The Optician’s Perspective – Karin Stehr

Karin Stehr at BELLEVUE store in Hamburg, Germany, counts among the most widely known opticians in the business. That’s not only due to her highly curated portfolio of premium independent eyewear brands but also her involvement in the community. Karin organizes events involving prominent eyewear designers and her input played a major role in developing the FAVR – Premium Eyewear Finder platform. With that said, we just had to get her take on the current state of the industry in our SPECTR interview.  

Hello Karin, let’s get started by talking about what attracted you to our industry?

In my late twenties, I wanted to make a change and start dealing with ‘beautiful products’. Our business requires knowledge on aesthetics, technology and communications. You’re constantly experiencing direct feedback from customers and your team. The industry is rather small on one hand, but also extremely diverse and offers a great sense of personal creative freedom.

You are a champion of independent brands. What are your motives? 

Like many people, I have a desire for authentic brands and the need to know more about things that surround us and that are omni present. Among independent brands, you still get this authentic connection to the product that we can communicate to customers. The size of these labels and the mentality of designers, founders, and owners facilitates a direct exchange. Whenever the values of these people align with my own key values, we are practically working towards the same goals. That would be unheard of among the world’s major licensed brands and luxury labels.

What’s your experience with the threat of big players on the market, especially new vertical concepts?

Our immediate surroundings have changed significantly in a short time period. VIUAce & Tate opened locations nearby and Jimmy Fairly just set up shelves in the Alsterhaus store. Fortunately, I rarely ever see them as a threat. I much rather consider these concepts the result of economic and social developments that we’re also part of. We only tend to emphasize different values and need to make these more visible, as they reflect the needs of a large number of people.

A few years ago, people said only students were buying from these brands. But how is the situation today?

Students tend to be pioneers when it comes to new developments, and this was no exception. In large cities, these types of stores – also across other industries – are now the norm. It’s reflective of a society, regardless of age and educational status, that demands uncomplicated and affordable products ‘on the go’ while wanting to stay up to date in terms of fashion trends.

Is there something these new concepts are doing remarkably well?

In terms of brand management, they’re actually really good across a number of areas. They have identified a demand and serve it in a state-of-the-art manner. They did not originate from a traditional business model but have successfully applied the concept of ‘fast fashion’ to eyewear by using tremendous know how. They’re investing a far higher share of their budgets into their digital presence, compared to traditional opticians. They open stores right where existing, active opticians are already creating solid customer footfall. The interior store designs and collections are modeled after hip fashion brands. This is how they can generate high frequency and brand awareness.

With that said, what are the unique strengths of independent opticians?

That’s actually a rather short answer: Absolute customer focus! That needs to be the priority, above the overall concept and in every miniscule decision of every staff member. Customer focus should be visible, tangible, audible, and readable. It should guide all events, which are hot topic for us, and even the way we handle returns. 

As an optician, you are very active online. But many of your peers seem to struggle in this area. What are some of the pain points in everyday work when it comes to digital?

Our everyday workflow continues to become more demanding, both in terms of quality and quantity. I also continue to fail meeting my personal to-do’s the way I planned. In this dilemma, it’s a high art – and the only solution – to continuously set the right priorities. I consider a well-maintained digital presence as an elementary part of my business and it’s also fun for me to invest lots of time into continuously learning more.

You were really involved in the development stages of FAVR. What was your motivation?

Independent brands are my passion and also the foundation of my business model. At the same time, they are a microcosm within the large eyewear industry universe. So the accelerating consolidation on the market and the growing strength of new players such as digital brands and vertical newcomers puts the independent brands under siege. They are at a risk of losing their visibility as small and medium-sized businesses. Aside from a few exceptions, most independent brands have yet to tackle the task of digitizing their business models in order to be available online next to their optical retail partners.

So where does FAVR come in?

A portal like FAVR is exactly my own vision of how independent brands can combine their strengths and elevate their cooperation with independent opticians to a new level. Fortunately, this portal has now been realized by you guys with lots of idealism from within the heart of the industry. This significantly reduces the risk that well-heeled investors with entirely different motives drape it over the market from the outside, which would definitely oppose my wishes and business interests.

What do you hope such a platform can achieve? 

I believe that with FAVR, we will be able to meet the customer demand for digital inspiration in our segment a lot better. Virtual try on tools are about to become the state of the art among luxury brands and new pioneers. No independent optician would have the financial resources to offer such a tool as a stand-alone solution. FAVR offers a chance for more people than ever to become aware of independent brands in the first place. It opens up an entirely new world to potential customers. And then it’s our mission to get them excited about these brands by communicating via the platform and meeting them in-store.

FAVR displays a curated selection to customers and offers the tools to contact opticians in their vicinity conveniently. Which also means that opticians should respond to customer inquiries at a short turnaround. What’s your advice to your peers for making this happen?

Every single one of us makes sure to pick up the phone after the third or fifth ring in our stores. So if we treat people who reach out via FAVR the same way, it can’t really go wrong. We just need to keep in mind that customers with a definite purchase goal in mind, whom we get delivered to our doorstep with practically no effort, are a golden ticket for showcasing our products and services in the best possible light.

Opticians with premium status on the platform can present their offering on their own micro page and write their own blog posts. In how far do these touch points affect the customer’s perception of a store?

Considering the amount of first-class businesses that will most likely be present on the FAVR platform, it’s of course rather important to stand out. This also increases the chance of being chosen as the local retailer by customers in your vicinity. Blog stories provide a convenient way for showcasing your store’s expertise and curated selection in a targeted manner.

Looking ahead, what are the indispensable qualities for opticians looking to survive an increasingly competitive environment?

Total customer focus, tolerance, authenticity. Plus, a continuously stronger awareness for sustainability. Defining your own set of values as a team and putting them to work. And encouraging the personal development of each team member to make this possible.

In closing, what’s your outlook for independent brands and opticians in this digitally disrupted future?

Many of the values followed by independent brands are trending here in Germany and all over the world. People have a longing to know who stands behind the products they use on a daily basis. They want to know increasingly more about what drives these people and look to identify with these values. I know many of the founders and designers behind independent brands on a personal basis. They are passionate about their brands and a whole lot of them are also considering sustainability. That provides a foundation for the future, since the microcosm shared by independent brands and opticians is interdependent. So if we can now agree on shared values, at a time when outside forces are increasing the pressure, we’re going to emerge even stronger. This is where FAVR will be able to make a strong contribution.

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