Looking sharp, eyewear retailer adjusts his focus

Cliff Balter, owner of Philly EyeWorks, with his Philly-inspired glasses.

Since opening his own retail eyeglass business in 2002, Cliff Balter has known a number of indignities, including a recession that forced him to close a second store six months after opening it and two failed e-commerce efforts.

Perhaps the most obnoxious affront rolled up outside his shop just off Rittenhouse Square on back-to-back Saturdays in November 2012.

It was a mobile showroom for Warby Parker, a company launched online in 2010 by four students from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Their goal was affordable convenience: to bring shoppers stylish eyewear, priced from $95, without requiring them to leave their homes.

That fall weekend in 2012, Warby Parker had gone on the road in Philadelphia with a renovated school bus to raise its visibility with a public still skittish about buying eyeglasses on the Internet.

"They parked outside here two Saturdays in a row," Balter recalled during a recent interview at his Philly EyeWorks store on 18th Street, just off Walnut. His sense of humor about it all was astonishing, given that he had boarded the bus and found a couple of his customers there.

"I was a little pissed," acknowledged Balter, 40, of Havertown, "but I thought it was a great idea."

And a great motivator, he said: "It made us go back to work harder."

Until that curbside incursion, Balter had been working on reenvisioning what was then known as InnerVision EyeWear, an independent retailer with a high-end focus, where customers routinely spent $1,500 on a pair of glasses and sometimes as much as $12,000 (for frames made of precious metals).

Still, that rethinking had been more like "a hobby," Balter said. His plan was to continue carrying expensive brands, but - recognizing that narrow niche was too hard to rely on - Balter also wanted to cast "as wide a net as possible."

By 2010, he said, his plan involved a store with an in-house lab that would produce lower-priced customized glasses in a day and offer shoppers an online, try-on-at-home service.

It was eight years after Balter had opened his pricey InnerVision store in Manayunk, and six years after he had moved it to Sansom Street near 17th to better reach the more-monied demographic he originally set out to serve.

His verve for his new business plan faltered when "we turn the computer on and we see Warby Parker." It was the first publicity about the student-led venture.

"It was genius what they were doing," said Balter, who has been working in eyeglass stores since his teens, the result of his mother marrying the owner of Glasses Galore shops in Northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County. "My ego took a hit. These guys were a couple of steps ahead."

Balter held steady. Business at InnerVision "was really good" since he moved it in 2010 from Sansom Street to its current location on 18th Street, closer to Rittenhouse Square.

He spent the next two years thinking of augmenting his offerings with more modest-priced frames. He was still deliberating when the bus pulled up.

"At that point, it became serious," Balter said.

He decided on an "unusual, fun, diverse" look to distinguish Philly EyeWorks from what Balter described as Warby Parker's "contemporary, news-anchor glasses."

The Philly EyeWorks brand and website launched in August 2014, sharing the 18th Street premises with InnerVision. Its frames, made in China, arrive clear with a glossy finish, and then are hand-colored and sandblasted. There are close to 400 color combinations for glasses that start at $150.

The styles have Philly-centric names, such as Yo Adrian, No Libs, Liberty Bell, and Brotherly Love.

Deela Williams, 45, a hair stylist from Lansdowne and a native of West Philadelphia, wears a two-tone "Kelly Drive" frame in blue and purple. Special extra-thin lenses brought her total to $350, still well below other eyeglass shops she has used that did not offer frames with such attitude, Williams said.

"I have a bubbly personality. I like to laugh and joke," she said. "My glasses represent my personality and style."

Balter would not disclose financials, saying only that sales at his company of eight full-time employees, including his wife, Emily, are up 300 percent over a year ago.

But another challenge lurks. Following a retail trend, Warby Parker, that company of online origins, now has 30 brick-and-mortar shops, including a small showroom in Old City, with plans to add another around the corner from Philly EyeWorks. It announced in December that by spring or summer a Warby Parker store would open on Walnut Street between 15th and 16th.

Asked for an update, spokeswoman Ashley Freudenheim said, "We don't have anything to share about a store opening at the moment."

Balter has secrets, too.

"We have some tricks up our sleeve," says the father of two whose 4-year-old daughter is named . . . Parker.

dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466@dmastrull