the gap between assessment and treatment” for patients of all ages who experience visual processing dysfunction. In other words, “It’s a brain thing,” as the practice’s mantra states. Since 2010, CRVIM has also been teaching, offering instruction to OTs, PTs, ATs and others, passing on Fitzgerald’s “Train your brain to see again” gospel.

Patients find CRVIM in a variety of ways. “We have the general practice so sometimes people come in for routine care and find out that we do other services to help with various problems.” Of course, there’s word of mouth, as well as the training conferences to which the CRVIM team are now often invited as experts. “I have patients come from a nine-state area for our services. With the training conferences, we try to collaborate with other OTs and PTs.” Among the many hats Fitzgerald wears, she is vice president of the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association (NORA), an inter-disciplinary industry group whose mission is to see that patients with physical or cognitive disabilities as a result of an acquired brain injury get full ocular health evaluation and optimum visual rehab services.
Fitzgerald doesn’t have the luxury of patterning CRVIM after anything in the industry, “because it doesn’t exist. But I look at what’s possibly working and couple it with things that work — multi layered therapy or integrated therapy for quicker recovery — so we combine vision vestibular and auditory and proprioception all together for a more intense and passive therapy that works well.”

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THE REWARDS

‘The Last Resort’

Fitzgerald finds working with neurologically challenged patients — “giving them back their life,” as she puts it — hugely rewarding, but along with the highs there are tough moments. “These patients have a lot of depression and emotional issues that you have to cut through to get them better.”
Fitzgerald established baseline testing for 1,400 metro youth football players over a period of three years. At first many parents didn’t see the need, but by year three every one of the players came in to get tested. She eventually donated seven laptops so these schools could do their own testing. The Pop Warner youth football league last year rated these schools’ testing system as the best it had seen.
It’s an anecdote that illustrates the complexity, and the importance, of CRVIM’s activities. “We do get very complex patients,” says Fitzgerald, “because sometimes we are the last resort.”

Do It Yourself: Develop a Niche Rehab Practice

  • BONE UP. Be prepared to learn on the fly. Says Fitzgerald: “Optometric education provides the avenues to do rehab, but I have logged countless hours in classes and reading … on … concussion and brain injury.”
  • LOOK AROUND. Fitzgerald advises finding someone who is doing what you want to do­—and learning. “It’s the quickest way to get where you want to go…We have a lot of doctors visit our clinic.”
  • BE USEFUL. Get into the community, says Fitzgerald, and “instead of telling people what you do — ask them what they need. Then help make it happen — often that is the ‘in’ to getting partnered with them.”
  • HIRE CAREFULLY. Fitzgerald says one of her biggest challenges has been finding staff that are competent but also compassionate.
  • PREPARE YOURSELF. Rehab can be taxing for both patient and therapist. Fitzgerald says of her patients: “They have a brain injury. We have to gently get them out of their own way so they can recover.”

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Best of the Best

How This Colorado Practice’s ‘Office Culture Blueprint’ is Boosting Referrals

And how they persuaded their team to embrace a new mindset.

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EYE CARE CENTER of Colorado Springs, CO, has a large specialty contact lens practice that owes its success in part to the referrals it receives from ODs and MDs in Colorado Springs, Denver, Pueblo and as far away as California. You don’t maintain a referral-driven practice without top-level service, and with so much on the line, sometimes it pays to codify what’s expected of staff. But no one responds to a laundry list of rules. “We have found we have to re-educate ourselves and any new team members we hire,” says co-owner Sara Whitney, OD, and this realization recently led the practice to develop its own “office culture blueprint.”

THE IDEA

Translating a vague desire to get the best out of your team into a set of tangible principles is harder than it sounds. “We made a feeble attempt to create a culture statement a few years ago,” recalls Whitney, “and we never finished it because we didn’t really know how to implement it.” Practice founder and co-owner Dr. Reed Bro eventually came across the concept of “above the line behavior,” an approach based on personal responsibility. Whitney says the beauty of this concept is that it encourages “behaviors that create a positive event for the next person in the chain.” The goal is to “resist the temptation to blame…to complain for the sake of complaining, or become defensive.”

Dr. Reed Bro and Dr. Sara Whitney

THE EXECUTION

Whitney, Bro and office manager Mindi Andrade developed what would become the office’s cultural blueprint over several months. It takes its starting point from a few core beliefs. These are matched with a set of encouraged behaviors and desired outcomes. Your core beliefs, Whitney says, “are the reasons you decided to start practicing optometry or open a business.”

Once these basic elements were finalized, the managers initiated a transitional phase in which they used the vocabulary that forms the core of the blueprint in day-to-day interactions with one another and with staff. “We did not present the blueprint to the team until we were comfortable that we were able to personally apply the core beliefs to any situation,” Whitney says. They launched it at the beginning of January, when people are making resolutions and personal improvements. “We printed up the culture matrix on a card for each member of the team.”

