Top 10 Snapshots

What the largest optical players plan for 2009

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1. LUXOTTICA RETAIL

2008 Optical Sales: $2,695M (est.)

2008 Optical Units: 3,009


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Retail Brands: LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Target Optical

Luxottica Group’s Luxottica Retail division, heading the VM Top 50 Optical Retailers list for the 10th consecutive year, may finish 2009 with a slightly lower store count than it had at the end of 2008. As a result of the economic slowdown, Luxottica’s chief executive officer, Andrea Guerra, said in March the company will close 117 stores in North America this year, and will franchise 56 additional Pearle Vision units by year-end, with 110 more stores still “under review.”

To help build traffic in its existing LensCrafters stores, that chain recently launched a multimedia national ad campaign focused on consumers’ relationship with their eyewear and their optical store. LensCrafters has also revamped its lens mix this year, including adding prescription Ray-Ban lenses, according to Kerry Bradley, who was named president of Luxottica Retail North America early this year. Other recent moves include the reintroduction of warranty sales in the Sears Optical locations.

2. WAL-MART

U.S. OPTICAL SALES: $1,344M (est.)

U.S. OPTICAL UNITS: 2,974

RETAIL BRANDS: Wal-Mart Vision Center, Sam’s Club Optical

Retailing giant Wal-Mart continues to expand in the optical business, now with nearly 3,000 vision centers in its U.S. discount stores and warehouse clubs, in every state except Rhode Island, Delaware and Oklahoma.

Under the umbrella of Wal-Mart’s health and wellness segment, the mass merchant’s optical laboratories manufactured more than 5 million pairs of eyeglasses last year, and its vision centers sold more than 9 million boxes of contact lenses. About 2,500 independent optometrists practice in Wal-Mart Vision Centers and Sam’s Club Optical Centers, according to the company.

Under Jeff McAllister, senior vice president for health and wellness, early this year Wal-Mart launched a new program for low-priced children’s eyewear, and cut prices on contact lenses in conjunction with 1-800 Contacts. Wal-Mart’s vision centers now offer pairs of eyeglasses for children beginning at $39, with a year’s guaranteed free replacement; they have also instituted price cuts of from 12 percent to 50 percent on annual supplies of CLs, in a program that began rolling out nationwide in January.

3. HVHC RETAIL GROUP

2008 Optical Sales: $537.6M

U.S. Optical Units: 515

Retail Brands: EyeMasters, Visionworks, Vision World, Cambridge Eye Doctors, Hour Eyes, Dr. Bizer’s Vision World, Stein Optical, Eye DRx, Binyon’s, Empire Vision Centers, Total Vision Care, others

HVHC’s retail group and its Eye Care Centers of America (ECCA) chain continued to expand during 2008, opening 22 new locations last year. The company has said it expects to add about 25 additional optical stores annually in 2009 and 2010, in both existing and new markets.

David Holmberg, named chairman and chief executive officer of ECCA in January 2008, also became president/CEO of HVHC in mid-June; Holmberg added responsibilities as ECCA’s president in February 2009. He and his team led ECCA to a 7 percent increase in comparable-store sales last year, and said they are working this year to enhance efficiencies as part of a strategic plan to combat the recession.

Managed vision, through both sister division Davis Vision and outside vision plans, remains a key elements of HVHC’s retail strategy, with managed vision reimbursements accounting for about 31 percent of ECCA’s revenues in 2008.

4. COSTCO WHOLESALE

2008 Optical Sales: $514M

2008 Optical Units: 392

Retail Brand: Costco Optical

Costco Wholesale added another 18 new, everyday-low-price Costco Optical vision centers last year within its U.S. warehouse clubs. The company said it sold 2.8 pairs of eyeglasses during its 2008 fiscal year. Costco opened a total of 25 new warehouse clubs in fiscal 2008, and expects to add 21 more by the time FY 2009 ends on Aug. 30.

With about 54.5 million club cardholders spending roughly $137 million per club annually, the Costco Optical locations have a built-in traffic flow. And like other “value”-oriented eyewear/eyecare retailers, they appear to be getting a boost from the recession; the parent company’s overall comparable-store sales were running 3 percent ahead of the previous year for the 31 weeks through March 2009, excluding the impact of the drop in gasoline prices.

5. NATIONAL VISION

2008 Optical Sales: $460M (est.)

2008 Optical Units: 508

Retail Brands: America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, The Vision Center (Wal-Mart), The Optical Shoppe (Fred Meyer), The Optical Center (military), Vision Center II

After expanding its everyday-low-price America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses chain with 42 new locations opened in 2008, National Vision picked up another “value” retail optical brand in late January when it acquired the 64-store Eyeglass World chain from Vision Care Holdings. The Eyeglass World stores will continue to operate under their current name, according to Reade Fahs, National Vision’s chief executive officer and president.

