What is the story behind your parents starting the company in 1977? Why optical frames?
My parents (Alan and Cynthia Shapiro) founded Europa in 1977 out of a garage in Chicago. My dad had worked for other eyewear importers before that, and one of his former bosses, Ike Benz, helped get my parents started with their own business. My dad would go out with a briefcase filled with six frame samples, and my mom set up a phone and a desk in the garage so she could be ready to answer calls and fill orders. That was the start of Europa.
Europa & State as a whole covers pretty much every demographic an office needs. Can you elaborate on this.
Our focus is on supporting independent ECPs, and in that we want to be a solution-provider for our customers. So we’ve always tried to offer an arsenal of products that can meet a wide variety of needs. We like to tell our representatives when they join Europa, “you should have something in your sample bag for every independent office. Your job is to find out what each office needs, and communicate why what you have is the best option to fill it.”
I value Europa’s company culture, including the sales reps you hire. Can you talk about the culture and the company goals.
Thank you! Nothing is more key to our company’s success than our people and our culture. To us, that’s a big part of what it means to be truly “independent”. You know, I think we have great product and I know how well it sells in independent offices, but the reality is we don’t have anything that our customers can’t live without. Really, no one does. Our customers don’t “need” us, and we know that. So we have to be earning our customer’s business everyday. We can never take that business for granted. That’s the core understanding that I think makes our company great.
When it comes to our team, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard as well. We have to hire the best professionals in our industry and then we need to earn their trust and loyalty too.
Do you make a frame for a line or do you make a frame and see what line it should be in? How does the creative process work for the lines?
We almost always design for a specific brand. One of the major challenges with using the same internal product team for all of our brands is making sure that each of those brands is well-defined. And keep in mind, because we’re not working with licensed brands, it’s up to us to set the brand rules, then it’s up to us to make sure we follow them. That takes discipline. Our creative director, Nico Rossilier, has done a great job of re-evaluating those dividing lines and making sure we all stick to them. He also designs most of the product himself.
One of our advantages as a company is that we have an extraordinary team of full-time representatives who are meeting with their customers on a daily basis, so we get a lot of feedback about every decision we make, especially on product. Many of our design choices are tailored to meet the demand of our customers, and what they report to be the requests of their patients. That still leaves a lot of room for creativity in the process, but our main priority is always shaped by the question, “will our customer be excited about this and will they be able to sell it?”
Europa’s website was recently redone – can you explain why this tool matters to an optician?
Europaeye.com was totally overhauled last year, and the difference is extraordinary. No need to be polite about it, our website was bad for a long time. Sorry about that everyone!
Fortunately, everything about the site has been improved, and you can tell immediately upon your first visit that it offers a far superior experience. Our vice president of marketing, Amanda Shapiro spearheaded the project and was really most responsible for its success. It was a massive endeavor, and one that was essential to the growth of our business. Amanda’s a very talented and hard-working member of our team. I also believe she can never be hired away because she’s married to me. Am I taking too much for granted?
Europa’s culture extends into pricing and product availability, how does this set you apart from other frame companies?
Europa’s culture is directly tied to our selling policies and our promotions. Everything ultimately comes down to our independent spirit, and the philosophy that we always need to be proving our value to our customers.
That means we might have to take more chances on inventory in order to make sure more is available and less is on backorder. It also means that when it comes to promotions of any kind, we need to be flexible and create programs that are customized for each individual customer.
(Carissa’s note: Europa has a great buyback program that offices should consider – I use it every year. Ask your rep!)
You do offer a private label program, could you explain what this is?
The private label program was originally intended to offer our customers product that was made in our US factory, under their own label. Because of our deep and extensive relationships with foreign factories, we can also offer a turn-key solution for any private label collection, made anywhere in the world.
What is something we may not know about designing or manufacturing a frame?
That manufacturing a high-quality frame is a complex process! In our factory, crafting one frame takes about 75 steps, and 50% of those steps are done by hand. That’s why it’s so rare for it to be done here in the US. That handwork can be very expensive, and has to be done by talented, trained professionals.
