Since 1984, optician John Fuoco has been fitting customers with stylish frames from his Devonshire Optical store in Greenwich Village, NY. VCPN’s John Sailer interviewed him at Devonshire Kids, the children’s optical shop he opened across the street four years ago, to get his perspective on what’s changed over the last few decades . . . and what’s stayed the same.
1. You’ve been at this a long time. How many years?
I’ve been in this business 39 years—school in ‘79, graduated and licensed in ‘81, and started the store in ‘84.
2. What’s changed since then?
Technology. I do a lot of my own bench work. When I first started, there weren’t automated edgers. I was in awe when I got the first patternless edger. I used to have to hand size everything, using math to get the final lens size. There’s no math anymore. It’s robotic.
We used to do a lot of cataract glasses, high plus lenses. It took a lot of technical expertise to make a pair of glasses back then. Before the availability of high plus lenses and aspheric lenses, it was a lot tougher because you’d have to dispense a pair of glasses with a high plus sixteen or seventeen with a three add. When implants came in, that changed everything. Now I have trouble finding high plus lenses. Kids are the challenge now.
3. Is that because of myopia?
No, because of hyperopia actually. I see more hyperopia now in children than I see myopia. Kids require more of your technical expertise, and parents require your patience. Adults will tell you if something is loose, tight or if it doesn’t feel right. Children aren’t always able to verbalize how glasses feel, so it takes more technical expertise to adjust them comfortably.
With everything being on the computer, you can find any frame online, even some of the unique ones. They’re much more knowledgeable about what they think they want, so they come in looking for specific frames. Then you get into a price war with things being available online. I don’t give in. If you want to get it online, get it online. Bring it in; I’ll make your lenses for you.
I work and live in this neighborhood. I want to walk the streets and look at you and say hello to you and not feel guilty I gave you a different price. I try to do the best quality optics as affordable as I can for my customers.
4. What are your most difficult challenges today?
Too many progressive lenses. You can’t keep track of them all, so I stick with what I’ve had success with, ones that aren’t discounted all over the place. We don’t push products. I have commissions on certain products for my salespeople, but they’re not pushy. That’s one thing people love about us. They come back because we’re not pushing product at them. We’re not making them buy that second pair.
5. You’re in a great neighborhood. What are its unique qualities?
We’re very close to a couple colleges, although college kids don’t really spend that much on eyeglasses in their college town. But it does make the neighborhood a little more stable, a little more vibrant.
This is Greenwich Village. It’s very residential, so we have people who return. I’m now seeing grandchildren.
I can carry the product I carry because people are a little bit more artsy. They tend to like things that are unusual or different or unique that you won’t find anywhere else.
6. How do you determine which frames to carry?
My customers tell me what frames to carry. You try something and see if it sells. If it sells, you get more of it. If I have one piece that sells well, I’ll just keep reordering that one piece and keep the collection around it. Eventually it runs its course until something fresh comes along.
7. Over the past few decades you’ve probably seen some frame styles come and go. What types of frame styles have you seen stay popular year after year?
The styles that stay popular every year are the P3 tortoiseshells. I’ve been selling them since I’ve been an optician.
8. Do you finish the lenses yourself?
We do just about everything in house. We get uncut blanks and edge them. If they need drilling, I drill them downstairs in my shop.
9. You’ve been here in Greenwich Village in a competitive neighborhood for a long time. What would you say are your secrets to success?
Honesty. And you have to have the right rent structure. You have to make sure you can afford what you’re doing. If you’re an independent like me, you shouldn’t over do it and get something that’s too expensive. You have to see where things are heading and move in that direction. You have to put money back into your store, for inventory, for redoing the store, switch product around, make it vibrant.
10. It’s probably also the relationships you develop with these manufacturers, correct?
That’s right. You develop relationships, and they help you. They’ll put you on social media and generate interest in your product. You have to change with the times and make sure your presence is known online. Years ago, we got one of the first reviews on City Search. Then my business advanced about 25%.
11. What about now? What kind of social media are you using right now?
Right now we’re on Google, and we’ve advertised the store on Yelp.
12. In addition to edgers and social media, what other technologies have you recently added? For example, I noticed you have a sign that says five-minute exams.
That’s SmartVision, tele-prescriptions. It’s an aberrometer attached to an iPhone that transmits to an OD to determine the lens powers. It’s going to an eye doctor, who is actually signing the prescriptions.
It was working a little bit better in the beginning. It’s my fault. I should be a better marketer. I plan to start marketing more. It’s a nice technology. There’s a need for it. It could fit well into the three Os community for someone who can’t get to the doctor quickly enough. Plus we also have our own optometrist here one day a week. And we don’t take insurance, which is unique to my practice. It’s all private pay. The affluence of the neighborhood has something to do with it I’m sure.
13. So overall what do you predict for eyewear over the next five years or so?
You’re going to see more of the same. Styles will always change, something pulled from the past and made new again with a nuance that will make it look attractive. These guys are doing a great job designing frames. More of the tele-medicine thing will hit.
14. What do you see as the best opportunities for eyewear, for a retail establishment like yourself?
The best thing for an optician to do is just stay put. Stay small. Keep a fresh look in your shop. Don’t be afraid to experiment. That’s been my philosophy since I started. Be friendly with your customers.
15. How’s this year been?
This year has been excellent. Over the last few years we’ve seen the highest numbers we’ve had.
16. You mentioned having a fresh look. How often do you change your store’s décor, and where do you get your inspiration from?
I like something that looks like it’s been there a long time, wood and marble. I’m not much for chrome and glass. I like to shop for furniture for my house, which gives me ideas for the store too.
17. How frequently do you change it?
Not that frequently actually, maybe once every ten years.
18. And how often do you change the window designs?
Windows are every season, so that’s my fresh look.
19. If you could go back and change something what would you do differently?
There’s nothing I would have done differently. This is who I am. Maybe I should have started taking insurance and made more money, or maybe when I started in 1984 I should have opened multiple practices here. This field just boomed in those years. You could put a store just about anywhere and you would have staying power.
That’s if I wanted to make a lot of money. But I’m more focused on my work. I like working with glasses. I like working with people. I love the artistic value of it. I love the mechanics of it and the physics of it. It’s not in my personality to have ten stores. I’m an optician, not a great businessman.
20. Other than what you’ve already mentioned, what techniques do you find are most effective for bringing business into your shop?
Just having good people and good word of mouth. It’s been a technique for years. We’re in a neighborhood that’s somewhat transient and somewhat stationary, so we get new people and new people then tell other people. The kids’ store is helping out a little bit. Location is a big part of our success. Union Square has a big train station, a big hub, so you get passersby from Brooklyn, from Queens, who get a pair of prescription glasses. They walk down the street and see something in the window. The window is my biggest salesperson. I’ve seen people at 12 o’clock at night looking in my windows.
One day, in between edging glasses, I look out the window and see this guy pull up in a car and make a beeline into the shop. He opens the door, comes straight up to me, points behind him without even looking in the window and says, “I want to buy those glasses in front over there, the ones with no rim.” When I took his address and saw he was from Pennsylvania, I asked, “How’d you find out about us?” He said he was eating dinner at a restaurant down the street the other night and saw them when he was walking past. “I’ve been looking for those glasses for a long, long time,” he said, “and nobody carries them.”