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Reading Glass Express Focuses on Style

Having trouble reading this sentence? Never fear, help is on the way. Husband and wife team Henry and Suzanne Robinson are coming to the rescue of millions of aging baby boomers as well as young computer-users with their Reading Glass Express boutiques.

As reading glasses become a necessity for a growing number of consumers - whether age- or computer-screen-induced - the discovery comes that there are two choices when shopping for non-prescription lenses: spin the stand of cheap readers at the drugstore, or choose from four or five styles at the accessory counter of a department store. The price is certainly right, but what about the fashion?

Reading Glass Express provides an alternative. The 3-year-old company currently has two prototype stores in California: one in Century City and one at Fashion Island in Newport Beach. The stores are 600 to 700 sq. ft. and are elliptical in design.

"They open up and come back around," Henry Robinson says. "It's like you're in the midst of a womb. We didn't want you to feel like you were in a doctor's office. Those of us just realizing that we need reading glasses are not real excited about it, so we're making it a nice experience."

The quiet, upscale atmosphere features thick Berber carpets and light ash cabinets showcasing the 1,600 styles Reading Glass Express has in stock in all possible strengths.

The retailer aims to open 30 additional stores in the next 36 months, moving from west to east; expansion in California, Nevada and Arizona will come first. The Robinsons will not franchise their concept. "The style of the glasses is critical," Henry Robinson says. "Once you franchise you're at the mercy of that retailer's taste. It may not be the cutting-edge taste needed for the concept."

Henry Robinson speaks from experience. When he was initially asked to invest in the concept behind Reading Glass Express, it was being done only at the low end. He redirected the company by enlisting the best person he knew in retail merchandising and marketing. "My wife's background is the couture business," he says. "She designed lines for many major companies. She went to Paris and designed clothes for Nina Ricci, and she opened Neiman Marcus' couture and wardrobe departments in Beverly Hills."

For Reading Glass Express, Suzanne Robinson worked with designers to create fashion-forward frames that reading-glass users would be happy to wear. Among the names exclusive to the company are Donna Karan, Versace, YSL, Alain Mikli, Valentino, Armani, Dior and Gucci. Prices for the designer glasses start at $199. The company's private-label styles range from $29.95 to $99.95.

"We had a woman who came in last month from Miami," Henry Robinson says. "She'd been in nine months ago and bought nine pairs of glasses. This time, she bought 16 pairs of glasses. Because reading glasses are turning into a fashion accessory, if you're wearing a certain type of outfit today, you want a style of glasses to go with it."

That kind of customer reaction is typical, he says. "People walk in the stores and say, 'Where have you been all my life?' We're just having a good time."

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