Vision Service, a relatively young Italian buying group created in 1996, has a new strategy to identify itself as a higher-quality standardized service provider across its 300-plus affiliated stores.

To this end, last year the association went from being a mere buying group, with a consortium structure, to an ?image-building group.' The idea is that customers should be able to immediately associate the Vision Service banner with a certain level of service and a guarantee of product quality in all the stores where the Vision Service logo is displayed.

Training is one of the group's core activities, yet the group's management admits that it's not easy to bring hundreds of independent stores scattered throughout the Italian peninsula up to a standard level of customer service. To serve as a reference model, the group has formed a small chain of pilot stores, called Vision Planet, which it has bought in the Lombardy and Liguria regions through a subsidiary, called Vision Trade System, deliberately set up for the purpose and funded by 20 percent of the group's retail members. Each store is run by a staff whose task is to impart its know-how to the 300 opticians who belong to the group.

The goal for 2002 is to put in place standardized services for at least half of the affiliated stores. In fact, new entrants into the group cannot display the Vision Service banner until they comply with its minimum standards, which includes the obligation to keep sales prices within a certain uniform range.

At the same time, the group is gearing up for a challenging advertising campaign similat to that of Green Vision, another large Italian group.

In 2001, Vision Service grew from 250 to 310 affiliated stores, and it's targeting 45 more doors in each of the next few years. The group is represented in Switzerland under the Bellotti trade name, and it's now evaluating the possibility of an alliance with similar groups operating in France and Germany.

Last year, the turnover of Vision Service group rose to e70 million, with a 7 percent growth on a comparable store basis, driven by a 12 percent increase for sunglasses. On average, Vision Service stores can expect a gross margin of 10 percentage points above the national market, putting cost of sales at 40 percent. The group doesn't use a private label for frames, but it does so for contact lens solution. As a purchasing agent, it guarantees centralized invoicing in behalf of its members.