Step out of the way, Milan, Paris and New York! While the international eyewear scene takes inspiration and guidance from your tradeshows and famous eyewear labels, customers in other parts of the world are being offered a unique level of quality and high-class selection. This is happening in Bern, Switzerland, of all places – a town otherwise known for its quaint old town district. But as of late, Switzerland is not only enjoying an international reputation for precision watches, but also cutting edge optical brands and upcoming eyewear trends. And it’s mostly thanks to the hard work of Bärtschi Optik, a full-service optical store with a highly qualified staff, exclusive brand selection and their own label for horn-rimmed glasses: Bärtschi 1945. The brand owes its name to the year of Bärtschi Optik’s founding. Right after World War II, Paul Bärtschi returned from working at Leica photo optics in Wetzlar, Germany, and opened the store in 1945, initially with a focus on cameras and binoculars. Much has changed since then: Under the direction of Paul’s son Martin Bärtschi and store manager Daniel Strüby in the 1980s, the store’s focus changed to full-on glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses. In 2008, the entire store concept was “relaunched” with an expanded sales floor and completely remodelled interior architecture. And finally, in 2009 Paul’s grandson Frank Bärtschi joined the store – a bit of a career change for the certified educator – and continues to turn heads in the industry together with Daniel Strüby. During our photo shooting, the two heads of the store had to keep ducking out in order to help customers. We got to witness an Italian lady receive personal care in fluent Italian from Frank Bärtschi. She had brought her entire family for expert support and commentary, and it was a bit of a tough sell at first, with all of Frank’s suggestions meeting outspoken skepticism and opposition. But ultimately, the lady ended up purchasing the very first pair Frank had suggested for her. Once again proof that a sure hand for stylistics is one of the calling cards Bärtschi Optik is known for.
Hello Frank. So it looks like you took your sweet time before joining the family business?
Frank Bärtschi: Yes, I initially came from a pedagogical background. This included work as an educator on a ship for young people, turning small-time criminals into upstanding people. So finding the way back wasn’t that easy! (laughs) In the meantime, my father worked closely with Daniel, who started here as an apprentice in 1978 and was then given the opportunity to join the business as a co-owner and give it his all. The way the store looks today is also thanks to him.
Daniel Strüby: Hey, thanks a lot.
Frank: I came in as a bit of a career changer in 2009 and earned my engineering degree. From the start, I was the one in charge of making the store more well-known.
It seems like you’ve really taken to the whole thing.
Frank: Yes, because joining the store was my personal decision. My father at the time just had to, because of my grandfather. And I always thought: If I want to do it, I’m going to do it right – not because I have to. You also have a completely different sense of ownership.
Your store could easily be mistaken for the Prada flagship store. How did you end up with this stylish interior replete with a bar and illuminated designer display?
Daniel Strüby: We had been planning it for a long time and launched an open competition in 2008, attended by three architect firms. Ultimately, the job went to Schwaar & Partner architects here in Bern. We now have 400 square meters of sales floor and during the renovation moved our production, workshop and offices to the second floor in the next building. The important aspect for us was: The store was not supposed to look like an optical store. Simple, basic style and purist. And it was crucial that you can see the people inside. We want to give our employees and customers enough room without being stingy. But now it’s also like; whatever we end up putting in the store, it instantly looks too full (laughs).
How would you describe the spirit cultivated at Bärtschi Optik?
Frank: It’s clearly about individuality! Finding the right solution for every single customer. Every customer has the right to be perceived as an individual. Some like to go against the grain, but most people are looking for something that looks good on them, personally.
Daniel: And since there are so many facets of people’s personalities, you also need as many different glasses. Eyewear is just like a part of your wardrobe. Some people have three or four different pairs of glasses, from business glasses to sports glasses or something less complicated for hitting the playground with their kid.
So it’s okay for people to own more than one pair of glasses?
Frank: By all means! Absolutely! The entire scope of glasses you can have for specialized activities is enormous. It’s always a question how often and how well you are looking to do something. Sometimes people have a certain hobby but struggle with their varifocals. These glasses really tend to distort your vision during activities such as golf or Nordic walking. And they’re also dangerous, since you can’t judge the conditions on uneven terrain. So my advice is: Just go get some sports glasses!
