Exclusive Eyewear Expansion: Norman Childs' Selective Niche Fuels Regional Growth


Norman Childs' three brands—Eyetique, 3 Guys Optical and Norman Childs Eyewear—doubled their business over the last three years and are poised for further growth this year and beyond.

PITTSBURGH—After 37 years in optical retailing, all but two of them running his own company, Norman Childs has doubled his eyewear and eyecare business over the last three years. Most recently, he opened two new optical shops—an Eyetique in Cleveland and a 3 Guys Optical in the Pittsburgh area—both on the same day, March 1, 2014.

From the beginning, he's focused on the niche of exclusivity, offering select frame lines that weren't also available from every other competing optical shop. That focus continues today, not only with the exclusive eyewear lines he carries in his Eyetique stores, but also with his own Norman Childs Eyewear, made in America and available only to a select few retailers across the country.

While this focus on exclusivity has served him well over the decades, he's also beginning to branch out...into value retail with his growing 3 Guys Optical chain, into other markets beyond the Pittsburgh region, and into franchising as a potential way of generating dramatic growth.

In 1979 at the age of 21, after working at a Pearle Vision store for a couple of years, Norman Childs didn't let his lack of funds stop him from opening his own optical store. "I decided it was time to start my own company, but there was one minor detail, I had no money," he said. So, with cash advances taken from some recently acquired credit cards followed by a $5,000 loan from a finance company a month later, Childs cobbled together the funds necessary to launch Eyetique.

With "a lot more independents back then" and "chains becoming very big," Childs said that he had to differentiate himself in order to succeed. "I had to do it better than everybody else." This led to creating the niche market he still serves today. "We were going to handle product we couldn't find anywhere else," he said, and he was able to start by buying discontinued frames such as Dior and Chanel and make a healthy margin.

Relationship Building
One frame line that became a challenge to take on was Oliver Peoples, which came on the scene seven years after the launch of Eyetique. It took Childs three phone calls pestering Oliver Peoples' founder Larry Leight before he agreed to send him a box of the original few styles complete with accompanying sunglass clips. Although Childs didn't have the money to pay for the C.O.D. package, the frames literally sold out of the box as soon as he put them on the counter, he said.

Childs attributes much of his ultimate success to the opportunity to sell Oliver Peoples' frames. "Our relationship is much bigger than selling frames with them," he said. "No matter the circumstances, our relationship is second to none. I attribute a lot of our success to creating that one niche."

That exclusivity with Oliver Peoples led to similar relationships with other brands such as Matsuda, Bada, Koh Sakai, Jean Paul Gaultier, and more. "Having these exclusive agreements with these unique brands took our company to the next level," said Childs, adding, "We were one of the original Cartier dealers."

Maintaining relationships is not limited to frame companies. "It's about relationships, not just with eyewear companies but with customers and our employees as well," said Childs. "You have to have that symbiotic relationship to be successful."

Among the ways he maintains relationships between his employees and his company is by educating his staff. The training is not limited to optics. It covers the company culture as well. "You could work for a company for 100 years and not understand how they started. We train on culture and talk about how we started, so everybody knows," said Childs, explaining that this ensures buy-in from his staff. "We're not backed by a gigantic corporation. This is a family-run business. In order to take it to the next level we need everybody's participation."

Eyetique opened its 12th location on March 1, 2014, expanding beyond its Pittsburgh regional home base by venturing into the greater Cleveland market.

Reaching the Next Level
Although the company started long ago, reaching that next level has recently picked up steam with an overall doubling of the company during the last three years. Now at 15 locations after the recent Eyetique and 3 Guys Optical openings, Childs told dba he plans to reach 20 locations by the end of 2014.

This sudden growth spurt is due, in part, to the fact that the company now has the foundation upon which its future can be built. "Six years ago, we had five stores. Now we have 15. In eight months alone we opened five stores," said Childs. "I now have the infrastructure to do it," he said, referring to the team he has put in place. "Brad [Childs, Norman's brother] runs the front end of the operations. He handles overseeing all 15 locations with district managers, then managers, then all the employees." In addition, an accounting team in the second floor corporate office above the original Eyetique location are in place "to help put the numbers together" when opening new stores.

Now, after three decades focusing solely on the market in the greater Pittsburgh area, Eyetique ventured beyond with its recent store opening in the Cleveland area, and Childs alluded to other opportunities he's also working on in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Just as he's been selective about the frame lines he carries, so too is he being selective about where he plans to expand his business. "It's imperative when opening new stores that you have the right location," he said. "Even if you pay more, the right location is the key to success." Among the factors he considers when choosing a location are demographics such as the average household income and age groups of the people in the area. He even counts traffic in the vicinity. "We are very involved with lots of investigation," he said. "We have a formula to figure out the value of a business. It helps to be involved with the industry to understand the whole dynamics of value, not just the bottom line," said Childs, referring to his 37 years of experience in the business.

In addition to growing organically, Norman Childs is also in acquisition mode. "We put the word out a couple of years ago that we're looking to buy businesses," and while he said that doing so "put me on tour for a little bit," he has now learned to better qualify stores he's looking to purchase, only taking to the road when "it makes sense financially and geographically."

Norman Childs' value chain, 3 Guys Optical, opened its third store in Mars, Pa., on March 1, 2014.

Future Growth through Franchising
With his infrastructure in place, brands established, and staff at the ready, Childs is poised for substantial growth. In addition to acquisitions and opening new corporate stores, he also plans to expand his business through franchising. Just as before, he's taking this step cautiously as well, making sure everything is in place before he makes his next move.

"We have to be ready to offer a turnkey operation. Everything has to be right. We won't do it until we're ready," he said. However, he sees substantial potential. "Franchising is how you really roll out your brands," he said. "We could be set up for some dramatic growth next year. We will franchise Eyetique and 3 Guys Optical. The more scalable brand is 3 Guys Optical. It can go anywhere. Eyetique is more limited because of price points. It will be very, very selective."

Still, Norman Childs himself is the first to admit that there's still much to learn about how to franchise his model. "I have hands-on experience when it comes to corporate stores," he said, "but I don't have a grasp yet on franchise."

Norman Childs Eyewear
As Norman Childs expands his two retail brands—Eyetique and 3 Guys Optical—he's also building his own eyewear line, Norman Childs Eyewear. And just as he's been selective about whose eyewear lines he carries, he's equally selective about who carries his line. "We're taking our time to acquire the names of those showing interest and will open only 50 accounts in the U.S. sometime this summer," he said about his Made in America eponymous line of eyewear, which he described as "very unique in our industry."

Made in America, the luxury Norman Childs Eyewear line is being sold through select eyewear retailers.