The Russian eyewear market is slowly starting to rebound. Before the global economic crisis, it was on a fast growth track, but then it was hit with economic woes and the major chains were just worried about controlling expenses. Russian consumers bought cheaper lenses, and bought them less frequently, in an attempt to save money. But now, some of the local optical retailers are again witnessing strong demand and have started to expand again.

Even during the recent tough times,there has been sustained demand for contact lenses from the likes of Johnson & Johnson, CIBA Vision and Bausch + Lomb. Until 2004, these and other Western eyewear brands were only available at one store, Interoptica, in Moscow. Today there are at least five modern eyewear chains in the country, set to grow more now that the worst of the recession has passed.

Lensmaster is one of the major players in the Russian market, with 80 stores, mostly in Moscow. It quadrupled in size after Hal Investments bought a controlling share in the company in 2005. Between then and 2008, its annual revenues jumped from the equivalent of €13 million to €43 million. More recent results have not been released, but Lensmaster did say that it saved a significant amount of money last year in the wake of its implementation of an ERP system. A large part of its turnover comes from the big three contact lens suppliers named above.

Ochkarik, another large Russian chain, decided to close10 of its stores during the economic turmoil, but it is now looking to get back to its full strength by the end of 2011. One store opened in Moscow last year to bring its total door count to 57 shops. Also last year, Ochkarik expanded delivery from its online store to 24 Russian cities. Turnover rose by 15 percent in 2010 after falling by 10 percent in 2009. This year, the chain is budgeting another 15 percent gain.

At Ochkarik, American brands are the biggest sellers among contact lenses, at about €20 a set, but Essilor is the go-to brand for eyeglass lenses. Other brands it sells include Seiko, Transitions, Luxottica, Safilo and frames by Fielmann, but it's not sure where the latter come from.

The number of outlets run by another higher-end Russian retailer, Smotri, fell by half during the economic crisis, hurt especially hard by a major fall in demand for luxury products. It now has 37 stores in prime locations in large cities, compared with 78 in 2008. It sells premium brands such as Sonia Rykiel and Nina Ricci, with most of its revenues coming from frames and sunglasses, not lenses. In December, Smotri was named company of the year in the luxury category in a nationwide ranking.

Because of the economic downtown, Smotri restructured its debt, got an injection of foreign investments; shut down unprofitable stores and replaced its top managers. It plans to open two stores this year.

There were 110 franchises of the American banner Eye Kraft in operation throughout Russia at the end of last year, with three more opening planned for last month. A Russian drugstore chain, Pharmacy 36.6, has about 1,000 locations in the country, with 30 of them featuring a dedicated counter for eye care products. The chain's revenues doubled in four years, and should reach €3.5 million this year. It works with distributors who supply brands such as Hoya, Acuvue, Pure Vision, Optima, Neo Look, Mario Rossi, Enni Marco, Megapolis, Fresh Look and Maxima55.

The recent financial crisis has had a major impact on the way customers shop, leading the country's opticians to change the ways in which they select the products they offer. The ranges have become more balanced, shifting more toward the low- and medium-price segments. According to Andrey Spiridonov, first deputy managing director of Ochkarik, now customers buy glasses, contact lenses and sunglasses only when necessary, so frequency of purchasing has dropped.

Optical retail chains have been trying to reduce their expenses by optimizing their ranges; automating business processes; increasing marketing spend - primarily through special offers- and developing online shopping. Retailers pay more attention to training their staff and choose new locations for stores more carefully, focusing on high-traffic streets and highly visited shopping centers.