In recent years, mega retail optical chains have entered the Canadian market, making headline news about their grand expansion plans.
But some independent stores like Cristall Opticians in Toronto continue to survive and thrive despite the challenge presented by these big players.
“Being in the business for so long, we’ve seen a lot of changes,” said Gina Kay, owner/optician of the company. “We offer value and it’s always been fair and we can compete price wise on quality eyewear. So it was never a challenge for us.
“We tried to create our own niche and market so we never have to compete with anybody. But our priority was never price. It was never number one. So you don’t have to compete against price if that’s not your main issue.
“We compete against service and frames that you cannot get anywhere else. That’s our focus. Not selling frames on the internet that can be found on the internet. Not selling frames that can be found in any other store. That’s our drive and our focus and that’s how we separate ourselves.”
Cristall Opticians has been located on Bay Street, just south of Bloor, since 1980. The business was founded by Kay’s father.
“When that building was built, we moved in,” she said. The store is located at the base of the 1166 Bay Street luxury condominium tower that was originally developed by Cadillac Fairview.
“My father had a friend that he went to university with at U of T and he was in real estate. My father was an eye doctor but also very entrepreneurial with stores out West and he said he had a spot available in this building and if he wanted it. My dad came and took a look at it and they shook hands and it was ‘pay me rent when you can, make some money’ and it was all on a handshake and here we are now.
“My dad always knew you had to be in the middle of everything to make money and to get the people and he just knew that that was going to be the best place for us.”
The family is originally from Brandon, Manitoba, and her brother has some locations out there under the same name.
“Our father taught us a few things over the years. We started working very young with him. The most important thing is what we offer, selection that’s unique to anywhere else,” said Kay.
“We have service that’s unique to anywhere else. And he also taught us value, that the price should be fair. So that’s the focus we go for. The top three.”
Kay said her sister, who owns the Toronto business with her, and herself are not interested in opening another location. They want to focus on this one location.
“We know the more you divide yourself the more difficult it is. Staff is always the biggest problem in any business because you can’t replace yourself. You can only do your best to find the best people and it’s not unique,” she said.
“We plan to keep doing what we’re doing. We plan to do a little renovation in our store. We need a little bit of a facelift and we just want to keep increasing our reach. I would say one of the most important things to us, to me, is social media. I’ve always said that Google and Google Reviews has changed everything. It’s really evened out the playing field for big optical and the independents because it doesn’t cost anything to advertise. Well pretty much it doesn’t have to cost anything to advertise. You just get your reviews out there and you get good reviews and people will come from all over. And they do.
“And there has been a massive shift in our ability to reach people – the diversity of our clientele and it’s been really interesting to watch. There’s a lot of unsatisfied people who can’t find what they’re looking for and we can solve their problems. That’s very exciting for us.”
Kay said that over the pandemic it established an online store but not with the intention of competing against the big optical online retailers. She said the initiative was done as an extension of its business for people who are further away to take a look at what Cristall Opticians has and what it offers. But most of the time people look online but then come to the store, which has been a source of the company’s wider reach.
Kay said the store has three full-time opticians and three optometrists who split up their week with Cristall.
“We have doctors there three to four days a week right now. We are hoping to expand that. That would be a goal. I’d love to have more doctors because we’ve really grown that part of our practice as well which has been a great thing for us,” she said.
“Our sales are better than they’ve ever been. I’m comfortable with who we are and our growth. We offer value. We don’t try and find things that we can charge a ton for. I just want people to know that there’s independent optical out there. All these big companies are buying up the little companies. We’re probably the oldest independent store, for sure in our area.”
Bruce Winder, author of RETAIL Before, During & After COVID-19 and President, Bruce Winder Retail, said Cristall Opticians has carved out a successful niche within the competitive eyewear space by focussing on their strengths.
“These strengths include outstanding customer service, premium location in Yorkville which allows them to serve affluent customers at higher price points, wide assortment of numerous brands covering all customers, personalized services where customers are on a first name basis and finally the flexibility and agility to pivot to online during the pandemic,” he said.
“These go-to-market strategies and tactics are in sharp contrast to popular optical chains and digital natives who may lose some of the personal service aspect of the experience and focus on lower price points to drive higher unit volumes. In fact, the online optical market has become quite crowded of late with U.S. brands such as Warby Parker entering Canada.
“Congratulations to Cristall Opticians for celebrating more than 40 years and thriving in a very competitive landscape. Perhaps a blueprint for other independents competing against larger players in other markets.”