The number of optical retail outlets continued to increase in Germany last year in spite of the elimination of the German government's subsidies for eyewear, which led the country's optical retailers to book a 31 percent decrease in their sales to €3,064 million, according to their trade association, ZVA. The number of practices increased by 52 to 9,911, as 430 newcomers more than offset 378 shutdowns. According to officials of ZVA, many opticians who had lost their jobs because of the crisis decided to set up their own shop, but many others were in serious financial trouble during the first quarter of this year.

German opticians sold only 8.4 million pairs of glasses in 2004, down from 11.5 million pairs in the previous year. The number of their employees declined by 2.4 percent to about 45,500, representing the third year in a row where this happened, and the number of apprentices sank by 11.2 percent to 5,977. Like before, the major chains raised their market shares, with that of Fielmann growing to 53 percent. Independents who run about 8,500 shops control only one-third of the market.

The health reform had the effect of reducing from 18 percent to less than 4 percent the income that German opticians were deriving from the government's coffers. Taking its cues from Fielmann's successful private insurance program (see next story), ZVA has launched its own insurance scheme in behalf of its affiliated members, in cooperation with Signal Iduna and DEVK.

Meanwhile, ZVA is trying to put though new regulations that would prevent eye doctors from selling contact lenses on their own. Thomas Nosch has been re-elected as president of the association, which has just won a 10-year-old legal battle against national interests that wanted to force opticians to inform customers in writing about possible diseases detected in the course of sight tests.