State acquired AO, and icon in American Ophthalmic history. What are the plans for applying this historical company into your business model?
We’re thrilled to be re-launching AO (American Optical) later this summer, and we expect it to be a key part of our business moving into the future. Initially, we’ll be offering three sunglass styles: The Original Pilot (the first sunglass ever worn on the moon), the classic General, and the legendary Saratoga (famously worn by JFK and countless other tastemakers). All of these iconic styles helped define sunglass fashion throughout the 20th century. The Saratoga hasn’t been available to the market in over 30 years. We can’t wait to get out to our customers and show them these updated pieces of fashion history.
State Optical launched in 2015 by storm. You won the “Best Brand Activation” award Vision Expo West 2018 and have been all over the media. What can you say about this company, the branding/creativeness and what it means to you and the employees?
With STATE, we were bringing something truly unique to the market: an American-made luxury brand. We have incredible ambition for the brand, because we feel like it can define what “made in America” means to the optical industry. With that in mind, we put more into the branding and marketing than we had for anything that came before it. That meant a larger budget, for sure, but it also meant that we could take all the passion and enthusiasm we had for the project and turn it into rich storytelling. That storytelling and that mission is at the heart of everything we do for STATE.
State Optical is made in America. Each frame takes 75 steps to make. You have 21 tiny holes drilled into each temple to create your logo. Each frame is named after a local street. You list all of your Craftsmen and about them on your website. Can you elaborate on some of these details and the unmatched quality of this process and frames?
STATE Optical wasn’t just a new brand or collection for us, it was an opportunity for us to tell the world about what goes into making a quality pair of eyeglasses. It was our answer to the misconception that eyeglasses are, or should be, cheap because they’re simple and mass-produced.
Eyeglasses are, in fact, made with care by the hands of real people. In our case, those individuals perform their craft with the knowledge and pride that they’re not just making eyeglass frames, they’re bringing an industry back home. They know that the quality of their work is defining what it means for eyewear to be made in the America.
You also have the Alan J collection, which is made in the US. What is the story behind this brand?
As our factory grew and efficiencies improved, we saw an opportunity to create a second American-made collection that was more price-accessible than STATE.
We wanted the brand to be masculine, and to emulate courageous and independent-minded American entrepreneurs. That, to us, was the version of the American dream we wanted to focus on. So who better to name it after than Europa’s founder, and my dad, Alan J Shapiro? The first style we released in the collection is a replica of the yellow frame he wore and loved.
We also incorporated a chartable component into the brand that we thought perfectly fit Alan’s legacy. A portion of sales goes to Rising Tide Capital (RisingTideCapital.org), a non-profit whose mission is to transform lives and communities through entrepreneurship.
Do you have plans to have any additional brands made in the US or expand on the current two?
When we acquired AO Eyewear, we also inherited the machinery to make metal frames (the machinery they were using to make AO sunglasses in Southbridge, MA). Now that we’ve moved that equipment to our facility in Chicago, we will be using it to produce AO sunglasses here. That brand will be the third to be produced in our US factory.
Both Europa and State help offices with branding their products and creating store advertising. Can you tell us a little about this?
We’ve developed a robust and incredibly capable marketing department, much of which is focused on the direct needs of our independent ECP customers. Our customers can use co-op marketing dollars and work directly with a dedicated member of that marketing team (along with their sales representative) to help them produce custom advertising for their specific location. It’s been a very successful program for us, and our customers really seem to appreciate it.
What’s to come for Europa and State?
We’re just focused on getting back to business! These last couple months have been rough. Has anyone else noticed business is down?
Right now most of our focus is on getting through this period, and helping our customers do the same. We were originally planning to launch AO at VEE, and that obviously didn’t happen. We’ve got a lot to be enthusiastic about once we’re on the other side of this, but right now getting to that other side has to be priority number one.
Anything you would like to add or plug?
Just that I’m really excited to get back to seeing my friends throughout this remarkable industry. I miss them all, and it pains me to know how hard these last couple months have been on all of them. There are plenty of signs of hope right now, and once we’ve all made it through this together, I can’t wait to celebrate together.