A new apollo.de website in Germany will start selling directly to the final consumer on May 1 the entire range of contact lenses of Apollo Optik, the German chain of optical stores bought by Pearle Europe a couple of years ago. The unique e-commerce project has been carefully developed together with Emerson Consulting, and it may be expanded or implemented elsewhere, depending on the results.

In a separate move, Pearle Europe, the Dutch-based multinational optical chain partly owned by Cole National in the USA, acquired last March 30 Theo de Graas, a high-end Dutch chain of 7 optical shops. They will continue trading under that banner, at least for a while.

Certain executives of Pearle in Europe and the USA are also considering a tryout outside Italy of the unique high-end store concept successfully developed by Ottica Avanzi, the Italian chain acquired by Pearle about 9 months ago. Avanzi's exciting format consists in giving the customer something more for his money - an unexpected and pleasant surprise, or a bit of a dream, considering eyeglasses more as a precious fashion accessory than as a visual aid. The cool, impersonal optician's store thus becomes a boutique in which customers are received with a coffee or an aperitif in a charming and sophisticated atmosphere. The decor is warm and inviting, with soft background music making it a real pleasure to linger in the store. Customers receive regular invitations to dinner in a fashionable restaurant or to see a movie, a concert or a football match.

Pearle is delighted with the results of its Italian investment. After closing 3 unprofitable shops, Avanzi's sales grew by 10 percent on a same-store basis in the 9-month period since the takeover. Avanzi is planning to double its current total of 25 outlets by the end of 2000. The chain's 1999 turnover came to 20 billion lire (e10m-$10m), indicating a sales increase over the previous year, although this figure includes some new outlets. The chain's manager, Gianpaolo Avanzi, plans to take turnover to 25 billion lire (e13m-$12m) by the end of the year, and wants to make the Pearle group number one in Italy by 2010, overtaking the current national leader, Salmoiraghi, through a combination of internal and external growth.

Avanzi is has already started expanding rapidly its own network under Pearle's ownership, with 5 new outlets all acquired between November and December of last year. Negotiations are currently underway or already finalized for 6 others. The new outlets are generally located in hypermarkets and city centers. Avanzi has had traditionally a strong presence in the Emilia Romagna and Lombardy regions of Italy, covering the center and the Northern part of the country, but it's now heading South. The geographical location of Avanzi's new outlets - in the Marche, Abruzzo and Puglia regions - shows that the chain intends to become a national player, while working within a European context.

Pearle is already Europe's third-largest optical retailing group after Fielmann and GrandVision, with 330 million euros in annual sales. Its acquisitions are part of a program to control about 1,000 retail units in Europe. Pearle is already number one in Belgium, Holland and Austria, and it's number two in Germany. Pearle's expansion in Europe began 3 years ago with the aquisition of a major Belgian chain. With a total of more than 570 shops, Pearle Europe now has three divisions: Pearle Benelux with 233 outlets in Belgium and Holland, Pearle Central Europe with the Wyk/Haus chain in Austria (80 outlets) and Apollo Optik in Germany (220 outlets), and Pearle Italy with a majority stake in Ottica Avanzi.

Pearle Europe is controlled by the Dutch Hal Investments BV group, a company which is in turn controlled by Hal Holding NV, quoted on the Dutch stock exchange. Hal owns 72 percent of Pearle Europe. A 24 percent stake is held by Cole National, a company quoted on the New York stock exchange that operates more than 2,700 stores in the USA, Canada and the Caribbean, mainly under three banners - Pearle Vision, Sears Optical and Target Optical. The management owns 4 percent of Pearle Europe's equity.

The US group is now planning to develop its presence also in Asia and Latin America over the next few years. Through Pearle, it's already the major factor in the Caribbean region. In the fiscal year ended last Jan. 29, Cole National's revenues were virtually flat at $1,066,422,000, with decreases on a same-store basis of 2 percent for its Sears, BJ and Target Optical stores, and 5.5 percent for its Pearle stores. The company's operating income dropped to $29,113,000 in the year ended last Jan. 29 from from $42,346,000 the year before, while its net loss declined to $2,223,000 from $10,698,000.

In a recent management reshuffle in the USA, George Bernstein replaced Steve Lieberman as president of Pearle, reporting to Larry Pollock, who became last January president and chief operating officer of Cole National.