Features: Buying In-Sight


Buying In•Sight

Don’t worry optical. You are not alone. The act of retailing—selling products to consumers—is in crisis. Blame it on the economical climate. Blame it on a growing wariness on the part of the consumer to commit their hard-earned (or non-earned) and frozen paychecks on any goods. Blame it on pricing. Blame it on a hostile international climate. Blame it on changing conceptions of the scope  of merchandising and the consumers’ relationship with branding. Just don’t blame it on 20/20

The story that follows is an editorial confabulation with a select group of optical retailers who understand the problem of selling eyewear and are willing to share their (buying) insight with our readers.

In some instances optical’s options for surviving and thriving are unique to our market. Eyewear is quite possibly the only medical device affected by the world of fashion designers and lifestyle branding. Near daily advances in lens technology provide an often-untapped host of selling points veritably untouched by even the most high-tech consumer products. Eyeglass manufacturers and vendors have made enviable strides in both quality (and quality at great price points) especially in these last five years. So even if you don’t have the (frail) auto-incentive of 0 percent financing, the optical retailer has considerable recourse to success. In many cases it just takes a new brave, but bold, first step. What say we open our eyes and the consumers’ options by reading on…

Keeping it Fresh
Georgie Kovari, owner/optician,
Georgie’s House
of Vision in Milwaukee

Georgie Kovari’s main considerations in buying frames are variety and style. “I’m in a conservative neighborhood in Milwaukee, which is about five years behind  in fashion anyway,” she laughs. “But I don’t want to be categorized as having one type of product. I try to bring fashion to my customers. If you give people a chance to see something different, they will often buy it.”

Quality is also an important consideration for Kovari. “I always check frames for quality. I see how they are made, what I need to do to make easy adjustments, how much maintenance is required. I don’t want frames that cause headaches for my customers because then they bring the frames back to me and cause me headaches. I don’t need that.”

Kovari, who keeps an inventory of 1,000 frames, most on display, buys the majority of her frames from five vendors. Her lines include Anne Klein, Gucci, Nine West, Dior, Kenneth Cole, Ralph Lauren and Cazal. Frames range in price from $85 to $400. An average frame sale with single-vision lenses is $200.

She does all her buying in her store from reps. She sees them on a rotating three-month basis so she constantly has new product on her board. She does no electronic buying. “Some of the reps I deal with have tried to show me computer presentations. But it’s not the same. The colors certainly aren’t true. I want to see the frame, touch it, play with it. Then I’m happy. I want sales reps I can talk with and that can answer my questions. I like to be able to look at my board and then look at the samples and see what colors, shapes and sizes I’m missing—and what I need to add interest to the board.” Kovari likes to change her frame displays seasonally to coincide with style shows she holds every spring and fall.

The economy has had an effect on her business, she says, although it’s still growing and she has had good sales in the past year. “People are definitely holding onto frames longer and using the same frame when they purchase new lenses. I sell quality frames so they last longer. I suppose I’m shooting myself in the foot, but that’s the only way I’ll do business. And even in a bad economy, people still want good, stylish product and they will pay the price although it might mean buying a little less often.”

Kovari does work with some insurance plans and union programs that don’t require specific frames. “I did try working with some HMOs, but I didn’t like the limited frame options. I do use EyeMed styles from Luxottica, but even though many of those frames are stylish, I sell them primarily to contact lens customers. Most of my customers prefer to upgrade and get what they really want.”

For her lenses, she uses one lab that offers a wide variety of premium products. “I always tell my customers what’s available at all price points, but I recommend premium lenses. I find nearly 100 percent of my customers take my lens recommendations. They want the best lenses, not the cheapest.”

is the Spice

Deborah G. Kurpjuweit, owner/optician,
Debonair Eyes in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“When it comes to buying frames it’s a combination of having the sales reps come in and going to shows,” says Deborah Kurpjuweit who has more than 20 years experience as an optician. “Up until recently we had so many accounts that they came in every eight to 12 weeks. It was getting too disruptive. Now once every six months we schedule appointments with the reps.”

Because Debonair Eyes has more than 2,000 pieces in the store and carries some 42 different vendors (she notes the break out is 50/50 ophthalmic to sun), frame management is very important. “We set aside rules for meeting the reps,” explains Kurpjuweit. “We give them an appointment. When they come in we print [the inventory] off the computer and then go through my report and their report. For example, the Armani rep prints out the sales of both the Rx and sun. I have him go through his stuff and pull everything he wants back. A lot of the time they do well at picking the sleepers. They also tell us the frames that are going to be discontinued. Then they show us the new things they think we’d be interested in. We go and turn over the amount we need to replace. But the reps don’t have the final say.”