Daniel: It’s such an incredible thing having the right glasses for the right situation. And keeping this in mind makes our work exciting and emotional. Here at the store we just want what’s best for our customers. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive or exclusive choice out there. But you wouldn’t sell some junk to your friend or your dad, either. We just want our customers to enjoy life to the fullest.
Frank: You have to be able to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. What does the customer want, what does he need and what suits him? Unfortunately, most customers aren’t aware of all that’s out there, and the chain retailers have ruined the market with their pricing. But we also sell the occasional Leisure Society plastics frame with diamonds for 1,300 Swiss francs, or eyewear for much more. And the customers know that it’s worth it and don’t feel like you’ve duped them into buying something.
You really seem passionate about your work. What inspires you in daily life – even outside the optical industry?
Frank: I’m generally inspired by people. I continue to be surprised, whether it’s by my little son or some crazy artist with a funky T-shirt or a zany online video.
Daniel: We’re also looking to inspire our customers. We want to offer them a space where they can leave their day-to-day lives behind. An oasis of quiet where people can catch their breath. A relaxed atmosphere where people can treat themselves to something nice. Like a prosecco or the best Latte Macchiato in all of Bern.
How many different pairs of glasses do you have in stock?
Daniel: We have around 5,000 pairs in stock, about 80% prescription and 20% sunglasses. Overall, we carry about 50 to 60 different labels. That was also a conscious choice – not trying to offer every single thing. For example, Mykita is a cool brand and so is IC Berlin. But we’d rather do 400 pairs of IC Berlin instead of 200 each with both. This enables us to show collections at a scale that is more representative with a totally different kind of relationship with your suppliers. And you offer customers much better service and things just go more smoothly.
Frank: Exactly! Here at the store, the average pair of glasses stays with us for about 39 days before being sold. We sell through the entire inventory several times per year. And every three months Daniel will have a look at what’s working well, and what isn’t. You have to stay on top of it, otherwise your inventory will run over at the end of the year and you can’t get rid of your merchandise. And we’re not really the type for special sales…
What are the most important brands in your line-up?
Frank: Götti is the essential brand. Orgreen, Reiz, IC Berlin and Barton Perreira are also great. We tend to go niche instead of mainstream on our products. With brands by Luxottica or other “Big Timers,” you can run into serious problems if things don’t work right. And you look like a fool in front of the customer because you can’t get help, so we tend to steer away from that. One of our few mainstream brands is Ray-Ban, because customers ask about it frequently. But even here, we tend to have our own answers…
Do you take inspiration from visiting optical tradeshows? If so, which are the main ones?
Daniel: We make sure to cover Silmo, Mido and Opti, at least. This also allows us to see where certain trends are headed or if some things are about to make a comeback. We’re hoping this gains us some kind of head start, a slight lead if you will. In a 100-meter race you don’t have to be twice as fast as your competitors – winning by a short head is enough.
Frank: All of our brands are hand-picked and curated by us. We are entirely in charge of our line-up and this approach has worked well so far.
How important is the relationship to the brands you sell?
Frank: Long-term relationships are extremely important to us. We’ve been purchasing frames from most of our suppliers for years and know them well by now. So when we roll up to a tradeshow booth of one of our acquainted suppliers, we’ll buy 150 pairs of glasses in a few minutes – and sell out of them at the store, later. But these have to be the kind of people where all it takes is one phone call to make things work right.
Daniel: In turn, we offer the same service to our customers when they call with some kind of problem. I mean, the customer already made the effort to present their case. So we’re all about providing the best possible customer service.
What inspired your very own horn-rimmed glasses collection, Baertschi 1945? What are the main characteristics?
Frank: I have this photo of my grandfather on my office wall, holding a pair of horn-rimmed specs about 50 years ago. I looked at it in 2010, when horn was making a comeback. At the time we were visiting three tradeshows looking for thin-rimmed but generously shaped horn-rimmed glasses with no gimmicks – and nobody had them! So we decided to do it ourselves. The name, by the way, is derived from the founding year of our store.