Aided by an economic climate that has made low-priced eyewear more appealing to many U.S. consumers—and spurred by the continuing expirations of its leases to operation vision centers inside Wal-Mart discount stores—National Vision plans to open another 40 America’s Best locations this year. About half of those new stores had already opened during the first four months of 2009.

6. REFAC OPTICAL GROUP

2008 Optical Sales: $207.5M

2008 Optical Units: 640

Retail Brands: J.C. Penney Optical, Sears Optical, BJ’s Optical, Macy’s Optical, OptiCare Eye Health & Vision Centers, others

Refac Optical Group’s sales—and store count—got a boost last year when the company took over operation of 156 leased vision centers in BJ’s Wholesale warehouse clubs in February 2008. The move was Refac’s first venture into the warehouse-club optical arena, under president and chief executive officer Dave Pierson. Since Refac took over its optical operations, BJ’s has added three more clubs, including one so far this year.

Refac’s major host, J.C. Penney, on the other hand, is slowing its expansion. After posting a 10 percent drop in comparable-store sales and a high-single-digit decline in total sales for 2008, this year J.C. Penney plans to open just 17 new department stores.

7. COHEN’S FASHION OPTICAL

2008 Optical Sales: $121M

2008 Optical Units: 115

Retail Brands: Cohen’s Fashion Optical, General Vision

With help from Bowling Green, Ky.-based Houchens Industries, which purchased its franchise division in late February 2008, Cohen’s Fashion Optical has been on an expansion track, adding nine new stores last year. The purchase covered 106 Cohen’s stores in the Northeast and Florida. Of those, the Cohen family retained 30 franchised optical locations: 14 Cohen’s Fashion Optical locations and the 16 General Vision Services stores, now being converted to the Cohen’s format.

Robert Cohen, OD, Cohen’s president and chief executive, continues to direct the chain’s daily operations. According to Cohen, the chain’s expansion will accelerate through both new franchised locations and potential acquisitions.

8. EYEMART EXPRESS

2008 Optical Sales: $115M

2008 Optical Units: 84

Retail Brands: Eyemart Express, Vision 4 Less

Established as a discount optical retailer in 1990, Eyemart Express is in the midst of a major expansion program. It opened 14 new locations in the past six months, with 25 more planned by year-end, according to chairman and founder Doug Barnes, OD. Helping to spearhead that growth is the chain’s new president, Jonathan Herskovitz, a 16-year company veteran who became president in early March.

In its marketing, Eyemart Express continues to stress its “everyday low price” philosophy, focusing on “two-pair” deals such as two pairs of single-vision eyeglasses starting at $67.92 and two pairs with progressive lenses starting at $117.92.

The Carrollton, Texas-based retailer also operates Vision Vantage, an eyecare discount program for employers that uses the Eyemart Express stores as its provider network.

9. FOR EYES/INSIGHT OPTICAL MFG.

2008 Optical Sales: $98.5M (est.)

2008 Optical Units: 140 (est.)

Retail Brand: For Eyes Optical

Since 1972, For Eyes has positioned itself as a value provider in the eyewear/eyecare industry; executives of the chain describe For Eyes as the first optical company to offer consumers a high-value package price combining frames and prescription lenses.

In 2008, For Eyes invested in its infrastructure to facilitate an aggressive growth plan for expansion in existing key and new markets, taking its everyday value message to additional consumers. The company remains committed to the “value” segment, offering two pairs of complete eyeglasses for $99.

For Eyes has stores in major market areas on the East Coast from Boston to Florida, and in the Midwest, with a large concentration in the greater Chicago market. The chain also has stores throughout California, where it operates a specialized heath plan, For Eyes Vision Plan.

10. EMERGING VISION

2008 Optical Sales: $85.1M

2008 Optical Units: 145

Retail Brands: Sterling Vision, Site For Sore Eyes

Emerging Vision, parent of the Sterling Optical/Site For Sore Eyes chain, continues to maintain a preponderance of franchised locations while paring its roster of company-owned optical stores.

During 2008, the chain closed five of its company-owned units and franchised four additional retail locations, under the direction of chief executive officer Christopher Payan and Sam Herskowitz, franchise division president.

Having bought two large buying groups—Combine Optical Management and Canada’s The Optical Group—in 2006 and 2007, Emerging Vision is seeing buying-group revenues account for an increasing share of its overall revenues. The company also operates VisionCare of California, a state-licensed health maintenance organization there; in other states, its Insight Managed Vision Care operation offers managed-vision plans to help funnel customers into Emerging Vision’s stores.