No precise data are available about the Italian market, but sources indicate that it declined sharply last year, particularly in the 2nd half. As previously reported, the Italian market for sunglasses underwent a real purge after the excesses of 2001, which had led many suppliers to post major price increases without bringing about any real innovations. After confronting one another's data, some Italian chain retailers have concluded that their sunglass sales were stable in the 1st half of last year but then dropped dramatically in subsequent quarters, leading to average declines of between 15 and 20 percent in volume for all of 2002. Some posted declines of up to 30 percent, and the negative trend continued over the last few weeks. Sunglasses were not a Christmas present this time and the prospect of a war against Iraq may even discourage Italian customers to make purchases during the Easter period.

Fewer ophthalmic frames were sold before Christmas as well, judging from the lack of major reorders by Italian opticians over the last few weeks. As far as lenses are concerned, Italian retailers reckon that their sales fell by between 3 and 5 percent in 2002. Lens sales were up by 5 percent in the 1st quarter, but then they started to fall.

Under these circumstances, Italy's largest optical retail chain, Salmoiraghi & Vigano, performed very well. Its sunglass sales declined by only 8 percent. In the financial year ended last Sept. 30, the group recently acquired by Dino Tabacchi maintained its profitability and grew by 1.3 percent on a same-store basis after the exceptional 10 percent increase achieved in the 2000/01 fiscal year. The lower sales of sunglasses were barely compensated for by higher sales of prescription frames and contact lenses.

The acquisition of other chains and the opening of new stores allowed the group to raise its revenues by 10.3 percent to e77.5 million. That includes e9million generated by Vistasi, the new name chosen for the Lodi discount chain acquired by the group last year, which continues to operate independently in the lower end of the market. It doesn't include the sales of the first Salmoiraghi franchises, which generated additional revenues of e5.4 million.

In the past financial year, the group raised the number of stores trading under its own banner from 147 to a total of 167, including 135 directly owned stores and 32 franchises. Adding 30 Vistasi outlets, the group closed the year with nearly 200 units. Furthermore, the buying group promoted by Salmoiraghi has gained the first 30 opticians as affiliated members.

By next March 31, the group will comprise a total of 145 direct Salmoiraghi outlets, following the acquisition of 5 Perris stores in Ravenna and 5 new openings in various Italian shopping malls. Five new Vistasi stores have been opened, plus 3 new Salmoiraghi franchises. Salmoiraghi is now operating in one way or another all over Italy, except for the Basilicata and Molise regions. No figures have been given so far for the current fiscal year, but the forecast is rather dim.