These days, the word ‘disruption’ is pretty commonplace. We often use it when discussing industries that are undergoing fundamental changes or leading the way in transforming traditional businesses.
When we think of ‘disruptive’ businesses, we may tend to look southward to California and Silicon Valley, but savvy Manitobans are shaking up business closer to home. In particular, there’s a different kind of disruption taking place at a local level — in the optical industry.
‘G is for Glasses’ is an optical centre run by Dr. Jessie Fillmore and Bonni O’Hara, aiming to revolutionize the way Winnipeggers think about their eyes and the glasses that help them see.
“We believe that your glasses should reflect your personality,” says Bonni, who describes their store as a “fun, funky place for people to shop for glasses that they love.”
“The idea came up while we were at the lake,” remembers Bonni. “We were drinking chardonnay and playing Scrabble one day in July and I pitched Jessie on the idea of opening a shop together.”
“I honestly didn’t expect my career to take this path,” she states.
Bonni started her career in retail and until recently worked in visual merchandising. Jessie, a trained optometrist, was working at one of the larger optical companies in Winnipeg.
“There’s no optical scene to speak of here in Winnipeg,” Bonni explains. “We’re one of the first new optical stores to open in 10 years, which means we’re not part of that ‘old boy’s club’ where your dad or your grandad had an office and that’s how you got into it. Jessie wanted to do something different.”
Currently, they have two additional team members: Ken Bond, a Lens Specialist, and Kelsey Kinsman, an Optometric Assistant who is also in the process of obtaining her Optician’s Degree.
“Ken is easily the most skilled optician in Winnipeg,” states Bonni, adding that he was Jessie’s optician at her old job and he jumped at the opportunity to do something different when they approached him.
“We have such an amazing team of dedicated people here,” Bonni says.
A focus on style and aesthetics
The team set out to create an optical shop that was clean and hip, where people can feel at ease while they’re shopping.
“People who can’t see without their glasses can feel self-conscious when trying on new styles,” Bonni says, “and we wanted to create a space that was welcoming and inviting.”
The space undergoes a significant redesign several times a year. Bonni is quick to point out that they now have a pinball machine where they once had a motorcycle. The shop feels more like a vintage barber shop or boutique clothing store than an optometrist’s office.
“And why shouldn’t it? Glasses are fashion for your face,” says Bonni. “We’re so proud of our wicked space and we change it up a few times a year. While most medical offices stay stagnant, we don’t want to be ‘your dad’s optometrist’.”
Arguably the biggest way that ‘G is for Glasses’ sets itself apart from local competition is the selection of glasses available.
“All of the brands we carry are independent brands,” states Bonni. “None of them are affiliated with any of the big corporations.”
She explains that big-name optical brands like Luxotica and Essilor control a significant portion of the commercial optical choices available in Canada. “Your Hakim Opticals, your Clearly Contacts… all of those brands come from one or two giant brands,” Bonni says. She goes on to state that the high production rate of glasses made by these companies often undermines the quality of the workmanship.
“All of our brands are handmade,” she says proudly. “The art of acetate-making is like woodworking. You have to get trained to do it and it’s treated like being in a small business even though many of these brands are competing on a global scale.”
“There’s care, workmanship, quality hardware and a warranty process that comes from these smaller businesses that just doesn’t compare to what you get from big brands,” Bonni adds.
She’s quick to point out that even though they may not carry brands like Ray-Ban and Prada, the team at ‘G is for Glasses’ encourages customers to buy brand name products from other local businesses so the money can stay within the community.
Shaking up Winnipeg’s optical scene
“It’s about time that someone shook up the optical scene in Winnipeg,” Bonni states, adding that Manitoba is one of the few provinces which has yet to see a meaningful disruption in how we think about eye care.
“Winnipeg, frankly deserves better,” Bonni says with conviction. “So we wanted to build a business that shook things up and showed the community that, hey, we’re here and we’re ready to do things differently.”
One of the most significant ways that ‘G is for Glasses’ is breaking the mold is by offering “lifestyle hours” which are similar to those of hair salons.
This decision came primarily as a result of Bonni and Jessie’s experiences working at previous jobs and struggling to balance their personal and professional lives.
“We’re closed Sundays and Mondays and open late during the week, and we change up our hours during the summertime,” says Bonni. By structuring the shop’s hours around their lives and those of their customers, they are able to stay open when people need it. That allows them to still close with enough time that the team can spend time with loved ones.
“We want to build a business that serves the community, but also lets us live our lives, too,” Bonni states.
She goes on to explain that ‘G is for Glasses’ is a value-based brand, meaning that one of their primary goals as business owners is to support the local community to the best of their abilities.
“Yeah, we could move somewhere else or try this in another city, but why would we want to do that?” she jokes. “There’s a lovely network of people here in Winnipeg, and it’s fun to know other local businesses who are doing well and who are also making their mark in and out of the city.”
In this case, she’s referring to the Internet and social media. ‘G is for Glasses’ currently has a robust online following (their Instagram is great) and Bonni says that the best part about being successful online is the opportunity to shed light on Winnipeg.
“Our online presence is global, and it’s so awesome that our followers now know where Winnipeg is because we love to promote small, small, small!” She laughs.
“It’s great to be a part of Winnipeg’s small business renaissance and to be the first to start really shaking up this space,” Bonni states. “We love helping people see glasses as a fashion accessory and as a fun, unique way to express themselves. And we have a ton of fun while we’re doing it — so what more could I ask for?”
‘G is for Glasses’ is located at 3-1176 Taylor Ave. For hours of operation and more great images of the shop and products, visit their website.