Upon entering the Kraft Augenoptik store in Stuttgart, Germany, ordering a cocktail seems like the most natural thing to do. After all, with its lounge sofas and stylish interior design features, the sales floor looks more like a trendy nightclub than a specialized optical retail store. But despite the modern ambience, owner Andreas Kraft is putting great emphasis on craftsmanship and tradition. Having been raised with a passion for the craft, he is ready to go the extra mile for his customers – and puts great demands on his staff and product selection. Anything less than the best will not find its way into the store displays. All brands need to have that “extra something” in order to make the cut and pass the owner’s high quality standards. Ultimately, expert service and the highest degree of expertise are just the first steps towards Kraft’s mission: to make an eyewear purchase a pleasurable, delightful experience for his customers – and get them to bring in their friends through the power of word of mouth. Here’s Andreas Kraft on how to keep customers happy in specialty eyewear retail.
Thank you Andreas for being available for this Retail Profile. Aside from your job, what inspires you?
Countries, people, adventures. Taking my boat out to go fishing and cruising through the south Norwegian archipelagos. Building snow caves in Yukon and waiting for northern lights. A night-time dip in hot sulfurous springs in the northern California No Man’s Land while someone explains to me the Indian star constellations in the sky.
That sounds very romantic. Apparently you appreciate a sensual experience. How did you end up becoming an optician?
It’s a tradition in my family and must be part of my DNA. While my mother was late-term pregnant with me, she attended contact lenses classes as part of her education with me “eavesdropping.” My grandfather and grandmother met in the 1920s at an eyewear manufacturing plant in Stuttgart. The “Grande Dame” of my family will soon be celebrating her 100th birthday. After World War II, she laid the foundation for today’s business and to maintain, revive and newly interpret it remains an exciting challenge for me.
What do you find appealing about the optical profession?
Glasses are unique products. I believe there is hardly any other product that creates such a strong bond with your customers. Almost all parts of the process come from “one hand”, making it very personal: the consultation, vision test, frame selection all the way to the customization in our own workshop. Done right, it can be a very direct and authentic retail experience.
You have multiple store locations. Do you offer different product line-ups for different target groups or do you basically implement the same concept in different places?
There is no distinct target group defined by marketing experts that we are trying to reach. Of course we are trying to position ourselves in a way that is attractive to our surroundings and customers. Through it all, we are asking ourselves what we would expect from a customer’s perspective and how to implement it optimally at our respective locations. The basic concept always remains the same. There is always a basic collection plus the matching variables, hand-picked by the store managers at our locations.
In order to ensure a consistent presentation, we also adhere to a “no go” list – meaning products by companies we would never impose on our customers and that we could not identify with.
That’s an exciting approach. How would you describe your business philosophy?
As a business owner, I feel obligated towards my customers, my employees and our products. We are maintaining a balance between a pioneering spirit and a sense of tradition while striving every day to be better than our competition.
What makes Kraft Augenoptik stand out from the rest?
Ultimately, everything boils down to the team. I am damn proud of my crew. More than half of my employees have been with the company for almost 10 years and play an active part in our public appearance. This creates a sense of authenticity and high levels of customer retention.
Looking around the store, the selective portfolio of brands immediately stands out. Which labels have a chance of making it onto your sales floor?
Brands need a bit of history, a bit of passion needs to be involved – backed by driven creative minds and not just a name. Together with design, quality and a good price-performance ratio that’s the perfect mixture!
What are some current newcomers and smaller brands that have potential in your opinion?
Garrett Leight, the son of Oliver Peoples founder Larry Leight is releasing a new collection.
Nothing new at first sight, but quite beautifully implemented. West Coast classics in a Zeitgeist package. If architectural styles are more your thing, check out Danish brand Kilsgaard. Their aluminum frames are pure flattery for faces. Another interesting project is the collaboration between DITA Eyewear and New York fashion designer Thom Browne. Styles range from wearable to experimental, always slightly veering off-course – which is an exciting touch for a debut collection.
