A few weeks before MIDO, a group of Italian eyewear manufacturers from the Cadore district invited a select group of 32 buyers from 13 European countries, including Russia and Turkey, to a workshop in Venice, like in previous years. This mini 2-day trade fair organized by the Belluno eyewear association, with financial help from regional and national government authorities, provided the opportunity for the buyers, mostly chains or buying groups, to meet with 20 small and medium-sized producers to look at their collections and place orders. At any rate, it was a timely opportunity for the buyers to reflect on whether it was still worth their while buying in Italy, in spite of the increasingly fierce Asian, and particularly Chinese, competition.

The problem is that opticians can now find similar products on the international market at very different prices ? between €1-€3 for a pair of glasses made in China as compared to a range of between €10-€20 a pair for Italian-made eyewear. Until recently quality made the difference, justifying the price differential, but the Chinese are rapidly learning to produce well-made eyewear products with attractive designs, which are often copies of European models.

The buyers indicated during the workshop that the situation has changed radically for them as compared to 10-15 years ago, when they used to do their shopping in Italy because they were sure of getting a good, innovative product. For example, for Optik Feistmantl, an Austrian chain that makes 35 percent of its purchases with major Italian players such as Luxottica and Safilo, direct business with the smaller producers from the Cadore district has sunk to 6-7 percent of the total. The chain has two private labels - a low-cost line and a luxury one - but has both of them made in Asia.

Yet the retailers' growing private label activity, particularly in Northern Europe, probably offers to the smaller Italian workshops the best chances according to a manager of Tahtioptikko/Kaumarkkinnat, a Finnish chain with 128 outlets related to the Danish Profil Optic chain and to Norway's Inser Optik. More and more chains are launching their own labels, providing a great opportunity for Italian manufacturers that are capable of designing products to suit Scandinavian taste, which is different from what prevails in the rest of Europe. For another Finnish chain, Instru Optikka, 60 percent of its purchases are made from the major Italian players, 30 percent are unbranded Italian products priced between €10-€20 a pair, and the remaining 10 percent are purchased in Asia.

A buyer from a Portuguese chain, Optivisa, feels that unbranded eyewear from Italy still is far superior to the Chinese equivalent, while instead a buyer from the Abele Optik reckons that the Chinese have largely caught up by now with Cadore's producers. That German retail chain still makes half its purchases in that Italian region, however, and the other half in Asia. The German official stressed the need for the Italians to improve their delivery schedules and the quality and precision of their services, which are of an unacceptably low standard, according the representative of a Czech chain, Eye 2000.

Others disagree on this issue. Martini, for example, which sells its eyewear at €12-€15 a pair, claims that while the final landed wholesale cost of comparable Chinese products may be 40 percent lower, 25 percent of those products prove defective or break shortly after they are purchased. Instru Optikka, a Finnish chain, buys very little from China as it guarantees its customers that they won't have to take their glasses back for repair just weeks or months after purchase.

On the other hand, the smaller Italian producers still have a major competitive advantage against the Chinese because they don't require the same big orders to fill out their much smaller production lines and can deliver much faster in the European Union, without any need for customs clearance. Customers generally need to purchase large quantities of a single model to obtain competitive rock bottom prices in China, and this is one reason why a Slovakian chain, Ocna Optika, purchases Chinese eyewear from European importers, which take their margins in their transactions.

In some cases, the Venice workshop helped the participating producers to establish new contacts, setting the stage for later business At MIDO in Milan six weeks later, many of the buyers went back to the companies they had seen in Venice to check out the competition and many of them ended up putting in firm orders. Pierluigi Martino from Garrison seemed particularly satisfied with the good business done thanks to the workshop, with 7 of the Venice buyers turning up to purchase his metal frames, in some cases the more elaborate models at €54 euros a pair instead of the more standard models at €15. Trevi Coliseum also reported a good number of its Venice visitors on its booth in Milan, noting renewed interest in Italian eyewear from foreign buyers in general. The same goes for Demenego, whose new Think Pink license proved particularly popular, and for Ioves, which did good business with 4 or 5 of the Venice buyers. Martini claimed close to a 100 percent payoff from the Venice event, and noted that the market seems to be taking shape along three lines: the top-end with the major brands, the low-end supplied from China, and the middle-of-the-range in which Italian-made models are gaining ground.