The leading French optical retail chain is attracting new first-time customers by offering two pairs of sophisticated ?custom-fit ready-to-wear? readers that can be partially refunded after a period of 12 to 15 months if one of them is exchanged with a pair of real spectacles bought from the same optician.

Backed by an advertising campaign worth almost €1.5 million, this clever customer loyalty scheme was launched on June 11 throughout the network of independent stores affiliated with the Optic 2000 banner in France. With 1,155 stores at the end of 2007 and retail sales of €810 million in the course of last year, Optic 2000 is the leading banner in the French retail trade, with a market share estimated by Bien Vu at 15.2 percent. This does not include Lissac and other operations belonging to the group, which have not adopted the new loyalty scheme.

Since June 11, each Optic 2000 store in France is equipped with a set of lenses for five degrees of correction. These can be assembled into a rather good-looking rimless frame after a quick sight test to fit the needs of the first-time wearer who has problems with near vision. The lenses are shaped differently for men and women. A choice of two different bridges takes care of the inter-pupillary distance. Made of injected plastic, bridges and temples come in six different colors that the customer can choose from. Two pairs of the same color or different colors are supplied in case one gets lost.

The lenses are cast by a company in Macau in a light and sturdy polycarbonate. Like the Interview lenses of Essilor, which are much more expensive, they are degressive, with a corridor at the top that give a clear view of a computer screen or of a person's face up to two meters away.

At a presentation to the press in Paris a few days ago, Optic 2000 said the sight test and the assembly of two pairs of custom-fit readers in the store takes only five minutes. The customer pays only €69 for the two pairs, a little more than what he or she would pay in a supermarket for something less fancy, and this amount will be refunded one year later when he or she comes into the same shop with an eye doctor's prescription. Naturally, the client must register with the optician to benefit from the discount, allowing the latter to create a precious database for future follow-up. Progressive lenses already represent 37 percent of sales at Optic 2000 stores, compared with 32 percent for the total French market.

Described as the missing first stage in an ?eye care path? recommended by Optic 2000 to all presbyopics, the scheme is not patented and is likely to be imitated by other optical retailers. Officials of Optic 2000 note that their company pioneered the introduction in 1987 of the two-for-one-pair scheme, which has found numerous emulators in France and elsewhere.

The new program looks like an excellent service for the growing portion of the population that develops presbyopia from the age of 45 years onward. In France, 35.2 percent of the population is now over 50, and that proportion is likely to hit 47.9 percent by the year 2050. A study commissioned by Essilor shows that one-third of the affected patients wait more than a year before they see an ophthalmologist, and 38 percent of them wait one extra year before the go to the optician with a prescription. The purchase of progressive spectacles is thus delayed until the age of 52-54.

Furthermore, one of two affected patients doesn't know what presbyopia is, and 10 percent of them use readers as a temporary solution, but very few of them buy them from an optician, generally because they are afraid to be told that they need full-fledged vision correction for the rest of their lives. About 80 percent of the 2 million readers used in France are purchased in a pharmacy and many others in supermarkets or open markets, without any expert advice. They are rarely adapted to individual requirements and don't allow mid-distance viewing.

An ophthalmologist consulting for Optic 2000 said the new program is beneficial for patients because it encourages them to see the eye doctor earlier, allowing detection of clinical anomalies before it's too late. This can only be good for the image of Optic 2000, which looks set to grow again faster than the market in 2008, with a sales increase of about 3 percent on a comparable store basis so far this year.

Retailers affiliated with Optic 2000 in Belgium and Switzerland are expected to adopt the new reader program at a later stage. The same goes for retailers in another country where Optic 2000 is considering a possible entry later this year, though the management would not name it at this stage.