BUSINESS: The Independent Eye: Optical on Main Street Four Years Later, Independent Optical Is Stronger Than Ever—And Still Not Selling Ugly Glasses By Gwendolyn Plummer Monday, November 20, 2023 8:30 AM Father son duo Chris Sunkin and Jake Sunkin, OD, opened Independent Optical in June of 2019. MOUNT PLEASANT, South Carolina—In 2019, Jake Sunkin, OD, achieved a long-held dream of opening up his own, independent eyecare practice. When Independent Optical debuted in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina that June, things were looking bright and exciting—Dr. Sunkin’s dad, Chris, retired from a 25-year career in the industrial equipment industry and took on the challenge of opening a practice from the ground up alongside his son. The two documented every step of their process, from construction through to opening day, on Instagram, and in an interview with The Independent Eye that summer. And then, 2020 happened. Independent Optical had only been open for about eight months when COVID hit, and everything changed. Everyone was uncertain—would this be over in two weeks? Would it last forever? Chris Sunkin told VM, “After a moment’s pause, we determined that in either event, the decisions were pretty much out of our hands. So, we decided that we would be the very best optical. And if we went out of business, we’d be the best optical to ever go out of business.” In those months of 2020, the Sunkins took a close look at their business, their community and what works for them. It quickly became clear that the practice’s dedication to independence was its number one selling point. Chris explained, “We discovered that our local market was exceptionally receptive to our independent brands so we set about either marginalizing or liquidating all of our ‘corporate eyewear’ and brought in several additional brands.” With more independent eyewear in-store, the Sunkins also began expanding their display space, doubling it when all was said and done. Chris said, “We soon discovered that having a massive selection, much of it understocked, allowed us to show our customer precisely what they were looking for. And by zeroing in on their exact wants and needs, pulling special pieces out especially for them, [we] provided a sense of special treatment to these individuals. It was a shift in how we address each customer and how we present our business and our product. We quickly transitioned from an upscale optical to a customer-centric gallery.” Independent Optical’s name is fitting—the practice only offers independent brands. Part of this “gallery” approach to eyewear means focusing on what each independent brand has to offer. The Sunkins have a policy: every brand is different. Chris said, “The word most commonly heard around here is ‘vibe.’ We sell vibe.” Each brand they stock has a different vibe—and each vibe appeals to a different customer. Tom Davies, for example, offers what Chris calls “a British vibe.” Orgreen offers customers a Nordic, minimalist vibe. Vue DC and Jacques Durand both offer bold, larger than life, French vibes. Then there’s OVVO, with a more “techie” vibe, said Chris, and Eyevan with a jewelry-like vibe. Entourage of 7 has a California vibe, while Lowercase is “pure Brooklyn hipster.” These vibes, really, are stories. Chris explained, “We exist to tell stories. Our goal is to bring each one of our brands to life. We do this by painting mental pictures of the kind of people who construct this eyewear and the places they do that- both in their facility and by their geography. You’re not just looking at a frame, but we’re wearing it on the street in L.A. or at a galley in Paris. “We use story to build a connection between the product and the people who have made it their life’s work to create something special for someone that cares about what they wear. We go to great lengths to learn everything we can about the brand, the people that design and fabricate the product, the materials they use and the inspirations behind all of it.” Independent Optical’s gallery approach works well and is part of what makes it stand out. But the Sunkins found it difficult, at first, to advertise just how special their practice is. Chris told VM, “Our advertising has been a long and difficult road, not to mention expensive. Building a new business from a cold start is one thing, doing it in the times of a pandemic adds a completely different dimension. “Adding to that the concept of a different type of product the average consumer doesn’t even knows exists and subsequently not looking for truly compounds the issue… the average consumer has become numb to the lack of range and diversity in the retail eyewear space. Many have resigned themselves to the idea that no matter where they go, they’ll see pretty much the same thing.” Rather than a traditional office setup, Independent Optical takes the approach of an eyewear gallery. To truly express the individuality and uniqueness of the eyewear they offer, the Sunkins took many avenues: local print media, social media, direct mail and more. It was when they decided to move from agency advertising to in-house work that things really began to change. Chris said, “We now have total control over our message and how it is being delivered… The single most important aspect of our marketing and advertising was messaging. Being an optometrist and selling eyeglasses is far from unique. That as an advertising message limits your interested audience to new movers and those unhappy with their present solution. Our marketing had to be something that captured people’s attention. “We have two parallel tracks. On one, our messages are focused on ‘We have a different kind of product we are sure you’ll want to see,’ and the other one is a bit more tongue in cheek. On a fluke, we ended up with an impromptu message on our chalkboard sign that is a very amateurish level of artistry—it proclaims ‘Ugly Glasses NOT Sold Here.’ To date, this message, posted on a signboard has been our most effective marketing vehicle by a large margin.” Opening a business from the ground up is never easy work—and adding a once in a lifetime pandemic into the equation didn’t make things any easier. But now, four years into their journey, the Sunkins can be proud of the practice they’ve created. Independent Optical continues to grow in its independence—and Chris knows their story can help other independent businesses, too. So what would Chris tell other independent practice owners? “If I were to have someone visit us to learn about doing a start-up, I would walk them through the small details. I would tell them about thinking in terms of what experiences their customers were having, even if they themselves didn’t notice, and to focus on addressing and solving their issues. I would emphasize that we live in a world where individuals use the internet almost exclusively for information on their purchases and make those decisions in seconds and almost always visually at first. “I would tell them to spend liberally on having a website that differentiates them… I would tell them to ignore turns of inventory. If you liked it, someone else will in a day or a year and you can earn a nice margin on it. That if you understand your customer, you should buy what appeals to you. I would tell them they need to know more about the product than the rep and to understand what your customer likes, and not depend on what sells elsewhere. “I would tell them to manage supplier relationships with a perspective of the other side of the table. I would tell them to never, ever have a single hole in their inventory as it reflects poorly on the store. I would tell them that it’s up to them to know their customer and to constantly explore their inventory. Mostly I’d tell them the only way they’ll survive the coming years is by being unique,” he concluded.