Trusted reps are at times given a bit more liberty. “Sometimes it gets too busy. So I will tell the rep to pick the 10 best frames for us; for example five men and five women,” she says. “However, I’ve found when I do that I sometimes get extra frames. So you need to be cautious. You need to make sure they give you the order slip before they leave.”

As for optical shows, Kurpjuweit’s agenda is a bit more flexible. “Last year we bought so many frames, I didn’t have the leeway to buy at the show,” she says. “We always go to Expo West, although I’d love to go to East, and we go to a small regional show in Long Beach. Most of the frame reps are so anxious to sell they’ll work you in without an appointment. We make some but we leave hours to browse.”

Kurpjuweit has so many years of experience buying eyewear that there are some things she can ascertain from styles with a quick overview. “With frames you have to be hands on,” she says. “There are some—that just by looking at them—I know if they will be too hard to put a prescription in. I know what to stay away from. I know what colors move and what don’t. A lot of it comes with years of experience. You need to be aware of the different materials. With a lot of the rimless styles I look at how they are notched and put together. I make sure there is not a lot of wobbling screws. I buy a lot of Silhouette and look-a-likes. I stay away from difficult notching systems. We sell a lot of rimless with only four different brands.”

Debonair does accept various managed-care plans so Kurpjuweit makes sure she has a variety of price ranges available. (The average cost of frames at the shop, without lenses, is $135.) “We don’t take MediCal but we do take different HMOs,” she says. “We offer lower-end eyewear so we’re not shoving anybody out the door based on price. I buy closeouts from reps so I get good quality frames that I can sell at a very low price. I try to keep all price ranges, which is why I have 2,000 frames.”

With the downturn of the economy, Kurpjuweit says she altered her buying habits somewhat but not drastically. “We adjusted our buying a little bit after September 11th—we didn’t buy from September through December,” she says. “And last year we put off buying for a while—from September through November. But we’ve had exceptional growth. Our frame buying habits have changed to buying more than ever before. When it gets bad don’t reduce your stock to nothing. We were growing that whole year before September 11th and even during that time. And we were still moving upward. I find customers would rather go with selection. That’s how I feel that we’re successful: by having a good selection of frames.”

Eye on the Future
Debbie Fink, vice president
specialty stores, D.O.C

Debbie Fink, frame buyer for the 123-store Detroit-based D.O.C chain, does her major buying at the international shows, Silmo and Mido. “We go to the Expos in New York and Las Vegas to browse. But we have the reps come to us after the shows and do our actual buying then. We find it too distracting to buy at the U.S. shows.”

What Fink looks for is new trends, new materials, new colors and new shapes. “We want to see where the industry is headed,” she notes. “I try to get a good mix of plastics and metals and I look for hot designer and brand names because recognizable names are important to many of our customers. And I look for quality. I can often judge quality just by touching a frame and looking at the spring hinges, the endpieces, the solder points. I never buy a frame unless I have tried it on. That’s why I don’t do any electronic buying.”

She works with 15 to 20 major vendors, including Sàfilo, Luxottica and Marchon. She notes that she used to deal with more vendors, but with all the consolidations, some are disappearing. Frame prices (without lenses) in the D.O.C stores range from $100 to $1,200 for Cartier frames
Fink’s buying practices have been effected by the economy in the past year. “We are bringing in some collections at more moderate price points then we would have considered in the past in order to accommodate price-conscious customers,” she says. “We have also brought in lower-end product (we use a lot of LBI Limited Edition product) for those customers who have insurance plans so they don’t have so much out-of pocket expense.”

Changing Times
Edward Beiner, owner,
Edward Beiner,
Purveyor of Fine Eyewear

“My frame buying practices have changed drastically in the past couple of years,” Ed Beiner says.  “I still go to shows to look at what’s new and I do buying at the two Expos and at Silmo and Mido—primarily at Expo West and Silmo in October because winter is a prime selling season for Florida. [He has four stores in the Miami area and two in Orlando]. But now my buying is spread out during the entire year, which I find necessary because most of my stores are in mall locations and I carry a lot of branded product. My customers are always looking for the latest styles. As a result, I deal directly with reps in my stores. I find even many of the smaller companies no longer wait for traffic to come to them at the shows, but have reps on the road. Shows are not as important as they once were.” He also imports some lines directly from Europe and uses the Internet to research product as well as does some electronic buying.  

