Maria McGeoghan meets independent optician Conor Heaney at the five-star Lowry Hotel and learns about Harry Potter’s spell.
Not that long ago, failing an eye test while at school was a bitter blow. When I realised I was the only one who couldn’t read the blackboard during a geography A level lesson, I felt doomed to a lifetime of specs.
But that has all changed - and it’s thanks to Harry Potter! I found out about this surprising turn of events during a business lunch with independent optician Conor Heaney at the five-star Lowry Hotel located on the Salford-Manchester boundary.
Conor owns and runs Jones And Co. Styling Opticians and is celebrating seven years at
the helm. Housed in the Grade II listed Bank of England building at 82 King Street, the practice looks like no other opticians. With a highly polished parquet floor, freshly cut flowers, the aroma of fresh coffee and the strains of smooth jazz, customers may feel they have stepped into a couturier or plush hotel when they visit, rather than a place to have their eyes tested or update their specs.
Conor is a passionate advocate for the independent optician, and is determined to give customers a better experience when it comes to choosing new glasses. He knows his stuff and knows when a trend tide is turning. “Kids used to lie to try and cheat their eye test because they didn’t want glasses,” says Conor, sporting a pair of very trendy retro grey frames. “Now they lie so they can get glasses. Harry Potter changed all that.
“It’s all about how you feel about your glasses.
“Some people even have glasses with no prescription. They feel naked without their glasses.“
One of a family of five born in Derry in Northern Ireland, Conor studied at UMIST and left with a First Class honours degree. He worked for a small retailer and then went to work in opticians in Australia with friends, staying in a hostel.
“I really enjoyed that,” recalls Conor. “We were the only ones getting up in the morning and putting on a shirt and tie to go to work.”
He settled down in Manchester in 2004, and opened Jones And Co. seven years ago. “When I opened my own practice I realised that’s when you learn what works.
“I try and see everything from the customer point of view. I read that at Amazon they have an empty seat in the boardroom to represent the customer. I never forget that.”
So Conor set about creating something unique for his customers. “I thought that frames in the UK were a bit boring. At Jones And Co. we travel to Antwerp, Munich, Milan, Paris and Copenhagen to source the world’s best eyewear.
“And that means we can offer clients glasses that they won’t find in other opticians. Something that gives them a unique, individual look. Glasses they will actually enjoy wearing.
“We want to bring the best to Manchester. I go with the whole team. I want them to be excited about what’s out there.”
And instead of customers facing a baffling wall of frames there are just eight pairs on display. “It’s a guided approach,” says Conor. “We sit down and have a chat for about 45 minutes over a good coffee.”
His dispensing opticians bring into play only those handpicked frames that they know will suit the lifestyle, prescription and style of the individual client. Prices start at £295 and average at £400 but some customers will spend up to £8,000 on a very special pair of frames from suppliers who use precious metals and horn.
“Our clients are going for bigger and bolder frames. The retro influence will be around for a while. People are looking for glasses not worn by the masses.”
This blend of style and optometry has helped build up a thriving business that is now one of the most successful independent practices in the country with a £900,000 turnover and continued upward trajectory. But it’s a tough market.
Over the last 20 years the market share of independent opticians has dropped from 70% to less than 20% with practices closing at a rate of 300 per year.
The most recent Optical Goods Retailing Report (2015) from Mintel shows that the chains Specsavers, Boots Opticians and Vision Express have 70% of the market, supermarket opticians and online make up 15% and independent practices have plummeted to 15% and this figure is still falling.
The disappearance of independents is what encouraged Conor to offer his guidance to other independent opticians. He now is coach and advisor to 45 independent opticians across the UK.
“The consultancy is a passion of mine,” says Conor. “I want independent opticians to thrive and by sharing my experiences I can help them to grow by offering something different to their customers.”
He hosts an annual conference in Manchester to bring them together to share ideas and best practice in the competitive world of optical retailing, combined with an in-depth behind the scenes tour of his practice.
“The big businesses, the chains, the shops that have clones in every town, give you nothing more than a one-night stand,” says Conor. “You’re just a number to them. Just a transaction. And tomorrow they’re on to the next customer. They’re not interested in commitment. They’re not interested in falling in love. That’s what the real strength of independent businesses is today. This is what being independent should be all about. There should be passion. Excitement. Even love.”
* Conor is the author of “The Definitive Guide To Choosing Glasses That Make You Look Good.” Readers can request a free copy of this book by visiting www.jonesand.co.uk
Great food and good value
We dined in the impressive River Restaurant at the five-star contemporary Lowry Hotel.
A luxury hotel located on the Salford-Manchester boundary, The Lowry is the only hotel in the region to be part of the prestigious Leading Hotels of The World and since opening in April 2001 it has won over 60 awards. The River Restaurant is one of the best places to eat and drink in Manchester with great views across the city. The restaurant offers a modern and comfortable approach to its food and guest service, making it a top quality dining experience.
In such sumptuous surroundings it was a surprise to find such a great lunch deal - two courses for £19.95 and three courses for £24.95. And the food was outstanding.
We opted for a fantastically tasty mushroom and tarragon soup, followed by pan-fried supreme of hake, garlic herb crust, parsley pressed potatoes, salsify and candied beetroot.
It all looked and tasted wonderful and was great value for money.
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