Whitney says you can tell right away which staff will be on board and who will resist. “We lost three team members around the time the blueprint was rolled out. It may have just been a personal decision for the employee, but it can cause you to momentarily doubt your decision to demand these behaviors.” It’s important to be strong and stick to your guns at this stage, she says. Remember that the key beliefs you identified as the basis for your blueprint are important. “They are the reason you get up in the morning and come to work,” she says. “Expectations … make some people uncomfortable. They will resist change, and you have to let them move on.”

THE REWARDS

Whitney says the blueprint has delivered its targeted outcomes: an enhanced sense of community, patient satisfaction, trust, loyalty, adherence to treatment plans, and referrals. But there are personal benefits too. “I think those who have embraced this new mindset will be able to see it spilling over into their personal lives.”

Ultimately, Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs’ aim with the blueprint was to cultivate behaviors that grow the business, and so far, that aim is being met. Says Whitney: “We have developed the mindset that being presented with a challenge is our opportunity to get ahead of the problem and to possibly even be someone’s hero.”

Do It Yourself: Develop an Office Culture

  • DON’T RUSH IT. “Take time to define your beliefs over a period of weeks or months,” says Whitney.
  • WALK THE WALK. “Live out behaviors that support your beliefs,” Whitney advises. “You are the biggest example of your practice culture.”
  • TWO-WAY STREET. An office culture doesn’t have to be static: Survey your team periodically and ask for feedback.
  • COMMUNICATE. If you don’t, a blueprint is just a list tacked to a wall.
  • STAY STRONG. A change like this might cost you an employee. But stay the course or it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

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Best of the Best

Maryland Optician Makes the Most of Its Expansive Front Window Space

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Visions Extraordinary Eyewear
frederick, md

WITH 60 YEARS of experience between them, Meline Baron and Phil Bromwell of Visions Extraordinary Eyewear know a thing or two about attracting clients. Lesson No. 1? Wow them with windows.

THE IDEA

The two, who’ve been a couple for 21 years, started Visionary Opticians 18 years ago, rebranded to Visions Extraordinary Eyewear in 1999, and  moved to their current location in downtown Frederick in 2003. With their tony new shop, a former shoe store, came more than 10 feet of glass windows facing the street. Time to get creative! Visions, which only carries one of each frame, prides itself on offering brands from around the world — Studio3 Occhiali, Ptolemy48, Wissing, Roger and Rain City, among others — collections not available at chains, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. “We don’t duplicate or repeat,” says Baron. In addition to an exclusive frame experience, they offer a wide selection of premium lenses from Varilux, Zeiss, Hoya, Seiko, Transitions, and more, with an expedient turnaround time thanks to an in-house lab manned by Bromwell. What’s more, they don’t do advertising or social media; those windows tell their story.

THE EXECUTION

“I change out the large window seasonally, although not necessarily with season-specific themes,” says Baron. “My current large window is focused around primarily four collections. The ‘F’ theme of Flowers, Foliage, Feathers, Fabric.”

Meline Baron is the brain behind her store’s window displays.

In fact, her current small spring window uses colorful tissue boxes adorned with cute flowers and birds. These are attached to the wall with push-pins, the frames displayed on top.

Looking back, Baron has her favorite windows. “I painted upholsterer’s springs for my ‘Spring For A New Look!’ window. Also, I’ve used my husband’s ties and ‘guy-centric’ books in my ‘The Guys Have It’ small window display, and colorful flip-flops to display sunglasses,” she explains. “And there’s the time I used bottles of Joy dishwashing liquid for my ‘The Joy of Spex’ window.”

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Props are occasionally reused, but in new ways. “Windows always evolve and things wear out, so I am always looking for new things to keep it fresh,” she says.

THE RESULTS

Baron describes her store as “very layered” and says she’s often surprised and tickled when the people she least expects notice stuff and comment. Customers often say they like the feel of the place. “Many visitors and customers comment that they love to come into the shop because there is always something interesting to look at. And the more they like being here, the more likely they are to find something else they want.” It’s a philosophy that works. Vision’s revenue went up 20 percent since moving to this location.

But for Baron and Bromwell, it’s time for a new adventure. The couple is looking to retire and has put Visions up for sale. The good news is that Baron is happy to continue consulting on the windows for the new owners!

Do It Yourself: Attract Passersby with Your Windows

  •  Look out for new  props. “I’m always thinking, ‘This is kind of cool,’” says Baron. “I can be seen in any kind of store taking off my glasses to see if they’ll sit on an object for a display.”
  • Pick a color and switch out seasonal props to extend a display’s life. November to February, Baron’s focus is red, using Christmas props until January, then Valentine’s props.
  • Think about lighting. Baron even changes the bulbs in the lights in the windows to keep it interesting.  And she is constantly stocking up on fairy lights at Home Depot.
  • Be organized. Baron rents a storage locker for her materials, and has a “tool box” full of push pins, screw-in hooks, a hammer, and plate racks to prop up signage and posters.
  • Use your displays to convert sales. Color themes plus a “Color of the Month” frame discount give Baron “a way of having a sale without seeming like a discounter.”
  • And a don’t!Don’t use anything that can melt! “I once had a zyl Traction frame and a Kawasaki frame with a plastic temple-tip fall off their perch and onto a light fixture and melt,” she says.

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