Another major change Beiner has made is in how he buys. Although he still purchases collections, he is much more selective and does not buy as deeply as in the past. “I buy fairly deeply when I first buy the collection and them add limited quantities as needed. I’m much more conscious of having board control and of cost and profit margins today. With the current economy, we can’t depend on sheer volume of sales anymore. We have to count on markup. It’s important to me that the markup potential be good.”

The retailer works primarily with 10 major vendors. From those vendors he wants more than just frames. He expects a partnership, which includes advertising, advertising dollars, mailers and help with setting up trunk shows.

What Beiner looks for in eyewear is unique product, even something a little gimmicky. “Although most people buy vanilla, it’s always good to have pistachio in the mix. It adds flavor. I like to have an assortment of plastics, metals, clips, shields and readers.”

In buying product, fashion is the key, he says. “You have to know what’s selling in clothes and, especially, in accessories and try to mimic this in eyewear selections. And just like the rest of the fashion industry, I buy for specific seasons.”

When buying, he chooses frames that complement each other. “In our stores, we don’t separate frames by collection as much as we once did. Instead, we’ll separate them by style, i.e., retro designs, shields, colorful zyls, metals, all in their own space.”

Although he says his business has been altered phenomenally by the downswing in the economy, he hasn’t actually decreased his price points. “My customer base is still there. And I carefully select product that fits my market. I know my customers and what they are willing to pay. They’re not expecting frames for $45.” His average frame price ranges from $250 to $300. A frame with single-vision lenses sells for an average of $350 to $450.

What has helped his business is all the lens options now available. With polarization, mirrors, gradient and tint treatments, a frame with single-vision lenses can sell from up to $600, he says.

For lenses, Beiner uses two multi-purpose surfacing labs and a stock lab. What he expects with labs, too, is a relationship. He notes this is possible because labs have become more sophisticated and often have reps so it’s possible to build a partnership.Although he uses computers more for research than for actual buying, Beiner expects to do more electronic buying in the future. “Everything is online today. My kids do homework online and get information from their teachers online. The new generation is so computer savvy the idea of ordering from catalogs is obscene to them. Additionally, electronic ordering is cost effective for vendors, which is also good for retailers.”

Beiner’s business has not been effected by managed care programs or by laser surgery. “Some of my customers have had laser surgery, but they still need readers and sunglasses,” he says. “Eyewear is a beautiful accessory and a fairly inexpensive one. Fortunately, many of my customers appreciate that. We always tell our customers people look at your face first, maybe later your feet, but it’s eyewear that’s the key accessory.”

Cost Consciousness
Dennis A. Zelazowski, OD and owner, Spectacles, Etc., Lower Burrell, Pa.

Dennis Zelazowski, OD, does a lot of buying for his Spectacles, Etc. shop, located 20 miles from Pittsburgh, at the two Expos and occasionally at regional shows. But he has a slightly unusual approach. He does look for something a little different and, of course, of good quality. He only buys mid- and higher-price frames, no low end. When he finds something he likes, he asks a standard question: “Does the company have a rep in the area.” But he is only interested if the answer is no. “I don’t want to carry the same thing all my competition has,” he explains.

Once he brings in a line, he reorders from catalogs or asks to be sent a loaner set of frames. Now, though, since his son, Dennis G., an optician, has come into the business with him, he does occasionally have time to see a rep, but still wants product not available nearby.

When he and his son attend shows, they spend the first day just walking the show and checking the directory to see whom they are interested in pursuing. “We do our homework. Then we’re ready to do serious buying on the next two days,” the OD notes.

Dr. Zelazowski has modified some of his buying practices in the past two years because his business has changed dramatically since September 11th. “We haven’t fully recovered. The first six months of 2002 weren’t too bad, but after that business has not been great. I used to have a weak month perhaps in July or December, but never four or five months in a row.” As a result, he has had to rethink how he does business. “I’ve been forced to be much more price conscious. I’ve had to back away from some of the higher-end vendors I worked with for years and start doing business with new companies.” He uses eight to 10 vendors on a regular bases, whereas in the past he relied on five or six. His son has been very helpful in researching companies, the optometrist says. “My son suggested we set aside a buying fund and then when we see a good quality, stylish collection, we will buy the whole collection for cash if we are offered a substantial discount. My son also makes a point of asking about special frame discounts and discontinued lines.”

