Optic 2000 says it wants to work with fewer suppliers on a more limited number of SKUs, in order to improve the inventory turns of its retail members. Among its numerous other services, the French buying group is also setting up an original e-learning platform that allows it to conduct training sessions of 15 to 20 minutes for the personnel in its affiliated stores.

The members' profitability, which has improved on average in the last few years, has become a more important focus for the group in view of the difficult economic situation in France and stronger competition from strong new low-priced retail players such as Hans Anders, which recently entered the country, and Leclerc Optique (see previous issue of EWI).

The more competitive environment caused the Optic 2000 stores network to record a 1 percent sales decline on a comparable store basis in 2008, according to the management. It also blamed the steady proliferation of small new opticians in small towns and rural areas that will never reach the minimum annual sales level of €250,000 required to become a member of Optic 2000. Many also don't want to have to meet its stringent conditions.

As this voluntary group now requires all retail members to carry out the majority of their purchases through its own integrated electronic platform, among other musts, about 50 retailers have exited the Optic 2000 retail network since the beginning of 2008, but 70 others have joined it. At the end of 2008, the company had a total of 1,203 affiliated stores carrying the Optic 2000 banner, including 42 in Switzerland. It also had 220 buying partners affiliated with its Gadol subsidiary, 117 stores under the Lissac banner and 180 hearing-aid specialists carrying the Audio 2000 banner. Their combined retail turnover grew by 2.4 percent last year to €900 million, but for the members of Optic 2000, average sales per store fell by 1.9 percent to a still relatively high level of €527,000. Sales were flat in the first quarter of this year.

The group is aiming for a further expansion of its network to a total of 1,787 doors by the end of this year, up from 1,720 at the end of 2008, mainly through diversification. Another 17 French retailers joined the ranks of Optic 2000 in the first three months of this year, along with one in Switzerland. Ten others decided to become buying partners of Gadol and three became franchisees of its Lissac chain. The group also saw the affiliation of 14 retailers to its younger chain of hearing-aid shops, Audio 2000. At the same time, Optic 2000 is trying to develop the expertise of its members in the area of low vision, with a target of enabling each of the two million patients in France to find an Optic 2000 store specializing in this field within a radius of 80 kilometers.

The erosion of Optic 2000's market share in the broad optical retail sector occurred last year in spite of a major improvement in the banner's notoriety in the past year in comparison with the runner-up in the market, Alain Afflelou. The gap between the two banners widened in spite of a reduction in Optic 2000's expenditures on advertising.

This spring, Optic 2000 is supporting affiliated retailers with a massive new campaign revolving around the French singer Johnny Halliday and his pretty wife, Laetitia. It is spending €4.5 million a commercial spot with Johnny driving an old Mustang and €7 million on Laetitia acting as a sort of Cinderella to promote an offer for a titanium frame at €99.

Optic 2000 has also spent €250,000 as the main sponsor of an annual French rally for old cars that was previously sponsored by Lissac, the high-end optical retail chain that it took over a few years ago. A total of 232 journalists and photographers followed the five-day event last month, which saw the participation of 220 racing cars from several countries dating back to the years before 1974.

The following suppliers co-sponsored the event, which is now called Tour Auto Optic 2000: Bausch & Lomb, BBGR, Charmant, Essilor and Polaroid.