Six voluntary groups of independent opticians in seven European countries have decided to join forces to share experiences and best practices in the optical and hearing aids segments in order to help their 4,500 members to do a better job, maximizing sales and profits. They want to help each other to give better service to their customers and to improve their performance in areas such as software, store design, marketing and personnel training.

They plan to establish international working groups in these and other areas. Unlike other international groups, they claim that they have no plans to negotiate better deals with suppliers or to engage in joint purchasing, except for private label items, starting with contact lenses and solutions. They will not have a common banner.

They feel that raising their margins on purchased products by one or two percentage points will not solve the problems they have in competing with the integrated retail chains, which are gaining market shares in many countries, especially in terms of volume. In the Netherlands alone, the chains spend about €50 million a year on marketing, compared with about €3 million for the independents.

They have set up a joint venture called Ineurope, where each group is a shareholder and is represented on the board of directors. Incorporated in the Netherlands, it will be chaired for the first three years by Jan Weber, chief executive of the Dutch Optitrade Retailgroup. It will rely on the services of its shareholders for all back-office functions.

Founded in 1983, Optitrade is the largest voluntary group, with annual retail sales of about €300 million in optics and hearing aids. The other shareholders are Brillen-Profi in Germany, the Independent Optical Group Nordics in Denmark, Dynoptic Partner in Switzerland, Netcity in Italy and Club OpticLibre in France. Both Netcity and OpticLibre, which have 950 and 1,100 members, respectively, are run by two former executives of GrandVision, Laurent Schmitt and Jean-Luc Sélignan.

Positioned in different segments of the market, the partners in Ineurope have many interesting things to share, as each of them has developed specific competences. Optitrade claims to have developed excellent administrative processes. Brillen-Profi, whose members operate 1,850 points of sale, is particularly strong in marketing as it owns half of the shares in an advertising company that is run by an optician. It also runs educational clinics.

The Independent Optical Group Nordics is much smaller, with only 41 members, but it has deployed a wide range of services for them, including a balanced scorecard evaluation and succession planning.

Among other initiatives, Dynoptic has developed a good private label program. OpticLibre, the fastest-growing French voluntary group in the past few years, has deployed particularly efficient direct marketing, insurance and customer loyalty programs, including the organization of special events. Netcity has developed the concept of identity marketing and an interesting program for premium dealers, called Ottitaly, backed by a web-to-store concept. It will soon use a dedicated app.