Daniel: It’s been an incredible success right from the start, but we also took the time to think it through. We manufactured the glasses in Switzerland and they ship in a mechanical case made from Napa leather in which the glasses are pushed to the front when you open the lid. So we didn’t just print our logo on something but got involved in developing everything including the design, colors, cases and materials. Our first collection was produced in a run of 80 pieces, which we sold at 2,300 Swiss francs each.
Have you expanded the label since then?
Frank: Yes, our latest collection was called “Bärtschi Black” and consisted of pieces entirely in black, but with different degrees of matting. It’s been a cool collection and by February we were entirely sold out, except for two pairs. People were really jumping at the chance to take them off our hands, which made us really proud.
Daniel: Part of the back story is also that manufacturers would always ask us at tradeshows: “How do you like this, or how’s that?” And then we’d give them feedback, which would turn up in their brand’s follow-up collections next season. So we decided that instead of consulting others, we’d rather take things into our own hands. After all, we are at a clear advantage…
What is your advantage over eyewear brands?
Daniel: Manufacturers often lack contact to their customers and some kind of testing grounds. They get most of their feedback through sales numbers. And they don’t see how their glasses look on a variety of different faces, since they aren’t on the frontlines every day.
Next to direct interactions with customers, social media are becoming more and more crucial. Do you engage in these initiatives?
Frank: While we do have a website, which we also maintain with regular updates, we don’t have the manpower for social media. So it would be like a shop window display that lies barren. Our marketing is focused on elaborate window displays and print advertisements, mostly on a regional level.
Daniel: It’s also less important to us to have an entirely high-gloss presentation in the media. I mean, the entire industry is already glossy. So we like it a bit more homegrown, so people will believe our story when they come and visit the store. We emphasize authenticity in our presentation.
Authenticity also plays into customer service at the store. It looks like you have a sizeable team of employees…
Frank: Our employees are our most valuable asset. Right now we have 25 employees if we’re talking full-time positions and including part-timers we are at 36 people – all at the same store. Which is why we won’t open another location, like a sunglasses store or a store in Zurich, because this kind of repository of expertise is nowhere to be found otherwise. It’s how we achieve our full-service promise, powered by the comprehensive know-how of our best employees.
You mentioned your emphasis on individuality. Do you also “nudge” customers in the right direction when it comes to choosing glasses?
Frank: Ultimately, most people who come visit the store are looking for something. A few years ago we would still ask the customers what they were looking for. Today we know our complete inventory by heart. So when the customer walks in, I already have an image in mind and tell them: “Here, I want to show you something.” And maybe it’s not what the customer had in mind initially, but if my suggestion wasn’t entirely off, he will at least recognize my expertise and is willing to take some pointers.
Daniel: Yes, if you’re insecure and just say, “May I bring you some pieces to look at?” – it’s not going to work. But when you offer a clear concept, customers will appreciate it. Most people are already dealing with so many problems and decisions in their day-to-day lives, they think it’s nice if someone has a clear concept to base suggestions on.
Very well said. In closing, where do you see the optical business headed over the next five years?
Daniel: I think there will be a process of specialization and it will get harder for middle-class opticians that just keep doing their thing without looking around. The chain retailers are getting bigger and the Internet is also growing, but that in-between section will have a hard time.
Frank: That’s like comparing a plow horse with a specially bred stud. If you’re looking for a suitable horse to put to work in agriculture, you’ll most likely opt for the plow horse as it gets the job of pulling the plow done and is pretty undemanding. And at some point it will die or be replaced by newer technology. But the stud will always be impressive and there will always be people willing to invest money in one. So if you’re serious about the business, you have to offer some performance. First place is not a resting place and the competition is far from sleeping. You have to carve out your position and work on yourself continuously.
It looks like you’re on the right track. Thanks for the Interview.
Bärtschi Optik AG
Tel. +41 (0) 31 329 60 60