Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

Updated: July 10, 2023 On the record

On the Record: Portland glasses retailer eyes new opportunities

Photo / Jim Neuger Chris Wheaton, owner of North Optical at 68 Washington Ave. in Portland, where he has one employee on staff.

Chris Wheaton recently opened North Optical at 68 Washington Ave. in Portland after four and a half years across the street in a much smaller pop-up space. On opening day in the new location, Mainebiz sat down with him to find out more about the business and Wheaton’s growth vision.

Mainebiz: What was your original plan for the business in 2018?

Chris Wheaton: My plan was always to be somewhere for a long time. I had searched for an entire year to find space, but the problem with Portland is that everything is massive. Here we have 1,270 square feet, which is perfect.

MB: What’s your business niche?

CW: Independent eyewear, from all over the world. Some of the designers we carry, I have their phone number in my phone.

MB: How do you find the designers?

CW: I find a lot of them on Instagram, sifting through the good and the bad. If I’m interested in something, I’ll see it, touch it, and make sure it passes muster.

MB: Have you visited any of the designers?

CW: We meet mainly at trade shows, since having small children makes it hard for me to travel. My one business trip a year is to New York. There are a lot of American brands, but not a lot of American lens manufacturing.

MB: Who buys your glasses?

CW: We have a range, but the majority of our clientele tends to be people 40-plus. I would also say it’s about 60/40 women/men — more women than men, but not by much.

MB: What’s your price range?

CW: The range is anywhere from $150 to $1,000 for frames. A majority are in the $300 to $400 range.

MB: How often do customers change glasses?

CW: A majority of people change every two years. A smaller minority have two or three pairs, and then there’s the even smaller minority who buy 15, 20 pairs. I have people who buy a complete pair of glasses, and then another frame of the same thing just in case something happens to that one.

MB: What sets you apart from other eyewear retailers?

CW: Our whole thing is much more experiential rather than the stodgy glasses experience that most people are used to. Our clientele is people who are looking fror something different, who are not looking for the mainstream. A lot of people don’t even think about the fact that they can buy their glasses outside of their doctor’s office. [Online seller] Warby Parker, to their credit, has helped with that a lot. Now the idea has gotten a bit more broad, but we’re here for the experience. We help you from the moment you walk in until the moment you leave. We can do customizations for people who have hard fits — say if you have a very flat bridge or something like that, we can have nose pads installed on the frames. Most other shops don’t do that. We’re willing to take that extra step to make sure that you have the best experience.

MB: How is business this year and what’s your outlook?

CW: Right now we’re about 15% over last year, which was 60% over the year before. There’s been a little lull with the anticipation of the move.

MB: What were your start-up and expanansion costs?

CW: I started with $50,000 of my own money. We paid for the entire expansion on cash flow, and did not take any loans or outside investment. Also, we reused almost everything from the old store in the new space.

MB: Any plans for a second location later on?

CW: Our goal is to really blow this out, more than a second location. We’re also planning to concentrate on designing and producing our own glasses and on ecommerce.

MB: Fifteen years ago, you got into this industry through a job at LensCrafters. What’s it like to own your own business?

CW: It’s fantastic — I would never do anything else. I love owning a business. It’s trying at times for sure, especially permitting. But I couldn’t see another life for myself. There’s a lot of satisfaction in being the glasses guy.

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF