Industry Spotlight: Center Stage Optique Manhattan
We're back with Industry Spotlight, an interview series where we talk with independent optical professionals about where the industry is headed and how they are adapting to the ever-changing eyewear shopping landscape. This week, we chatted with Greg and Karen Freidus, the husband/wife duo behind the Broadway-themed Manhattan shop about taking risks, creating a unique shopping experience, and competing with online retailers through package pricing. Meet Center Stage Optique.
Can you tell us how you got started in the independent optical industry? And what inspired you to open your own shop?
Greg had worked in the same industry as his family and decided he wanted to do something else he was more passionate about that would enable him to be his own boss. He loved working with his hands and helping people and decided to go back to school to become an optician. After working for many different types of optical stores (large chains, health clinics, independently-owned shops) he knew he was ready to open his own store and we found the perfect spot in the heart of NYC on the border of the West Village/Chelsea. Having seen so many different types of setups and hearing frustrations from friends and customers he wanted to do something different-offer customers a more fun shopping experience coupled with a unique, fairer pricing structure. We're also all about customer service. Karen has worked in customer service her entire career and is so passionate about giving customers the absolute best experience and always with a smile. We're never ones to do something like everyone else-we love to shake things up!
We love your Broadway themed store, what inspired you? What is your background in theatre?
Well, Greg is mostly a fan by marriage :) Karen is a self-proclaimed theater nerd who grew up in Queens going to multiple shows a month with her family-it's truly in her blood. She's worked on Broadway for over 12 years (and even dabbled in becoming a professional actor-that lasted about 6 months :)) and currently runs the group sales department for one of the large Broadway theater owners. One of the great perks of the job is getting to see just about everything, so even Greg can sing a few show tunes or two :) Considering that glasses are fun and fashionable we couldn't understand why most if not all optical stores, especially in NYC, were so sterile and boring! We decided to incorporate our passion for theater into the store because it just seemed like a perfect fit. We wanted to stand out from all the other stores but of course it had to be authentic to us and what we love. We also didn't want to alienate any potential customers who aren't theater lovers, as long as you love glasses we're cool :) It's not like Broadway threw up in the store-it's just fun touches that showcase our personality because it's our store and it's those kind of unique touches that make family-owned businesses so special and important to the fabric of our city.
What was the first Broadway play you ever saw?
Can you believe we both have the same one?! It was CATS! It's back now and closing at the end of the year so catch it now if you haven't seen it!
Tell us about some of the inspiration behind specific pieces in the shop, like your custom desk, or bulb sign.
Karen is most proud of our reception desk, which she designed from scratch. We really wanted a unique piece (we don't do anything like anyone else!) that spoke to our theme as soon as folks walked in the door. It has funky edges and on each of the ledges we have actual tickets from some of our favorite theater outings-including the Tony Awards which we get to attend each year! It also has the rainbow flag on it to show our support for the beautiful West Village/Chelsea neighborhood we're located in and all of the LGBTQ community. It's become quite a conversation piece and many have said it's really a work of art which we couldn't be prouder of. Our exam room wall is an actual Broadway curtain we customized for our space! It's from the same company all the Broadway theaters use for their curtains so it's really lush and beautiful. We also have a red carpet so our customers can strut their stuff when they find their perfect pair and at the end of the carpet is a Broadway mirror so they can check themselves out :) And of course our name/logo which speaks to our theatrical theme but also refers to making our customers feel like they're center stage when they find their next pair of glasses.
You two are married, and running a business together. How do you navigate the working/personal relationship? Do you feel you can leave work at work?
Haha great question! We really don't leave work at work, because we are starting a family business from scratch and there are so many facets to making the business successful that whenever we have ideas or have something to discuss we do! Karen has her full time job in addition to working at the store so it's a lot but now is the time to throw ourselves into the business to get the word out. We obviously go out to theater and we're total foodies so always make time to enjoy the amazing food scene in NYC with friends so we can take our minds off the business at points. But truthfully we want this to be NYC's next greatest brand and to do that you have to give 110% of yourself, so some down time will suffer. It's worth it in the end!
