Seven Steps to Succeed with Independent-Brand Frames

By Maria Higgins, OD

June 22, 2016

I was the owner of Unique Optique in the vibrant downtown of Frederick, Md., for four-and-a-half years, and one of the ways I differentiated my practice was by selling only independent-brand frames. I defined “independent” as owned by someone I could easily call and talk to. One person, or a few people, owned the lines I sold.

The rewards for only selling independent-brand frames can be great, but first you must select which independent-label frames to sell, and then know how to market them.

We never carried a mainstream line, no matter how many people asked for it. We explained our philosophy, and our patients understood and purchased independent.

Anne et Valentin eyewear on display in Dr. Higgins’ former practice, Unique Optique. Dr. Higgins says choosing independent-brand frames gives patients a product they won’t find easily at big-box competitors or from online retailers.

*Photo credit: James Atkins Photography

Create an Independent Frame Look Book

First, I tore out any frame advertisements that caught my eye in trade magazines. Then, I went to Vision Expo East and interviewed the vendors I had come across, first asking, “Are you independently owned?” and “How difficult is it to speak to the owner?” The other two key questions I asked:

Where are your frames manufactured? Most of our patients were particularly against frames made in China.

And: What does the line look like? Does it fit our style?
Most of the owners were present in the booths within earshot and came over to talk to me. Then I went up and down every aisle of VEE looking for more frame lines that caught my interest and I interviewed them, as well.

Easy access to the owners of a frame company can mean greater control over the entire process of frames selection, being heard with suggestions, and being able to have input on frame designs and colors.

Identify Key Characteristics of Frame Lines

The characteristics of the frame lines were very important to me. Each line filled a particular niche for me. The only niche I never filled, because I could not find the right fit, was a wood frame line.

Here are the lines we carried, including the characteristics that made them appealing to me–and my patients:
Anne et Valentin (AV): Funky, French, designed artistically.
Mylon: 3D-printed, great sunwear, great rich colors.
ic! berlin: Minimalistic, metal, manly.
Lafont: French, funky, but in a different way from AV, many patients requested this, filigree details, great sunwear.
Dita: Extremely high quality, handmade, takes 6-8 months to make a frame, classic, celebrities loved them, great sunwear, eco-recycled materials, affordable.
Modo: Donates for every frame purchased, affordable.

141: Donates a frame for every frame purchased, affordable.

Lindberg: Minimal, rimless line, great three-year warranty.
Prodesign: Less expensive, funky, colorful, can order any frame with or without nose pads.
Seraphin: Classic, vintage feeling, relatively affordable.
Eye Bobs: Readers, ophthalmic quality, super-cheap if patient used as frame.
Eye Os: Readers, ophthalmic quality, super-cheap if patient used as frame.

Dita sunwear on display in Unique Optique. Dr. Higgins says to optimize sales of independent brands by featuring the stories behind the brands prominently online, and to talk to patients about it when making a sale.

*Photo credit: James Atkins Photography

Get to Know Management & Reps Behind Independent Lines

I thought it was important to know the management. I didn’t always meet with the management, but I assured myself that I could, should the need arise.

In most cases, I asked for the company’s literature, web site, Facebook page, and did research on the feel and culture of the brand. I looked at the literature to determine how easy the ordering process was, who the reps were, what the return policy was, and other logistics.

I made an information sheet for each company, which included included vendor name, address, phone, web site, company summary, rep, rep contact info, return policy, return address, where manufactured and staff comp frame policy.

Like frame lines owned by corporate companies, all of the independent-brand frames in my inventory had representatives we worked with. The smaller the company, the bigger the territory the reps covered, so I may not have seen them more than twice a year. I diligently went to the show every year to touch base with all of the lines.

Generally, they all were happy to do truck shows in my office, and to help me merchandise their products.

Research Warranty Policies

Even within independent lines, inventory-purchase policies and warranties vary widely. Some of the companies would basically take back the entire inventory that we carried and replace it with new stuff. Others required buying three frames for every one returned, and some even charged a fee. The guarantees on warranty also varied widely.

Resource to Help You Tell Unique Brand Stories

Vmail Product Watch from Jobson Medical Information provides unique brand stories, often from independent frame lines, that help optical staff to present indie product stories to patients/consumers. —ROB Editors

Evolve Selection Based on Sales & Patient Feedback

The number of lines evolved as the practice evolved. My first frame line was Anne et Valentin, and it was simply because I personally loved the line. Most of my own glasses are AV.

At one point we won a recycling award, and in the process of being interviewed for that, I realized we had no frame lines focused specifically on recycled materials. So I brought in Eco.

We had patients asking us repeatedly to carry Lafont, so I researched the company, and decided they fit our profile nicely.

I met Ralph, one of the owners of ic! berlin, at a Vision Expo East, and learned that he puts his cell phone number on the inside of every frame, and I loved that! I bought the line at that show.

I added reader lines (EyeBobs and Eye Os) after so many people asked us if we carried them. It ended up being a great move.

I saw the Mykita Mylon line at VEE, and loved the technology that went into making this 3D-printed frame line. I wanted more lines that spoke to men. So, I had to add it.

My much younger sister and her friends loved Dita sunglasses. I researched Dita and loved their look book that had multiple pictures of all the hundreds of celebrities who wore their frames. Once we carried the line, patients loved this book, too.

Lindberg is completely customizable, titanium and rimless. Their frames are available in an amazing array of colors. That fit a niche that was very specific.

I loved that Prodesign frames could be ordered with or without nose pads for a more customized fit. Their amazing colors attracted me, too.

I initially wanted to also carry true vintage frames, but soon realized that that would be more problematic than new frames. Seraphin had a vintage feel with a new frame warranty. Sold.

Modo fit the description of being affordable and a charity line. I added this after we did a survey and realized our impression was that we only carried more expensive glasses. I added this line to try to be less intimidating price-wise.

Tell Brand Stories

I made a special point of highlighting the stories behind each frame line and why I carried them on our social media pages. We also told every patient the stories behind the particular frame they were buying, so they felt more connected to their purchase.

One of my favorite stories is why I decided to carry 141. I was looking online for a frame line that gave back and found the 141 blog. Their logo is a hand graphic signing “1,” then “4,” then “1.” On the ring finger of the hand was a wedding ring. As a single girl and a marketer, this stuck out to me, and I wondered why they would make the logo specifically a married logo? As I read the blog post that followed, I realized that the logo had been altered only this one time to announce that the owners, Kyle and Soo Chi had gotten engaged to each other. That hooked me. I thought that any frame line that was that cool, and that personal, was a company for me.

Differentiate Independent-Brand Merchandise from Competitors

There was another high-end optical a half block from my office. I went to them and offered my list of what I was considering carrying and asked if they would also share their lines with me. Our personalities and styles are 180 degrees different from each other, and luckily there was not a single frame line in common. I think that forged a relatively symbiotic relationship. Another benefit of carrying only independent frame brands: Most won’t let two optical stores in a close distance carry the same line.

Maria Higgins, OD, is current owner of The Unique Technique. She formerly owned The Unique Optique in Frederick, Md. To contact her:


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