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    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    What’s Going On: Cohen’s Fashion Optical leaving mall after four decades

    Kirk and Nicole Larsen, managers of Cohen’s Fashion Optical at the Crystal Mall, say they are looking forward to an impending move to the Waterford Commons shopping center across the street in Waterford. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Front of the new Cohen’s Fashion Optical store being installed at the Waterford Commons shopping center, as seen on June 21, 2024. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    A customer at Cohen’s Fashion Optical in Waterford’s Crystal Mall looks at some frames on Friday, June 21, 2024. The store has been at the mall since 1984 but plans to move into new quarters next month. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Kirk Larsen, manager of Cohen’s Fashion Optical, helped open the eyeglass store 40 years ago, but he’s not at all nostalgic about a planned move next month from the Crystal Mall to a new place across the street at the Waterford Commons shopping center near the Ulta Beauty cosmetics shop.

    “There was a time when the mall provided traffic and you didn’t have to advertise outside the mall,” Larsen told me when I sat down with him June 21 at Cohen’s, a privately owned but individually operated chain with about 120 locations mostly in the Northeast.

    Clearly, the high-traffic days of the mall are over as more and more stores move out and only two restaurants remain in the food court. All the Crystal Mall anchor stores are gone as well, and its owner, Namdar Realty Group, last month acknowledged it is considering a sale to another company.

    Yet Larsen remembered a time around Christmas in the halcyon days of the mall when he had to park at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl to ensure there were enough spaces available for customers.

    Larsen, who said he believes Cohen’s is the last of the mall’s original 1984 stores (though it opened a couple months after the grand opening), remembers a time when the store sold an average of 200 eyeglasses a week and had 16 employees. Now, the store averages about 100 glasses a week with five employees.

    Larsen said he would have moved Cohen’s out of the mall years ago, but the store had to abide by its lease. He initially tried to renegotiate the terms of the lease in order to stay, but said the new ownership team refused to offer a better price despite the reduced mall traffic. Namdar bought the mall at an auction last year for $9.25 million.

    So Cohen’s plans by the end of July to be in a new store that is slightly bigger than its current space and costs about a third of what Larsen said he was paying for rent at the mall.

    “All the displays, everything’s state of the art; it’s all brand new, beautiful,” Larsen said.

    The best part of moving out of the mall, other than the lower rent, will be customers’ ability to get to the store without having to negotiate the expansive and somewhat labyrinthine shopping area, made more annoying recently by the closure of several escalators.

    “The mall is not making it user friendly,” said Larsen, a Norwich resident whose wife Nicole is also a store manager. “Really sad because, you know, a little bit of attention would go a long way.”

    Cohen’s ability to set its own hours of operation rather than abiding by the mall’s standards also will be a bonus, Larsen said. The store is currently open Monday through Saturday, but the hours of operation could change in the future, Larsen said.

    Larsen added that the new store will be outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment that will allow for a much more thorough eye exam than was possible a few years ago. Other equipment makes it easier to have glasses made in-house or to create progressive lenses to fit any frame with about a five-day turnaround.

    “That’s our edge,” he said. “We get better quality lenses ... for a fraction of the price.”

    Cohen’s has always been known for its special buy-one, get-one-free deals on glasses as well as its over 3,000 frames, but Larsen said it’s also known for the many designer brands available, including Gucci, Ray-Ban, Prada, Tiffany and Versace.

    “We try to discount everything; that's important,” Larsen said. “It's been more than seven years since I've had any kind of price increase. It's just the industry. I don't think the industry allows it.”

    It’s certainly a competitive industry, and the cost of staying in a dying location was making the mall seem like a relic of the past rather than a driver of customers. Larsen said he had to spend “too much money” convincing people to go to a place that over the past decade has become decidedly untrendy.

    And while Larsen has spent much of his adult life working at the Crystal Mall, he can’t wait to go.

    “We're excited. We're excited for having a new store,” he said. “It's going to be a different look. It's going to look very futuristic.”

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. To reach him, email l.howard@theday.com.

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