The French retail group is rolling out the GrandOptical banner in Italy this year, while continuing to expand in Switzerland and the UK. In Switzerland, where it opened last year its first optical store in Lausanne, it's going to take for the first time the daring step of competing directly with Fielmann by opening a large 700-square-meter store on Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse next April, across the street from Fielmann's local successful megastore near the railroad station, but closer to the lake and to the more fashionable boutiques. Another shop is planned in Geneva later this year.

In Italy, GrandVision has taken the decision to go ahead with the GrandOptical store format after testing it out against a different one, called Clara Clara, in the Orio al Serio shopping mall near Bergamo. Led by Laurent Schmidt, former manager of Essilor in Italy, the program will start in the next 3 months with the opening of at least 3 Grand Optical outlets of more than 200 square meters in Padua, Pesaro and Verona. Other openings are planned later this year in such locations as Bologna, Brescia and Vicenza, for a total of at least 8 new stores by the end of this year. A few more stores will also be opened in Spain.

In the UK and Ireland, a total of about 30 Vision Express stores had been converted to the more successful Vision Express Optical Lab format by the end of last year, performing 15-20 percent better than the previous format, and their results are still improving. Excluding these conversions and newly opened stores, GrandVision's chain in the UK and Ireland raised its turnover by 13.6 percent on a comparable basis in 1999, although the growth rate declined to 10.5 percent in the 4th quarter. It's an excellent performance, considering that the optical market probably rose by only about 2 percent in the UK last year.

In absolute terms, GrandVision raised its sales in the UK and Ireland by 26 percent to 230 million euros last year, thanks in part to an increase in the number of company-owned Vision Express stores from 98 to 101, while the Vision Express joint ventures grew from 47 to 75. The group reports an 18 percent higher turnover of e64 million from its optical stores outside France, the UK and Ireland, which increased from 82 to 96 with new openings in Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland and Switzerland.

In France, GrandVision's sales grew by 9 percent to e452 million in 1999, thanks only in part to the opening of 42 new optical and photo shops in the course of the year. As of last Dec. 31, the group had a total of 188 optical shops in France. The optical stores' sales rose by 6.5 percent on a comparable basis in 1999, or about double the sales increase in the market. On a same-store basis, the group's Solaris sunglass shops raised their sales by 11 percent, its Générale d'Optique outlets by 9 percent, and its GrandOptical stores by 5 percent. The GrandOptical flagship store on the Champs-Elysées has raised its sales by 50 percent since it was reopened on larger premises at the beginning of December.

GrandVision's Photo Service stores in France, which are now 414, grew instead by only 2.5 percent on a same-store basis against the backdrop of a flat market, but Photo Service is now trying to enliven the business by offering to develop photo prints from digital camera files sent in by consumers over the internet.

Overall, the group's turnover increased by 15 percent last year to e746 million, although the total number of outlets grew by only 10 percent to 874. The management is budgeting a similar expansion rate in 2000 and beyond, maintaining a goal to raise its market shares in the optical sector from 12 to 15 percent in France, and from 8 to 10 percent in the UK and Ireland, while reaching market shares of between 5 and 10 percent in other European countries.