From Jack Kerouac to Alfred Hitchcock, many creative types have been inspired by San Francisco¡¯s rolling hills and sweeping panoramas. But two decades ago, when industry veteran Richard Golden was fleshing out his idea for a new eyewear chain, what really moved him was the city¡¯s lush retail landscape.
¡°San Francisco was almost our first store,¡± says Golden, chief executive of Southfield, Mich., based SEE, which stands for Selective Eyewear Elements. ¡°We wanted to launch the business in a glamorous neighborhood that had lots of young professionals, restaurants and boutiques, where there was a lot of foot traffic,¡± he says. After a trip to the Bay Area, Golden honed in on two such areas¡ªChestnut Street in the Marina and Union Street in Cow Hollow¡ªwhere affluent, sophisticated shoppers flocked to chic specialty stores and eateries. ¡°We knew right away that San Francisco was our model,¡± he says. However, after polishing the retail concept with a San Francisco-based architectural firm, Golden just could not find the right real estate at the right price. So he forgot about The City by the Bay. At least for a while.
Instead, in 1998 the first SEE store opened in Birmingham, Mich., a Detroit suburb that Golden says ¡°duplicated the vibe¡± he had fallen in love with in San Francisco. In the years to come, 15 more units followed in cities such as Los Angeles, South Beach, West Palm Beach, Chicago and Georgetown. And this past January, 18 years after Golden¡¯s inspirational trip out west, he finally opened the doors to the long-awaited San Francisco location.
The newest SEE is located on a prime retail strip on Union Street, surrounded by other successful chains such as Armani Exchange, Nine West and Bebe. Union and nearby Chestnut Street, which both draw substantial foot traffic from local residents and tourists, are also home to stylish independent boutiques, trendy restaurants, French bakeries and bars¡ªas well as several upscale eyewear shops carrying luxury brands like Gucci and Prada.
But Golden, also CEO of the eyewear chain DOC, says he is not worried about the local competition. He explains SEE may look upscale, but it offers customers quality fashion eyewear at mid-tier price points¡ªas much as a third the price of designer brands carried at other boutiques and without exorbitant add-on costs. ¡°We¡¯re giving people sticker shock,¡± he says. ¡°They¡¯re getting unbelievable value, an alternative to spending $500 to $700 on glasses.¡± The frames, which all bear the SEE label, retail from $189 to $279, and the cost includes single-vision plastic or polycarbonate prescription lenses with scratch resistance and ultraviolet protection. Progressive lenses, premium anti-reflective coating and other upgrades are, of course, available.
Golden says he¡¯s able to offer such great value by working directly with the European factories that produce the world¡¯s most exclusive eyewear. (¡°Everything you¡¯d find in the upscale portion of Vision Expo,¡± he notes.) The company has forged relationships with close to 50 frame houses in Italy, France, Sweden and Germany. To further reduce costs, the company cuts and finishes the lenses in its own laboratory in Southfield.
A big part of SEE¡¯s appeal is that it has the look of a high-end boutique. From that first trip to San Francisco, Golden wanted to create a sophisticated retail environment where patrons would feel relaxed and pampered. Mirroring the other SEE stores across the country, the Union Street shop lures passersby with bold signage bearing catchy phrases like ¡°Prices that make you go hmmm¡± and ¡°Hip without the rip.¡± The interior has the feel of an art gallery, with mahogany floors, white walls and black-and-white photos of quirky folks in glasses. Assisted by one of four salespeople, customers try on frames at sleek black-lacquer tables while noshing on complimentary green apples and coffee. ¡°It¡¯s like being in your own living room,¡± says store manager and registered optician Kym Mydock.
The product is handled in an equally relaxing manner. Instead of being locked up in cases, frames are scattered on floating white shelves, giving customers easy access to hundreds of styles, from titanium and zyl to metal and rimless. Golden says new product comes in every four to six weeks, another benefit of working directly with so many factories. The store also carries a wide selection of sunglasses, branded contact lenses and accessories.
Mydock, when asked what styles are currently flying out of the store, says she doesn¡¯t see one product outselling everything else. ¡°The average San Francisco customer doesn¡¯t follow the fads,¡± she explains. ¡°Everybody in this city has such a unique personality and their eyewear really reflects them as individuals, which is why we have so many popular styles.¡± Golden agrees: ¡°San Francisco is filled with a lot of very creative, arty people who know what they want and it¡¯s usually something different.¡±
SEE is attempting to reach out to this population of mavericks through grassroots marketing. Golden has run ads in local entertainment magazines and plans to participate in community events and promotions. A staunch supporter of both gay and animal rights, Golden recently donated a portion of the proceeds from the store¡¯s grand-opening party to PAWS (Pets are Wonderful Support).
Now that he¡¯s finally realized his San Francisco retail dream, Golden says he¡¯s not necessarily stopping with one Bay Area store. ¡°There are other great neighborhoods here that SEE would do great in,¡± he says. However, whether it¡¯s San Francisco or elsewhere around the country, Golden says he always moves cautiously into new markets. ¡°I have realtors scouting a number of cities for me,¡± he says. ¡°But I¡¯m very fussy. I may look at 15 locations and pick just one. I¡¯ve made some mistakes and learned some lessons, but overall I¡¯m pretty patient. When it comes down to it, it¡¯s got to feel right. I¡¯d rather open three stores and be right about all of them, than open eight stores and end up with six mediocre ones.¡±
So far with the San Francisco store, 18 years of patience seem to be paying off. ¡°If our first two months of sales are any indication, we¡¯re doing great,¡± says Golden. ¡°Of all 17 SEE stores, this one is off to the best start yet.¡±¡ö