A Twin-City Twist
This stylish Minneapolis-St. Paul area optical toughed out a brutal 2020 and is bouncing back with the help of its private label.
Huxley Optical, Minnetonka, MN
OWNERS: Ryan Polehonka and TJ Chanthasene; URL:huxleyeyewear.com; FOUNDED: 2012; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2016; EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time, 5 part-time; AREA: 1,200 sq. ft.; TOP BRANDS: Huxley, NW77th, Article One, Oakley, Maui Jim; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/HuxleyOptical; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/huxleyeyewear
IN 2012, RYAN Polehonka and TJ Chanthasene opened Huxley Optical with a simple goal: to provide the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with “cool glasses at an affordable price.” It now fulfills this mission from three Twin Cities locations, largely on the strength of its private label, Huxley Eyewear, which accounts for 70 percent of its offerings.
Opened in 2016, the bright, welcoming and seamlessly branded Minnetonka store makes use of a combination of found materials, vivid graphics and local charm. According to Huxley’s communications specialist Sophie Dolan, “Each store has a distinct look tied together with our Huxley colors to keep the brand consistent. We work with local artists and graphic designers to create unique art that fits into the aesthetic of our spaces.” One standout result of this collaboration is the hand-painted murals that grace each Huxley location (see “Fine Story”).
Ensconced in the Ridgedale Center, Huxley’s Minnetonka location attracts a primary demographic of women aged 30-60. Says Dolan, “Once these women find they like the styles in our store, they often bring in their whole family to shop. We try to carry a variety of styles, from classic to trendy, to appease everyone in the family.”
Huxley enjoys the consistent traffic generated by the mall location, but Dolan admits there are tradeoffs. “We often find mall walkers become our regulars. However, the hours aren’t as staffing friendly and very few people want to come glasses shopping at 8:30 on a weekend evening.”
Having all of its locations in malls also presents opportunities to partner with neighbors who are of a similarly creative bent, something Dolan says creates “a bridge of understanding in an otherwise overwhelming retail world.” This outreach extends (pandemics permitting) to sponsoring charity events, hosting in-house and external shopping pop-ups, and participating in local flea markets, events at local breweries, open street events and Twin Cities Pride.
Polehonka and Chanthasene’s team has gradually expanded to include 10 (mostly self-taught) opticians. In addition to the Minnetonka location and the original store in the Rosedale Center in Roseville, a third was launched at the Twin Cities Premium Outlets in Eagan in April this year with the sole purpose of moving last-season inventory at attractive prices, mostly on a BOGO basis. “These frames are still in great shape and in style but keeping constant movement of our stock allows us to bring in the latest trends and move towards stocking up on our own private label frames,” explains Dolan.
The Huxley Eyewear label affords the team a high degree of creative control over styles and colors, while keeping pricing down. Says Dolan: “We love having creative control over the styles and colors we offer. Our newest manufacturer in Barcelona, Spain allows us to customize every detail of the frames down to the hinges. We are able to order exactly what we want and order in bulk in order to keep our prices low and quality high.” Huxley is hoping to start wholesaling frames to other opticals next year.
Grassroots marketing and word-of-mouth referrals are key business drivers for Huxley, which runs bus ads and radio spots in the community and partners with local publications to send out sponsorship emails, often with a coupon as an incentive to drive traffic. Dolan herself was brought on board in part to plan events to gain Huxley’s products exposure outside of its brick-and-mortar locations.
Social media is a key tool, primarily Instagram, which is used to highlight new frame styles.
Huxley requires clients to bring in Rxs from outside ODs. “We do not typically refer our clients to a certain office but recommend them to find somewhere in-network with their insurance,” says Dolan. The store has an edger for in-house finishing.
As it has for almost all independent optical retailers, the past year has posed a special set of challenges for Huxley, but the business has chosen to respond positively and proactively. “Between COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis-St. Paul community has been hit hard over the last year,” says Dolan. “We have been rallying together to devote our time and money to supporting BIPOC community organizations.”
Dolan recalls that in the bleak months of March-June 2020 Huxley was forced to lay off every single staff member, due to its locations in malls, which were all closed under state regulations. “It’s been a damn hard year, but we’ve pulled through. After 2020, we feel like we can take on anything.”