Readers of business news know journalists and their editors aren’t lacking for descriptors when writing about retailers: upscale, luxury, discounter, and mid-tier are among the popular ones. I’d like to contribute two to the list: utilitarian and social. 

Utilitarian describes stores we frequent to simply get in and get out with minimal fuss. These are the retail workhorses — open early, open late, open on holidays — and we don’t really expect much of them or the experience. But they serve a purpose, and we’re fortunate they’re around when we need them … late nights, early mornings, holidays, etc. 

While Utilitarians are generally easy to spot, Socials require a bit more sleuthing to locate. But when you do spot one, consider it a special moment: merchandise and displays are visually interesting, not esoteric; the vibe is cool, rather than off putting, the sales staff is educated, never pushy. There’s a warmth to the place that draws you in. The owner and employees are genuinely glad you arrived. And if you’re having a lousy day, stop in for a few … your outlook is sure to shift. Socials bring great personality to our cities, and they make anywhere, somewhere … special. 

With retail finally beginning its crawl back to regular operations, the Utilitarians may have an easier go of it, what with deep-pocketed owners and a phalanx of marketing experts offering guidance. 

The Socials are strategizing, of course, but considering many have limited resources they need our support more than ever. 

 

Socially Responsible

OPTIK Birmingham is the epitome of a social retail environment. Indeed, it’s the poster child for the Socials. Handsome vintage display cases effortlessly mix with sleek, modern fixtures. Your eyes dart around, your heart beats a bit faster. You simply want everything, from the must-have, hard-to-find designer frames to a lovingly curated collection of vintage eyewear. 

There’s a comfortable sofa to perch yourself, where you’ll nurse a coffee while leafing through magazines and listening to the store’s jazzy soundtrack, the volume perfectly modulated. You just might find yourself arriving early for eye exams. 

Frames and foliageFrames and foliage come together to create a super fun display inside OPTIK Birmingham.

All of my eyewear comes from OPTIK, located in downtown Birmingham, Michigan, and I’ve known its owner, Dr. Joe Ales, DO, since shortly after he opened 19 years ago. Stores like OPTIK contribute much to my town … my life … so I’m rooting for Joe, and all Socials, to not only survive, but to thrive. It helps that he’s a bit of an optimist, even when discussing the past few months, the present … the future. 

“Leading up to March 14 [when the store closed], we’d been hearing whispers retail would be mandated to close, but until it happened …” his voice trails off. 

Since then, OPTIK’s been open three days a week entirely by appointment. “If someone breaks their frames, we’re here. But for an eye health emergency we’re directing people to the hospital.” Otherwise, the store’s been dark. Dr. Joe Ales

Even OPTIK’s social media presence, perky posts featuring eclectic frames and clever captions, has gone silent. But, glass-half-full Joe has every confidence customers will be back when the store reopens with regular, albeit limited, hours beginning May 30. The store’s recent success inspires his thinking.

“Business in 2019 was [nearly 10 percent] better than the year prior, which was eight percent better than 2017,” Joe said. And this past January and February “we were doing really well” and March was on track to be a great month, too, he said, adding, “I’m hopeful going forward. How can I not be?” 

 

A (near) Perfect Vision

OPTIK began announcing last week on social media the new hours, as well as its safety and wellness protocols. Joe also ran ads in local newspapers. “We’re getting the word out, calling customers whose appointments were canceled … we’re focused not only on working hard, but working smart,” he said.

Joe explained the store is expanding the number of days per week its open, and its hours: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 10 – 2, Tuesdays and Thursdays until 7, and Saturdays until 5. However, customers must make appointments.

“Say I’m walking past the store and want to stop in, can I,” I asked. “If there are three people working, we can have no more than three customers in the store … you’d be the fourth, so you’d have to wait outside. We’d tell you ‘Give us 5’ as you walked in,” said Joe. “People will understand.” I certainly would. 

OPTIK Birmingham's interiorOPTIK's uniquely stylish and welcoming interior sets it apart from other retail spaces.

In fact, Joe said patients have been “100 percent positive and supportive” of the new requirements.  

While OPTIK will adhere to guidance outlined by the American Medical Association and Centers for Disease Control, “as a medical office, too, we’ve always had high sanitation standards, like wiping down equipment and all frames anyone tries on” but now those efforts will be more obvious to patients and customers. The most visible difference will be Joe and his opticians wearing face masks; customers must wear them as well. 

Admittedly, Joe enjoyed the downtime, yet he’s more than excited to return to the store full time. “My staff [of five] is returning, appointments are booked for Saturday, I want to see my neighbors … I’m not even letting the massive headache outside the store dampen my enthusiasm.” The headache he describes is a months-long rebuilding of West Maple Road and adjacent streets.

Speaking of descriptors, how best to define this moment facing merchants? Sometimes words fail us, so better to focus about the future … coming to a store near you. 



Edward Nakfoor is a Birmingham, Michigan-based freelance writer and marketer for small businesses. How is your business preparing to reopen? Contact Ed at edwardnakfoor@gmail.com.

Connect with Joe at @shop_optik.

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