By Jackie Micucci
To succeed as a small independent dispenser you must stand out from a pack increasingly crowded by chain retailers offering the lowest price. Bill Curran, owner of William J. Curran & Sons Guild Optical in Drexel Hill, Pa., and his business partner Mike Shanahan have done just that. The ABO-certified opticians sell beautifully crafted rimless eyewear for adults and children (more on that later), which have earned them a loyal following that is virtually all through word-of-mouth.
“We consider ourselves artists,” says Curran. “We do a lot of custom design work. I compare what we do with eyewear to going to a tailor to have a custom suit made rather than buying off the rack.”
Optical is in Bill Curran’s blood. His late father William J. Curran, Sr. opened the practice in Philadelphia back in 1952. In 1967, he moved from Philly to the ’burbs in Drexel Hill. The younger Curran worked part time in the shop as a teenager and then full time once he graduated college. He eventually purchased the practice from his father when the older Curran retired in 1992.
“The business before was basic frames and single-vision or flat-top lenses,” says Curran. “Back when my father started you could work on volume. With the chain stores grabbing bigger pieces of the pie, you have to specialize. Rimless has really helped grow our business.”
At Curran’s practice, the average price of complete eyewear ranges between $500 and $800 and because he’s dealing primarily in rimless, anti-reflective coating is a whopping 90 percent of all the lenses dispensed. In fact, when the dispensary sends a job out that doesn’t require AR they have to attach a note, otherwise their lab will call them.
“When you’re selling rimless it’s just so much easier to sell an AR coating,” he explains. “Every time we get a new rimless frame we immediately put an AR lens in. We also do this with all our custom shapes. We have one or two frames without AR to show patients the difference. Seeing is believing with AR.”
High-index lenses are also another easy sell. “You have to use a material like Trivex; you can’t use plastic,” notes Curran. “High-index is not a luxury but a necessity when it comes to rimless.”
The practice offers a two-year protection plan for $29.95 to replace broken or lost eyewear at a discount. It is free-of-charge for patients spending more than $500. “We would not offer the protection plan if we thought the eyewear was going to break,” notes Curran. “I never sell anything I haven’t tried first.”
The shop has earned a reputation of not just doing rimless eyewear, but also doing meticulous rimless lens work as well as custom shapes. “We do our own edging, polishing and drilling,” says Curran. “We don’t trust other people to do our work and I haven’t been impressed with what the big labs are doing.”
By way of example, Curran tells a story about walking into a store and encountering a salesman wearing the same Silhouette frames that Curran himself had on. “He said to me, ‘We’re wearing the same frames, but why do I like yours better?’ I told him, you don’t have an AR coating, the edges aren’t polished and the holes aren’t drilled correctly. I tell Silhouette they have a fantastic product but places are butchering the eyewear with what they’re doing. We are certified opticians and most dispensaries have sales clerks selling the sample frame. They don’t know how to custom order.”
The dispensary has also excelled in a niche not many in optical have even considered doing: rimless for kids. It came about in 2000 when Curran’s then 12-year-old son could not find frames to fit his face. “He has a real thin face and every frame he tried on he didn’t like,” recalls Curran. “So I thought, why not try a rimless frame? I made some modifications to complement his features, put an AR coating on the lenses and he loved them. I made up a sample and started showing it. The kids and their parents loved them. After a while, I realized I can do this for a 12-year-old, so why not kids as young as five or six and after that, why not a two-year old?” In fact, the optician just fit a 15-month-old girl in rimless eyewear in AR-coated, Trivex lenses.
Curran has a close working relationship with Silhouette Optical, so he approached the company about creating a children’s rimless frame collection. After convincing Arnold Schmied, director of marketing, design and sales, about the viability of such a line, he met with the Silhouette board members in Linz, Austria. Knowing it would be a tough sell to opticians who would claim that parents were going to balk at the price, Curran did a training DVD for Silhouette on selling rimless to kids to give to their accounts.
“In many cases, you pull out these clunky frames and the parents look at them almost as if their child has to wear a prosthetic device,” says Curran. “But the rimless frames are invisible on the face. We do before and after photos to show the difference. Plus, the eyewear grows with the child. We make the lenses larger, which you can’t do with a regular frame. And there are no screws and hinges so we don’t see the same breakage we do with other frames.”
Rimless has truly recharged this 55-year-old practice. The hard work and pride both Curran and Shanahan have put into the eyewear they dispense has paid off big time as word-of-mouth has been the driving force behind getting new customers.
“People call to let us know how happy they are with their glasses,” says Curran. “People will even stick their head in the door to say how much they love their glasses. When someone stops by and tells a patient I’m fitting, ‘You have to get this frame,’ that beats any advertising we could do.”