Have You Been Framed? Why Labs Should Be in the Frame Business

By Seth J. Bookey
The question is, why aren’t you in the frames business?” asked Evan Aptaker, co-CEO and chairman of Nouveau Eyewear. “It’s perfectly natural: If you sell the hamburger, you should sell the bun. After all, it’s the glasses business. You already have a cost structure and support for the sales reps. It’s not that much more complicated to add frames. It enables labs to open and hold accounts that are important to them.”

Frames represent more than just good business for the labs that sell them. They offer solutions to independent eye care professionals and optical retailers, while boosting a lab’s image as a partner when competing against big-box retailers. Candi Levri, president of Homer Optical, said her lab’s mission is to be the very best resource for everything independent ECPs put into the eyeglasses they dispense. “We want our customers to come to us for all products and services related to eyeglasses. By combining frames that we carry and stock with lens packages, we can supply complete eyewear to our customers in both value and premium categories at a service level that helps separate them from large retail chains.” “If you don’t do it, someone else will and you can lose business,” said Mark Kline, director of sales for Detari Eyewear. He also notes that 75 percent of optical offices use two to the three labs. “Selling frames helps you accommodate your clients.”

Packaging Profit

Successfully selling frames requires more than just offering ECPs frames and lenses together. Most labs have found success by selling a variety of packages for children, men, and women, using everything from high-end frames with premium lenses and add-ons down to value-priced bundles for ECPs with budget-minded customers. According to Steve Sutherlin, president of Sutherlin Optical, where frames account for seven percent of the lab’s business, “Package programs have been very helpful. Our value package program is intended to generate second-pair sales. Packages help us get complete pair sales, even with rimless, which we bundle with our premium AR and other options. We can also remove options from the package.” Dale Parmenteri, vice president of Balester Optical, explained it this way. “When a wholesale lab sells a frame only to an account, there is literally no profit in the sale if that frame is returned. The advantage the lab has is its ability to stock frames that are used on Rx. Once a pair of lenses is inserted into a frame, you know the job will be dispensed and little chance of exchange, resulting in a profitable sale. A finished Rx with frame supplied remains our most profitable sale. We have kids’, drilled rimless, safety and sports packages that provide full service and discounts for packaging.”

Balester Optical has been in the frame business since its inception in 1934. “Early in my career, frames represented 40 percent of our business,” Parmenteri said. “However, those were the days of glass lenses, and plastic was just gaining ground. Today, frames sales account for about six percent of our annual sales.” While the overall frame business has declined, particularly stock frame sales, he notes that “the niche lines we carry and the packaging we still carry produces profitable frame sales. This adds value to our offerings and a reason for ECPs to use our lab.” Using a packaging approach has another benefit as well. “Packages are easier to present to patients,” said Charles Lee, The McGee Group, a frame manufacturer. “There’s less sticker shock when you don’t detail the frame price first. We work out the pricing with labs so they can present pricing to the ECP.” Lee added, “It’s been proven time and time again that once they get frames on the board, the doctors will send the frames in for the Rx.”

Faster Turnaround

A benefit for ECPs who use labs with frame-and-lens packaging is faster turnaround for Rx jobs. At Sutherlin Optical, only frames that are part of the lab’s package program are inventoried. “On the high-end frames, we take the order and then have it delivered overnight,” said Steve Sutherlin. For some labs, turnaround can be even faster.

At Expert, frames account for about eight percent of the lab’s business, and the lab offers its accounts a variety of package programs—“Kids’ packages, sports packages, thrift and value, drilled rimless,” explained account rep Tom Culley. Culley has found customers “don’t have to send the frame off the board to us. We can supply it with Rx, saving turnaround time and no hole on the board at the ECP’s office. Plus, it saves postage and shipping.” Expert Optics also services many of its accounts with its own pick-up and delivery system. Combined with remote ordering, turnaround time is reduced dramatically.

Computerized data in the form of frame tracing also quickens turnaround time. Pech Optical has all the edging information in their computer for all the frames they supply to ECPs. “This enables us to ensure a perfect fit and ease in lens fabrication. Pech-supplied frames are a value to our accounts with the incentives we offer for complete frame-supplied Rxs,” Barbara Cobb, frame buyer for Pech.

A Frame in the Door

Labs have found some unexpected benefits from being in the frame business as well. “The frames are a great door opener. Sometimes, the frames get us in the door when folks don’t want to talk to labs,” said Sue Murray, president of Cumberland Optical.

