Shortly after coming under the control of HAL Trust, which controls many other integrated and voluntary optical retail chains all over Europe, GrandVision has signed a letter of intent to take over the Visual banner, which is being used by 275 independent opticians all over France, for €10 million. It also has acquired Club Optique Leader (COL), a more selective group of about 30 French high-end retailers who own 68 shops in good locations.

In both cases, GrandVision, the French-based parent company of GrandOptical, Générale d'Optique, Solaris and Vision Express, expects to expand sales of its own extensive private label program of frames as well as the coverage of its own data processing, logistic and personnel training facilities. By using these services, the opticians affiliated with Visual and COL, which remain independent and managed separately, hope to win over new members.

Visual, which services a total of 385 stores including 110 that don't carry its banner, has a plan to grow to 500 units, while COL could go up to 75 doors. GrandVision, which has a total of 493 stores in a dozen European countries, including joint ventures and franchises, may give them a hand in their internationalization.

A major sticking point that remains to be clarified is the future position of Atol, another French cooperative of independent opticians who own 451 stores. Back in 1996, Atol had set up a 50-50 joint venture with Visual to share purchasing and logistic services, called Visatol. The management of Atol is now waiting for concrete proposals from GrandVision about quantity discounts on purchases and other conditions to decide on possible future collaboration, but it has already made it clear that its members want to preserve their independence. Interestingly, Pascal Chateau, who co-founded COL in 1998, previously ran Visatol.

Any future negotiations with Atol may be complicated by the fact that GrandVision already has a joint purchasing deal with Optique 2000, another major French voluntary chain, which has already resulted in some savings for both parties. Besides, Atol, which has special partnerships with major suppliers like Safilo, Marchon and L'Amy (not with Luxottica), claims to be in great shape. Its affiliated stores are targeting an average gross margin of nearly 63 percent and a net profit margin of about 8 percent this year after sales increases on a same-store basis of 13.72 percent in 2002, 13.9 percent in 203 and 12.44 percent during the first 4 months of this year.

Their combined sales reached €225 million last year as compared to about €150 million for the Visual banner plus €30 million for affiliated stores carrying other banners. Visual, which will continue to run its own 25 corporate stores, reports a 13.5 percent sales increase in 2003, with a lower growth rate on a comparable basis.

Run by Philippe Peyrard, a former executive of L'Oréal, Safilo and L'Amy, Atol has become the 4th best known optical retail banner in France. Last month, just as Visual announced its partnership with GrandVision, Atol's retail members approved a new business plan targeting sales of €550 million by 2007, representing 15 percent of the French market, through a total of 777 stores.

Atol remains the only major buying group in France that still has a purely cooperative structure. Its two major competitors, Guildinvest and Optique 2000, took over two medium-sized integrated and franchised chains last year ? Lynx Optique and Lissac, respectively ? triggering in part GrandVision's latest move.