The optometrist keeps a frame inventory of 350 to 500 pieces, ranging in price from $85 to $550. An average frame sells for $250 and a frame with single-vision lenses averages between $300 and $350.

Another change Dr. Zelazowski has been forced to make as a result of the economy is his approach to third-party programs. “In the past, we didn’t accept many insurance plans. We used to be able to educate our customers on quality and sell up. But we are in an area with a lot of industry—Allegheny Technologies, PPG, a branch of Penn State and others. If one of our major employees has an insurance plan, whether we like it or not, we can’t afford to let the business go. We have to accommodate them and we do this with many of the discounted frames we’ve bought.

He and his son factor in cost when purchasing lenses, too. “My son checks the Internet at the end of the day and finds vendors willing to bid on jobs for specific uncuts. It’s necessary to pay immediately with a credit card, but if you have the time it’s a good way to cut costs. He also does research whenever we receive fliers from lens company. If the quality is good (we primarily use polycarbonate lenses with 1.0 center thickness), we will try them. What has really helped us survive a little better is doing our homework before we buy.”

Shopping the Shows
Sharon Foote Katzman, owner,
IOPTICS in Sarasota, Fla.

“I do the bulk of buying when the reps come to the store but I do the bulk of finding new product at the shows,” says Sharon Foote Katzman. “They usually come in once or twice a year in between shows. The reps I have collections with already always set up appointments. They know I’m looking forward to seeing them. A lot of others just come in. If I have time, I see everybody because you never know what you’ll see.”

While it’s nice to have the convenience of having someone come to you, Katzman notes nothing beats the experience and knowledge garnered at a trade show. “Last year for Vegas [Expo West] I closed the store for three days and took my two opticians with me. I took them to get them both excited and to see what a show is all about—neither had been to a big trade show. So Vegas was exposure. We had certain items we wanted to find. But mostly we walked around and looked.”

 A former sales rep for Robert LaRoche, Christian Roth and Alain Mikli with 10 years of experience on the other side of the dispensing table, Katzman has found that an open-door policy has emerged at trade shows over the past five years since she’s owned IOPTICS. “I only had one appointment,” she says. “But I found even when you got into the hotels where the high-end eyewear is shown the doors were open. You could walk in and see the line. For the most part it didn’t feel like it used to when I was a rep. If you didn’t have an appointment the door wasn’t open for you. I suppose it’s a product of the economy.”

When you’re going to be gone for a few days at a trade show, Katzman explains it’s important to let your customers know where you are and when you’ll be back. “When we went to Expo West, I put a great big sign on the store that read: ‘We’ll miss but wait until you see what we have when we get back.’ You have to tell customers where you are. We changed the message on the answering machine too. You need to let your customers know what’s going on. And when you get back you need to change the message immediately.”

A high-end shop, IOPTICS has not changed its price points because of the recent economic downturn. “I’m sticking to my guns with price point,” says Katzman. “ We have a sign up: No discounts. Thanks for asking; don’t bother me. Our buying patterns haven’t changed. You know what has changed? I haven’t found merchandise that’s exciting. I’m not sure if it’s the result of economics on the designer side. But even in Vegas I was very disappointed in product.”

Katzman stocks about 15 eyewear collections. “ When I was a rep I said you should just have eight lines and stay that way,” she ironically notes.
As for choosing product, Katzman judges eyewear on its look. “I select based on how cool it looks,” she says. (The average price of frames without lenses at the store ranges from $250 to $500.)“I will know if I’ve seen it before. If it’s new or has a unique look to it—that can be simple little things like the way the temples are tweaked. If there is one little item I can bring to the customer’s attention. I did that with laminates because, at the time, it was so interesting. We sell a lot of color and a lot of unique styles in frames—different but not kooky.”

And Katzman does not forget about lenses. “We go through the trade magazines and see what new lens is on the market and if the rep hasn’t been in we call them,” she explains. “We want to know all about the new lenses. My job is to purchase the frames and make sure the store looks fabulous and my optician’s job is to make sure we have the latest and greatest in lenses. We make sure our patients have lenses that match their Rx and frames so we offer a large selection of lenses. We sell high-end frames so we need to make sure the lenses we offer match that.”

It’s important, adds Katzman, to learn your patient’s lifestyle needs. “We price out the lenses individually. We need to account for the patient’s lifestyle—do they read, do they watch a lot of TV and never read—we have to make sure to fit them in a lens that matches their needs. We don’t really know until the point of sale what lenses are going to be put into the frames. And we’re 100 percent anti-reflective coating. No one walks out without it.”