You guys do package pricing, do you feel this helps you compete with the online retailers that give upfront cost?
Online is only a competitor in the sense of their extremely low prices-but my goodness do you get what you pay for there! It's been amazing to Karen, someone who has only just started working in the optical industry, how many people have complained about all these low-cost eyewear providers in just our few months of being open. Truthfully their low quality products only help us because after spending so little money on products for their health/vision most people realize what a horrible idea it is to cut corners on something that goes on your face for 10+ hours a day and is for your VISION. We understand that eyewear is an investment for so many which is why we offer a fair price for quality eyewear. There is no substitution for getting your eye measurements and prescription from trained professionals in a brick and mortar store. It just doesn't make sense to do it any other way and that's what we're trying to educate people about. If someone thinks that's not important they probably will never become a customer of a real optical business and their vision and health will suffer in the end but that's their choice-they've been warned!
You've described yourself as the "Trader Joes of Eyewear" - what does that mean to you?
We love Trader Joes haha! They have such strong brand recognition as a store that offers great prices on high quality products, many you can't find anywhere else, in a fun and inviting setting with great customer service. That's exactly what we're doing at Center Stage Optique-offering our customers great quality eyewear at a fair price in a whimsical and happy store where you are treated with respect. We also have the exclusive on many brands we sell so our customers know they are seeing product they won't see anywhere else. Trader Joe’s barely sells any "brand-name" products, that's partly how they keep the cost down as that is all just marketing. Most eyewear that has "brand names" are marked up because that brand spends money on marketing but the frames aren't nearly as good quality as independent brands you've never seen a commercial for. We've really stressed (and our customers totally get it) that it doesn't matter what name is on the side of your frame (or isn't)-it's about the quality of the frame and how it looks on you. Once a customer understands that the possibilities are truly endless at Center Stage Optique!
Can you tell us about Patch and working with them?
Patch is a newcomer in the optical industry and fits in perfectly with our package pricing model. At the point of purchase it allows us to tell our customers what their out of network insurance benefit is and file the claims for them electronically so they save money and don't have to do any work. Insurance companies make their claim forms confusing on purpose-so no one ever fills them out or they get rejected by ridiculous rules and folks just give up! By not being in bed with insurance companies we are not beholden to any of their rules (sending lenses to labs they dictate for example) and can offer better pricing as the in-network insurance model requires independent eyewear stores to inflate their prices to counteract the little money they receive back from the insurance companies. We don't like rules or restrictions! We get to be more flexible and offer fairer pricing and also give our customers money back from their plans-it's the perfect win-win and our customers just love it.
What is your best advice for someone looking to open up their own practice?
Opening a business from scratch is a commitment in many ways-financially and emotionally. Be prepared to give up most of your free time because you need to devote it to the business but that's why you're doing it right, because you love it?! Have a strong vision/theme for the business and that passion will come through and make you stand out. As scary as it is, take a risk. If you don't you will always wonder what-if.You will doubt yourself so much during the process but when you make that first sale it all starts to make sense. But most importantly have fun! Life is too short not to love what you do.
What is your favorite Article One Frame?
Greg-Dumont. It's a basic shape that works on most faces. Karen-it's a tie between the Cass and St. Claire. The Cass is my frame and I wear it even when I don't need to! I love the matte black and how chunky it is, it just frames the face so well. The St. Claire is too small for Karen's face but the colors are just absolutely gorgeous and I've never seen any other color scheme like it.
Finally, If there way a play based off of your store, what would it be named?
The first thing that came to mind was actually Karen's 2 favorite musicals of all time-Merrily We Roll Along & Crazy For You. We're 2 happy people rolling with the punches of owning a business in this amazing city and loving every second of it. We feel lucky every day to have made our dreams come true and thank our customers who are the reason!