Expert Optics’ Culley agreed, noting, “Frames can be a way of introducing an ECP to our lab. Sometimes, frames-only customers have opened some doors to the full services we offer.” At Pech Optical, Cobb said that the lab’s dedication to the frames segment of its business has led “to a gradual change in how we supply frames since we introduced our ‘Direct Rx Program.’ We are now partnering with the direct frames companies to enhance our frame-offering capacity.”

Unhappy Returns

One downside labs find when supplying frames to go with their lens products is the issue of frame returns and exchanges. Sutherlin finds the return rate “outrageously high. Some ECPs act like we’re loaning them the frames rather than selling them.”

Labs have found ways to reduce the risk of frames that boomerang. At Cumberland Optical, DVI software helps keep track of which frames are doing well and which ones aren’t. The strongest strategy, though, seems to be the relationship between the lab and its frame suppliers. “We work with profitable, well-known lines. We’ve arranged profitable terms and return policies [in advance],” Murray explained. “We get advance notice on lines that are going to be discontinued.” She also picks suppliers with a diversity of styles. One of her suppliers, Zyloware, offers collections that cover all of Cumberland’s package needs, from value-priced lines to high-end, with styles covering kids through adults.

Murray also noted that how well organized the supplier is affects the returns issue. “It’s harder to make returns and keep up with smaller companies in terms of what’s discontinued,” she said. Expert Optics’ Culley noted “suppliers give notice when frames are going out of style.” The lab works with a trio of longstanding suppliers for its primary frames, and about four newer suppliers for its secondary frames. He also noted that his suppliers “are pretty good about changing the inventory as needed. There’s responsibility and accountability—that’s part of retailing.”

Barbara Cobb at Pech Optical explained how her lab has trimmed the number of frame collections it carries, and it concentrates its efforts “on those frame collections and fully supports those frame vendors. We are receptive to all new and innovative products to enhance our frame offerings. We offer as many diverse frames as possible for our ECPs.”

While many labs are trimming down on suppliers, Sutherlin Optical deals with as many as 10 suppliers out of a potential list of 22 manufacturers. “Vendors can change on any day. If someone new meets our needs, we’ll work with them,” Sutherlin said. The lab also has a few exclusive dealerships for some frame suppliers.

Parmenteri at Balester Optical said that its vendors are “supportive and remain committed to the lab. Unfortunately, there are fewer of these frame suppliers to choose from.”

Another issue for labs is service. “Turnaround time and how quickly they can get product to us is a big issue,” said Expert Optics’ Culley.

Picking Proper Partners

Some of the most successful lab-supplier relationships are the ones that are seen as partnerships. At Zyloware, which has been in business for more than 80 years, labs are regarded as true partners. According to James Shyer, executive vice president of Zyloware, some of the frame manufacturer’s longest-standing lab clients have been in business almost as long as Zyloware.

“We’ve built our companies together. The labs’ expertise has made our business better. They’ve taught us what’s needed in a frame and they give us technical feedback,” said Shyer.

Along with working closely with labs to prevent inventory and return problems, Zyloware has two staff members devoted completely to wholesale distribution so the labs know whom to call at Zyloware. “It’s a matter of superior service,” Shyer added. Zyloware also gives labs sales personnel incentives, and he considers his lab partners “part of my sales force.”

In addition to supplying POP, counter cards, and posters for ECPs, most suppliers also go the extra mile of providing customized brochures for labs to use when selling frames to ECPs. Detari Eyewear’s Mark Kline works closely with labs to help them live up to the company’s acronym-name (Detari stands for “Don’t Even Think About Returning It”). Detari also supplies rotator displays to show off two 24-style package programs created just for labs. Kline also explained how the company’s new upscale offering, the Adin Thomas line, was created based on lab partners asking for a premium frame product to help raise their margins. Kline also gives an hour-long presentation to labs on how to sell package programs. “I can show them how easy it is to sell them, as well as profitable,” Kline said. Detari also has a trade-in program. A lab that orders 300 frames is billed for 200, and Detari picks up the old inventory. “It’s an inexpensive way to get a small inventory of frames,” he added. “Our motto is that we want to be their partner, not their competitor. We’ve taken a different marketing approach.”

The McGee Group supports its lab partners in a variety of ways, including ABO courses. They give lab clients 90-days’ notice when a style is going to be discontinued. Customized brochures from McGee include the labs’ phone and address, and can relate to either individual brands or package programs. Charles Lee explained, “The labs often complain that they don’t have enough time with the buyers, but they do. Once they are done with the presentations, they could sell packages by simply leaving a brochure behind.”

Detari’s Kline concurs, noting that labs “shouldn’t spend too much time on it. They have to sell a concept. This is an ‘oh by the way’ sort of sale you make at the end of a sales call.”


Labtalk June 2020