Which styles will be setting the tone for 2012?
We are currently definitely at a crossroads. Over the past five years it’s been a relatively clear picture – expressionistic, strong polymer frames, mostly in black/brown/mélange colorways. The market is hungry for something new, but right now nobody can really say what is going to work. This leads to more joyful experimentation in eyewear fashion and a new scale of diversity. There is a slow rediscovery of metal glasses in their initial shape. Instead of working with a thin, rather two-dimensional sheet, designers are turning back to profile wire frames, flares and embossed frame components. They are playing with pantoscopic and round shapes from the 1920s and 30s, spiced up with nods to the 1950s and 60s such as cat eye frames. Overall, styles are more vivid thanks to muted colorways in combination with elaborate details that are often only visible at second sight. Sunglasses styles are starting to show strong reminiscence of the 1990s.
At your store, there are two comfy couches in front of an ethanol fireplace and magazines on the coffee table, including your own customer magazine. Rather unusual for an optician – what’s your motivation?
Our store is not only meant to make our customers feel at home, but also our employees. I’m looking forward to going to my store every single day. It’s always a bit like coming home for me. I find a comfortable, loft-like atmosphere more appropriate than a white “crystal and mirrors” cabinet with a clinical feel. I never understood what this overly hygienic and bare store design was about.
What’s the point? That just goes beyond any human sense of comfort. The magazine is a nice way to communicate our own thought process and offer the customers glimpses into what would remain opaque otherwise.
Surely your customers know to appreciate this. Who buys their glasses at your store? Only people from Stuttgart or also from further away?
All people who enjoy their glasses: Politicians, actors, doctors, architects, authors, managers and creatives like to visit us when they’re looking for something special. Of course there are lots of Stuttgart residents using their “home team advantage,” but we also draw in a large customer base from outside areas where local opticians are not offering the right selection. It also happens that I will receive a call from EMI Music Headquarters: “…one of our acts is nominated for a Komet music award, why don’t you create a set of glasses to match the outfit for the event… find something for us, okay?!” We’ll send the glasses out without a prior fitting and as a confirmation they’ll send me a Polaroid in the mail with a short Thank You note, like, “Outstanding! Thank you.”
Nice to have your work appreciated like this. Are there any stars and starlets among your customers? Who would you like to sell a pair of glasses to someday?
We occasionally work for stars, but we are not deliberately pursuing it. At the last Grammy Awards, US comedian Ben Gleib was wearing one of our glasses. Our work has also been featured in one or the other music video. We were also happy about the invitation from Mando Diao when they came to Stuttgart on tour. They didn’t have time to visit the store, so we brought a samples case with a selection backstage to Schleierhalle arena. The guys were delighted to be able to go glasses shopping during their sound check. Generally we are thrilled about every customer who trusts us with his or her eyewear choice. So there is no preference for an ideal customer.
What about [Minister-President of the state of Baden-Württemberg] Winfried Kretschmann?
For the past few years, you have been attending tradeshows not only as a visitor, but as an exhibitor. Your Wonderglasses label has been gaining quite some prominence. How did this happen?
In the end, it’s all the result of a wine-soaked evening. Wonderglasses goes back to a collaboration with Stuttgart fashion label Blutsgeschwister for the 2008 Berlin Fashion Week. It was only supposed to be an experiment, but has proven to work out so well that there is hardly any way back anymore.
How do you see the future of our industry?
I think that glasses as a mass product, distributed via aggressive chain conglomerates are past their prime. At the same time, businesses that are trying to sell simple use value as exclusive products will have an increasingly hard time. The possibility for ever more customization on eyewear will affect future purchase decisions. Quality and comfortable vision will gain importance overall.
Just like people are increasingly watching out for what they eat and who is producing it, they will also put stronger emphasis on what helps them view the world.
Even if times are hard, what will Kraft Augenoptik never be caught doing?
… lose our passion.
Andreas, thank you very much for the interview!