Fielmann recorded the 5th consecutive increase in annual net earnings last year. After an excellent 4th quarter, they rose by around 14.5 percent to about e45 million on record consolidated sales of e657 million, up 6.0 percent from the record level they had reached in 2001. Including franchises, sales were up 6.0 percent also, reaching e807 million.

Sales in Germany rose by 5.9 percent, with a 4 percent gain on a same-store basis, in spite of the difficult economic situation, or perhaps thanks to it. As usual, Fielmann argues that German consumers tend to turn to product offerings with an attractive price/performance ratio in tough times like this one. As a result, Fielmann continued to build up its own leadership position in the German optical market last year, reaching estimated market shares of 43 percent in volume and 23 percent in value.

According to the latest estimates, the German optical retail market fell by 10 percent in units and by 5 percent in euros in the past year, but it probably started to go up again late last year as some consumers could not delay their purchases forever. In fact, Fielmann's own sales rose by 9 percent in the first two months of 2003 as compared to the same period a year ago, which was particularly weak anyhow.

In Switzerland, where Fielmann is the country's second-largest player, right after Visilab, with market shares of 13 percent in value and 23 percent in volume, the company's sales rose by 11.5 percent on a same-store basis in 2002, and its operating profit doubled.

In Austria, where the German firm is #3, same-store sales were up 10 percent and profit grew by 70 percent. In the Netherlands, unit sales at Fielmann's first two stores under its own banner exceeded expectations but there was obviously no profit because of aggressive discounting intended to establish the brand's low-price reputation in that market.

The precise financial results will be available at the end of April. They should show, among other things, a 13.5 percent increase in pre-tax profit to e63 million. Fielmann's stock market price remains relatively stable ? a major performance considering that the German DAX stock index recorded a 44 percent decline last year.

The company plans to open a total of about 11 stores this year, including 4-5 in the Netherlands, 3 in Germany, 2 in Austria and 2 in Poland. Last year, the store count reached 450 units in Germany, 25 in Switzerland, 13 in Austria, 6 in Poland and 2 in The Netherlands, not including 10 smaller Dutch stores under a different banner. Last year, Fielmann closed 2 stores in Germany and opened 4 new ones in the country. In addition to the first 2 stores in Holland, it also opened 2 new outlets in Austria and 2 in Poland.