An eye exam and two pairs of single-vision glasses starts at $69.95 at America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, a national chain with about 500 locations that recently opened a Hixson store.
That price draws in customers who haven't had their eyes examined for years, said Bruce Steffey, president and chief operating officer of the chain's parent company, National Vision Inc., who recently visited the Hixson store on Highway 153 in the Oak Park Town Center anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
"People that have not had exams for 10 to 15 years are now coming in," Steffey said. "That happens everywhere we go."
The low-cost vision chain, headquartered in Duluth, Ga., is on the march.
America's Best opens around 80 stores a year and eventually plans to reach the 1,000 mark, Steffey said. Its parent company, National Vision Inc. is the U.S.'s third-largest optical provider, after LensCrafters and Wal-Mart, he said.
"We've been the fastest-growing [eye-wear chain] for the last five or six years. Even when we had the recession, we were still opening 50 stores [annually]," Steffey said. "We like to be in centers where you've got T.J. Maxx, Marshalls — stores like that."
'Efficiencies' save money
The company saves money, he said, through such "efficiencies" as making its own lenses at three labs — located in Lawrenceville, Ga., Salt Lake City, and St. Cloud, Minn. — that are 80 percent automated.
"Everything we do is trying to be efficient," he said. "Everything we do is about keeping the cost down."
However, the chain spends money where it counts, Steffey said, including on the state-of-the-art equipment its uses to examine customers' eyes.
That helps with efficiency, too, he said, since an eye exam takes 20 minutes at America's Best. The typical store can examine three to four customers an hour, compared to one to two for a private optometrist.
"When it gets busy, we need to be able to do that," Steffey said.
Jonathan Winnegrad, general manager of Hixson's America's Best, at first thought the store — which has the chain's standardized layout — had too many chairs for patients awaiting eye exams.
"That's a lot of chairs," Winnegrad thought — until he saw how busy the store got. "Now I'm definitely thankful that we had all these chairs."
Started on Chicago's 'Miracle Mile'
The Hixson store has about 1,300 frames ranging from those in the two for $69.95 category to designer brands such as Coach, Ray-Ban and Nike.
"This entire wall will be at two for $69.95," Steffey said during his Hixson store visit. The store's prices climb incrementally to two for $299.95, which includes an eye exam, for the most-expensive designer frames. America's Best also offers contact lenses for as low as $13.99 a box.
The chain traces its roots back to a store that a 25-year-old entrepreneur, Bill Grody, opened in 1978 on Chicago's lakefront "Miracle Mile" that was the first U.S. eye-wear store to offer contact lenses for less than $100, including an eye exam.
National Vision Inc., is a privately held company purchased for about $1 billion in 2014 by KKR & Co. L.P., a private equity firm headquartered in New York City. National Vision Inc. also owns Eyeglass World, a chain of same-day eyeglass outlets, and has eye-wear stores on military bases and inside Wal-Marts and Fred Meyer stores. All told, National Vision has 924 locations.