Founded in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1939 by the grandfather and great uncle of the current owner, Jeff Klauer, Klauer Optical Company began life primarily as a wholesale business, supplying frames to eyecare professionals. In the late ’50s under the helm of Jeff’s father, the business became more retail-oriented and has for many years operated as a dispensary with an optometrist on premises and a surfacing and finishing lab. In 1985, a Cedar Rapids store joined the Dubuque flagship location.
Jeff Klauer, who has been a part of the company since graduating from college in 1982, says his involvement goes much further back. “I was actually raised in the lab and worked there throughout high school.” More recently Klauer has begun to move the business in a new direction, with an emphasis on higher-end product and eyewear as a fashion accessory. “We know there are two groups of eyewear consumers—those who need eyewear and those who want it. Our goal is to move people out of the eyewear just as a medical device frame-of-mind into eyewear as a wardrobe accessory—the want category,” Klauer explains.
What helped Klauer in moving the business in a new direction was his involvement in the Eastern Optical Research Group, a management organization of optical retailers around the country. “It’s difficult in the current environment to move forward without going out and looking at how others do business,” Klauer says. “I learned a great deal from exposure to other retailers in my group. We need to be aware people in Iowa are like people everywhere. They like the nicest and newest styles,” he notes.
So two-and-a-half years ago, Klauer made a concerted effort to enter the fashion arena, offering more products exclusive to his stores and more fashion-oriented lines. “We had dabbled in the high-end before, but we started to really focus on it, first with ophthalmics and then sun,” he explains. Klauer works with 25 vendors (a dramatic increase from 15 in the past) and keeps an inventory of 1,000 optical frames and 400 sunglasses in his Dubuque store and a few less in the Cedar Rapids location. Virtually all of the frames are on display. Collections include Judith Leiber, which does amazingly well, he notes, 2.5 Eyephorics, Gold & Wood, Edward Beiner, the Allison lines and such long-time staples as Cazal, Silhouette and Tura. “We have always worked with Tura, but we now carry its new Lulu Guinness collection, which does spectacularly well,” the retailer says. “We also just added Juicy Couture, a new line from Sàfilo. It became an instant hit,” he adds. The average price of a frame with lenses is $500, up from $350 three years ago.
Additionally, the business carries 21 sunglass collections. “When we changed our direction and started focusing on eyewear as a wardrobe accessory, we realized we needed to get into the sunglass business to give credibility to our approach,” Klauer says. “We felt that by carrying sunglasses we could turn our shops into destinations—not just for Rx sunglasses, but also as the place to go for plano sunwear. Now in all our marketing, we refer to the company as Klauer Optical Company & Sunglass Center.”
Focusing on sunglasses has also helped the company expand its ophthalmic collections. “With the sunglasses, we go narrow and deep, selecting the best-selling shapes and offering them in lots of colors,” Klauer notes. “We have started to follow that philosophy with our ophthalmic lines. We used to not offer as many colors, but we learned from the sunglasses that we can actually sell more unusual frame hues.”
In addition to inventory, the company focuses on customer service. “We work at service. We are knowledgeable about our product and what we are doing,” Klauer says. “The opticians are encouraged to offer add-ons if they make sense, Klauer emphasizes. Nearly 50 percent of the lenses they dispense have AR coatings because that does make sense. They also do a lot of progressives and use high-index materials, especially with three-piece mounts, a significant part of the business. “We are focusing on selling more polarized lenses. Less than 20 percent of the lenses we sell now are polarized. We would like to see that number hit 50 percent because polarization is so important,” he notes. Klauer and his staff are also working on building multiple sales, which goes hand-in-hand with the positioning of eyewear as an accessory.
To get the message to his customers, Klauer advertises on cable TV and in area newspapers, with an emphasis on quality, service and product selection, not price. The tag line: “There is a difference.”
Klauer has plans to remodel the two stores (Dubuque is a free-standing building with 1,800 square feet of dispensary space and the Cedar Rapids location is in a strip mall with a 1,000 square-foot dispensary). “In keeping with our new inventory, we want to give our stores a more modern look. But we felt it was important to build our product lines first and then go into the remodeling,” he notes.
Although Klauer has been moving in a new direction, he understands and addresses the needs of his entire customer base. “People always say you can’t be all things to all people. And this is true in a large city,” Klauer says. “But we are small. Dubuque has a population of 50,000 with a footprint, including surrounding areas, of 100,000. We have a large rural population, lots of white- and blue-collar workers and also tourists from Chicago. So although we have been moving into the high-end/designer category, we also carry a good selection of value product. We can’t ignore that segment of the market, but can help people move up in their expectations. There are people who want to buy a Lexus even though a Toyota would be perfectly adequate. They should have the option,” the retailer emphasizes. “I remember a statement my dad made when we brought in our first $100 frame. ‘If you don’t have a $100 frame you are not going to sell it.’ The idea is to have a plan and move on from there.” All my opticians are empowered to make the necessary decision to solve a problem without checking with management.”