Krys and the other banners affiliated with the French buying group raised their combined sales by 5.1 percent in the optical retailing sector, with a same-store increase of 3.2 percent. They performed better than the national market, which grew by between 1.5 and 2.7 percent according to different polls, with the total number stores rising by about 450 units to 9,500.

Guildinvest remains the largest factor in the French optical retail market, with a total of 1,480 affiliated stores under various banners. Adding the 1,600-odd independent stores that do their purchasing through its CDO subsidiary, which does not represent any particular banner, the total grows to 3,080 stores. Furthermore, Guildinvest has one-third of the shares in a partnership with one of the biggest Spanish buying groups, Cione, which has 900 stores.

A common purchasing unit, led by Fabrice Masson of Guildinvest, has been set up to try to obtain better conditions from suppliers for the members of Guildinvest, CDO and Cione, based on the fact that together the affiliated retail stores represent the second-largest buyer of eyewear in the world after Luxottica. The discussions with the suppliers began last November and they are still going on, but it could not be determined whether they have already led to any concrete results.

The joint venture with Cione is also intended to promote the launch of a new banner in Spain. Called Vision & Co., it is inspired by Guildinvest's youngest store format, Vision Plus, which found 60 new adepts in the course of last year. The common goal is to establish 400 Vision Plus stores in France by 2008 and 400 Vision & Co. units in Spain by 2010. There are now 262 Vision Plus stores in France, and many of them are managed by young opticians coming from the competition. The first Spanish stores are due to open in May.

At the same time, Guildinvest is renovating its recently acquired network of 131 corporate and franchised Lynx stores, based on a new store concept launched last June that has given encouraging results. To be more competitive in the market, Lynx stores have reduced average prices by 5-7 percent, taking advantage of Guildinvest's buying muscle. The company is helping opticians financially to start up new franchises and to remodel existing stores.

Besides 58 stores trading as Vision Originale, Guildinvest has 818 stores operating under its major banner, Krys, which generates the highest revenues at about €750,000 (including sales tax) per outlet. Guildinvest's management thinks that Krys can do even better and is aiming for a total of 850 units by 2008.

With total sales of €570 million in the past year, Krys grew by 4.7 percent on an absolute basis and by 3.0 percent in terms of comparable stores. At €77 million, Lynx was nearly flat. Vision Plus grew by 16.7 percent to €72 million, or by 4.4 percent on a same-store basis. At €30 million, Vision Originale was up by 4.5 percent overall and by 2.2 percent on a comparable basis.

The total store network serviced by Guildinvest added a total of 297 new stores in the past 12 months. The affiliated retailers are opening more and more stores in the numerous shopping centers that are opening in France. To date, only 260 of the 500-odd new shopping centers in France have stores affiliated with Guildinvest.

The group recently issued new shares worth €2 million to its retail members through an equity increase that gave them a 16 percent share in Guildinvest. The purpose was to get them more involved in the affairs of the company.

Guildinvest's main competitor, Optic 2000, has not yet published sales figures for the past year, but company officials indicate that its affiliated retailers, which operated about 1,500 stores, raised their sales by 2.5 percent on a same-store basis. The recently acquired Lissac chain did even better, with a 4.7 percent sales increase on a comparable basis, while a new Optic 2000 store concept inaugurated in a Parisian shopping mall is generating 33 percent higher sales than before.

Like Guildinvest, Optic 2000 is considering expanding its business beyond the relatively saturated French market, where buying groups and franchisors such as Alain Afflelou have a dominant position. Italy is said to be a possibility, but company officials don't want to comment before a deal is signed, possibly before the end of this year.