According to ANFAO, the Italian eyewear industry association, provisional figures for the 1st quarter indicate a sales increase of a few percentage points year on year and leading to some cautious optimism about a possible turnaround for Italian eyewear in the USA, in Japan and in emerging markets such as China and Eastern Europe. One message that Italian producers sensed at last month's MIDO exhibition in Milan was that they need to reassert their ability to satisfy the more sophisticated customers, even for unbranded private label items, after a flood of low-cost products from the Far East.

Excluding items manufactured abroad, Italian eyewear producers generated last year total revenues of around €1,870 million, a very modest 0.6 percent increase over the previous year. The international slump in consumption and the unfavorable exchange rate between the dollar and the euro brought exports down by 4 percent. Over two-thirds of Italian eyewear is produced for export. These products fared better than Italian-made clothing and footwear, whose exports were down by 7.3 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively, but worse than perfume, which lost 2 percent.

A 19 percent drop in sales to the USA weighed heavily in the balance. For the whole of the American continent, which still represented with $465 million one-quarter of Italy's total turnover in the sector, the decline amounted to 12.3 percent. Asia was down 5.5 percent to €199 million, due largely to the weak dollar, like in the Americas. Exports to the rest of Europe on the other hand rose by 3.3 percent to €737 million, with Spain and the UK in the lead, up by 18.9 percent and 6.6 percent respectively.

The decline in sales of sunglasses continues, with total exports down by 7.2 percent to €852.3 million. A 3.6 percent rise in sales to other European countries was insufficient to compensate the massive 20.9 percent slump in the USA. Frames for prescription glasses nonetheless succeeded in holding their ground at €611 million, with a 0.9 percent increase in the USA. Ophthalmic lenses are a relatively small sector, in which exports dropped by 3.4 percent overall, down to €42.2 million. While exports to the rest of Europe gained 1.1 percent points, totaling €28.8 million, the USA suffered a dramatic loss of 26.2 percent, but as total US sales represent only €2.2 million, the impact was minimal.

Eyewear imports actually declined more steeply than exports in 2003, by an overall 10 percent, with sunglass imports off by 16.4 percent and frames by 8.4 percent.