CHROME HEARTS Straight Up 11 from OSA International

Photographed by NED MATURA; Photo-illustration by IRIS JOHNSON

By Lauren Taylor

Sometimes the perfect memento of a trip isn’t a snow globe or a seashell. For many tourists, eyewear, and especially sunwear, is becoming a sought-after souvenir. With the increasing popularity of sunwear as a fashion accessory, what better place to find a new pair than a sunny, oceanside location or on a mountaintop with sun and celebrity spotlights glaring? Keeping that in mind, optical stores in popular vacationing spots have started catering to tourists as well as the locals. “So often, we get shoppers in looking for the hottest new brand of sunglass in our ‘beach area’ experience,” says Rick Hogan, owner of Optical Designs in Santa Monica, Calif. “More and more we’re seeing even tourists come in asking to see the latest not-so-well-known brands that So-Cals are wearing.”

While it’s easy to think about domestic tourists, it’s also important to cater to visitors from abroad. Many upscale coastal locales and ski resorts draw tourists from international sites as well. “With the tourist trade, it’s important to understand what countries the majority of your business is coming from in order to identify their needs and gear your P.R. appropriately,” says Ed Beiner, an eyewear retailer with six locations in South Florida. “Another major consideration is the global economy. It can have tremendous effect on our business in Florida. Europeans shop here because of the strong Euro; product is cheaper here than it is at home.”

The economies in other countries impact the buying power of the tourists who come from there. “Chinese and Russian tourists are especially prevalent in our Beverly Hills location because their own economy is good,” says Sheila Vance, owner of Sama Eyewear.

“We also have to take into consideration vacation times of the various tourists,” Beiner points out. “Europeans are on vacation primarily in August and for a shorter period in the winter, whereas South Americans tend to vacation in December through February, with a much shorter period in the summer.”

No matter where they’re from, when they’re on vacation, tourists want memorable experiences. “We find tourists visit a lot of shops, but they buy where the experience—and that includes product, atmosphere, customer service, background music, everything—is distinctive,” says Vance. If an optical shop is near a beach, ski slope or other tourist destination, it should fit into the atmosphere of the surroundings. Coastal shops should be open and airy, while mountain locations should look warm and snug. Even locations that aren’t directly visible from the beach or the slopes can benefit from increased traffic. “We’re slightly off the tourist path when it comes to the actual beach and oceanfront action in Santa Monica, but even though our location on Montana Avenue is not the tourist hub, it does see considerable vacation and out-of-town visitor activity,” says Hogan. “Much like Miami, all of the hot spots in Southern California share a sort of ownership when it comes to sun worshipping and that climate makes for an aggressive sunwear business.”

In the case of Larry Sands, founder of Optical Shop of Aspen, he placed his optical shop where he found the tourists. “Around 1971 I had just opened my own optical shop in Kansas City,” he says. “It was working out great, so I took a break and went to Aspen for a little well-earned vacation time. I hit town and I noticed there’s not an optical store. All these people relaxing on vacation with lots of free time, money in their parkas and nowhere to spend it on glasses.” Now he has 15 successful retail stores in popular travel destinations across the country.

But no matter what your location, everyone should tailor their inventory to fit their clientele. “The tourist influence affected the balance in our shops for eyewear and sunwear,” says Sands. “That first shop initially had a mix of 95 percent Rx and 5 percent sun. By the time store two came on board the mix was already moving toward 75 percent Rx and 25 percent sun. And that progress of sun just keeps getting stronger to the point where now the sun usually leads our tourist customer in and the Rx frame becomes the add-on.”

For Hogan, sunwear in Southern California is obviously in high demand. “Anything that makes your business more ‘sun-aware’ is good for business,” he notes.

Tourists also want to find things they can’t find at home. “We’ve recently had huge success with a sort of growing cult brand called Salt,” says Hogan. “People seem to love that it’s almost a fresh and unknown discovery. Tourists love going home with a new discovery that everyone back home doesn’t know about yet. They love wearing something so cool no one even knows you’re cool yet.”

In the end, tourists want something that will always make them think of their trip. “They want to go home and say, ‘I discovered this. This is mine,’” says Vance. “That’s what creates memories.”