Features: Successful Retail Strategies

May
2003

Southern Hospitality

Eyes on Gervais offers unique eyewear
coupled with down home service

By Jackie Micucci

1. C. Earl Loftis, OD, decided he wanted to “knock down the wall” between patients and doctor when he opened Eyes on Gervais in 1994; 2. A clock in the 2,000-square-foot dispensary has a pair of eyewear as its pendulum; 3. The Columbia, S.C. store features a castle-themed children’s playroom that keeps kids occupied so mom and dad can browse.

Photos by TIM DOMINICK


When customers walk into Eyes on Gervais they are assured one thing: They’re not going to see their new eyewear coming and going. The Columbia, S.C. practice carries styles and brands unique to the area.

“People who come here are looking for an individual look,” says owner C. Earl Loftis, OD. “If we sell one frame, we don’t buy it again. If someone falls in love with a pair of glasses they’ve seen and wants a copy, we call the person who they saw it on and ask them if it’s okay. We don’t promise anyone total exclusivity but I’m the only guy in town selling those products.”

With a dispensary that is 2,000 square feet and more than 1,000 frames on  display, Eyes on Gervais is a wide-open expanse of eyewear. But it’s more than just great glasses that keep patients coming through the door. Dr. Loftis is a self-proclaimed “hands-on guy” totally committed to the importance of customer service and knowing your customer.
Eyes on Gervais stocks more than 1,000 frames—all of which are on display.

“Our office is not designed like an office,” says the OD. “It’s wide open. I like having the ability to touch and feel, and know everyone. The waiting area is the frame area too. I want people to feel at home. Part of that is being accessible. It knocks down the wall between doctor and patient. Here everybody knows me. I’m an expert at what I do but I’m not an expert of all things.”

It wasn’t always that way for the veteran optometrist. He spent many years going back and forth among 12 LensCrafters in three different states—South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia—not ever truly knowing any of his many patients. A 1979 graduate of the Southern College of Optometry, Dr. Loftis began his career in Kentucky working with an older OD for six years before branching out on his own. Soon after he was asked to work one day a week at LensCrafters, which he agreed to do because “they offered me an ungodly amount of money.” However, he was also impressed with the chain retailer’s ability to deliver eyewear in an hour. “Patients got so excited about getting their glasses quickly,” he notes.

But after growing increasingly disillusioned with the way he was practicing optometry, he decided in 1992 to leave. “It wasn’t the same show I started with so I sold my LensCrafters offices without anywhere to go,” explains Dr. Loftis. “I took two years off. I decided optometry was what I loved the best but I hated the way I was doing it with LensCrafters. I wanted to know my patients’ case histories, get their prescriptions and then take them to pick out their frames. I wanted to deliver a quality product.”

In 1994, Eyes on Gervais opened its doors and Dr. Loftis got a chance to roll up his sleeves again as well as offer the type of brands he felt were “quality product.” They include Lafont, Kata, Toki and Silhouette. “I never sell the same frame style twice except for Silhouette,” he notes. “Every Silhouette looks different on every person. Drill mounts have been a headache. But the vacuum seal system gets rid of the flimsiness of drill mounts. That Silhouette style of rimless I’ve brought into my practice in a big way—one out of five rimless styles we sell are that type. I like the flexibility. We invent shapes.”

Frame prices without lenses range from $150 to $700 at the dispensary. The average price for single-vision eyewear ranges from $350 to $550 and $500 to $700 for progressive lenses. As for the buying, most is done at trade shows by Dr. Loftis’ long-time employee Margie Winn who has been with the dispensary since it first opened.

“Margie picks the product,” he says. “She has impeccable taste. I just tell her to get what she wants. We have the same taste. We used to do the New York show [Vision Expo East] a lot. And I go to SECO. But the best show is a trunk show in your own office. Usually we’ll find something we really like and call the reps to come by. Columbia is not on their regular stops.”

The dispensary never sells thesame frame style twice.
In addition, Eyes on Gervais caters to children. The dispensary has a play area decorated like a castle, which both entertains kids and allows mom and dad to browse. Brands carried include Harry Potter, Lafont and Chesterfield. Dr. Loftis says he feels strongly about offering children’s eyewear that is good quality and good looking. “There is such a stigma for kids about wearing glasses,” says the OD. “A lot of practices will give them the cheapest eyewear. Kids come here because others kids got some cool glasses. We do cool kids’ glasses.”

As a time saver, the optometrist has an in-office lab in his practice so patients who just want new lenses in their frames don’t have to wait very long to get their eyewear completed.  “I do only edging,” says Dr Loftis. “I bought a Santinelli edger to reduce turnaround time. When you sell nice frames they last a long time. Customers come back in wearing their Katas and Lafonts and they need new lenses. If I didn’t have a lab I’d have to send the frame out. It’s a convenience for them not a moneymaker for me.” Only 30 percent of lenses are finished

in-office. The rest of the time eyewear is sent out to two labs: Vision Systems and DBL. “We have lenses made at high-quality labs that give us warrantees,” says the OD. “We’re big into Zeiss lenses. We’re big into A-R coating too. We package everything with A-R. I will not buy an A-R coating not warranteed for at least 2 years; on scratch resistant coating it’s one year.”

In fact, Eyes on Gervais is so “into” anti-reflective that 85 percent of their lenses are dispensed with the coating. And Dr. Loftis has been known to barter with a patient to get him to try A-R. “A guy came in the other day who did not want
A-R and I gave it to him anyway,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I want you to have this.’ He was a salesman so I told him to bring me some of his product. I bartered with him to take the A-R. Now this was a rare exception. But it bugs me for someone to buy a killer pair of glasses and at the end of the sale back off from A-R.”
With annual sales of over $600,000, the practice does not accept managed care plans. “The only people who make out in that scenario is the HMO,” maintains Dr. Loftis. “It forces me to be a schiester and sell my patients up. Plus the plans tend to offer poor quality frames. It’s activity but not productivity. I have good relationships with my patients and they come here for quality. My goal is not to stick it to them but to sell good product at a fair price and stand behind it.”

However, Eyes on Gervais does accept Medicare because Dr. Loftis is also a low vision specialist. “It’s my philanthropy as it’s not a way to make money,” he says. “I take a holistic approach to my practice and use nutritional medicine to help treat low vision. I’ve learned that what you eat has something to do with how your vision performs.” The optometrist has been certified by Lighthouse International (the worldwide not-for-profit organization that helps those with vision impairments) and travels across the country helping low vision sufferers.

Becoming part of the community and establishing lasting relationships with patients have been key ingredients to the recipe of Eyes on Gervais’
success. Dr. Loftis has blended Southern hospitality, excellent eyecare and good-quality product for a one-of-a-kind down home optical experience.

Who
Eyes of Gervais
Location
Columbia, S.C.
Established
1994
Size of dispensing area
2,000 square feet
Size of in-office lab
120 square feet
Number of frames
displayed
1,000 to 1,100
Average Price of
Complete Eyewear
$350 to $550 (for single-vision)
Store sales volume
$600,000 plus
Number of employees
Three
Number of optometrists
One
Number of opticians
None (The OD likes doing the
dispensing himself.)
20/20 Take
Lofty aspirations attained by
professional dedication, first-class product and a willingness to
be-of-service at all times
.


 

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