The planned phase-out of public health care subsidies for eyewear led German opticians to book an overall 12.2 percent increase in their combined sales to €4.44 billion last year, according to ZVA, the national optical retailers' association, with a 21 percent increase in the subsidies provided by the country's various health insurance institutions. The big rush for vision correction, which took place mostly in the last few months of the year, after a decline of about 2 percent, was followed by an average decline of about 25 percent in the 1st quarter of this year, with 90 percent of the companies surveyed in a ZVA poll declaring a sales decline as compared to one year ago.

A certain recovery is cautiously expected in the 2nd half of 2004, but it will likely benefit the more market-oriented opticians. As the word goes now in Germany, their challenge is that must now address ?customers? instead of ?patients.?

The concentration of the market continued in 2003, as the ten biggest chains raised their combined national market share to 35.7 percent from 32.6 percent in the previous year (see table on this page). Led by Fielmann, these 10 chains controlled 12.7 percent of all the optical retail stores in the country, which grew in units by only 61 to 9,859, indicating a certain degree of near-saturation. Interestingly, the number of apprentices in the sector declined by 5 percent to 6,733, marking the first decline in 6 years, due perhaps in part to the uncertainty generated by the tough economic situation.

The number of eyeglasses sold in Germany last year grew by 19 percent to 37.6 million, but with an increase of only 13.9 percent to 11.5 million in the number of new frames sold with new lenses, as in 31 percent of the cases the customers preferred to let the opticians fit in new lenses on their old frames. On the other hand, 90 percent of the single-vision lenses sold had anti-reflection coatings and almost two-thirds were organic.

Sales of contact lenses and solutions grew by 3.28 percent to €346 million, and they came to represent 6.4 percent of the average optician's business. Among the ophthalmic frames, those in metal continue to dominate the market, with a share of 70.5 percent, but it's declining. Acetate frames represented 20.8 percent of the opticians' sales and rimless glasses 5.7 percent, up from 4.6 percent in 2002.