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BUYER'S FORUM

Singular Style

Labrabbit Optics owner Coyote DeGroot brings a highly personal touch to serving up an eyewear mix that’s off the beaten path

Coyote DeGroot

at Labrabbit Optics, owner and optician Coyote DeGroot is a one-man show. And his customers like it that way.

“I have no employees,” he explains.

It’s that soup-to-nuts service, he says, that forges a singular bond with the patients at his Chicago shop (in the Wicker Park neighborhood), which bills itself as a destination for “independent eyewear brands, prescription lenses, and radical sunglasses.”

DeGroot is somewhat of a rebel in the optical world, eschewing many conventions.

For one, Labrabbit’s assortment is handpicked by DeGroot to offer his clientele eyewear they likely won’t find anywhere else in the area. The lineup features 400 handmade frames from Japan, Germany, and the U.S., including Labrabbit’s own collection.

Here, DeGroot discusses his unconventional approach to optical retailing and the power of old-fashioned, high-touch service in the era of online shopping.

eb: What defines your shop’s distinct niche?

cd: I have no employees, so I’m the only one who works with the customer from start to finish. My customers enjoy that direct, intimate, and very communicative relationship: Anytime they come in, they know they’ll be working with me, and only me.

I’m literally as small as a small business can get, and people tend to like that. We talk about current events, neighborhood gossip, music news, family issues, and new restaurant openings—we’re all members of the same community.

eb: How do you curate the right frame assortment?

cd: I try to stock brands that aren’t commonly found elsewhere in the area. In 2017, I’m stocking fewer brands, but stocking a much deeper selection of frames from each brand. Putting together a good assortment is really easy—just make sure you have all your bases covered. Carry frames for larger heads, some for smaller heads, make sure you have some round frames, some angular frames, etcetera.

eb: What are the hallmarks of your assortment?

cd: Classic and versatile, with clever, subtle details. If the frame is a vibrant color, like a bright purple or red, the shape should be a little bit boring. If the shape of the frame is extravagant, like a cat-eye or something really geometric, the color needs to be as drab as possible. It’s all about balance. In terms of pricing, my frames are fairly moderate—they start around $200 and cap out around the $400 mark.

eb: How does your own eyewear collection fit into the mix?

cd: I launched my Labrabbit frame brand in 2016, and those frames have really been blowing up. Every shop has gaps in their eyewear assortment, so I’m designing eyewear to fulfill those needs.

For example, none of the brands that I stock were making small eye size titanium P3, so I produced my own. The same goes for boldly patterned acetate P3 with a wider-than-usual bridge.

They’re only available at my shop currently, but I’m looking for wholesale accounts starting this year. The shapes are accessible, but come in a ton of fun colors, and they’re all handmade in Japan. I’m really proud of them!

eb: What are the key ways eyewear shopping is changing—and how are you addressing those changes?

cd: Online eyewear shopping, especially Warby Parker, was a hot new thing five years ago. The pendulum is now swinging the other way, so to speak.

At least half of my new customers are folks who have purchased eyewear online and are now ready to work with a real-life optician in a real-life shop, where they will receive warm, professional service and a unique, high-quality product.

Shopping is changing, and I am addressing that by continuing to do things the way I have always done them. I embrace new technologies, but I’m strongly grounded in the world of old-fashioned retail, and my customers recognize the lasting value of this.

—Barbara Thau

Barbara Thau is a contributing writer to Forbes.com , where she writes about the intersection of retail and consumer trends.

The interior of Labrabbit Optics is as interesting as its product assortment (yes, those are tin pans on the ceiling)

24 hours in Chicago

Coyote DeGroot gives us the scoop on what to do in his hometown.

“Eat a lot, drink a lot, and visit some weird places. Start by visiting Millennium Park, which is pretty touristy, but also pretty awesome. Chicago has a lot of really fun rooftop bars, and one of the best happens to be right across the street from Millennium Park: Cindy’s. Follow that up with some food at Avec in the West Loop, then go check out the Museum of Surgical Science just north of downtown. After viewing a building full of medical oddities, you might need to clear your head with a walk through neighboring Lincoln Park, where you can enjoy Lake Michigan and a few of our many beaches. Finish the day with a classic cocktail at Ward Eight in Evanston, the perfect place to finish a day of tourism, or begin a night of mischief.”