This highly selective Italian cooperative of franchised opticians has become even more selective in launching an experiment in centralized invoicing and settlements that will start next month, six months later than originally planned to fine-tune the program and to optimize its results. The initial test will only involve four unnamed suppliers and 25 retail members operating 60 stores. If the experiment works out well, it will be extended to other members and other suppliers.

Vision Is is proceeding very cautiously with this new service, backing it up with reciprocal bank guarantees between the participating retailers, the cooperative and the suppliers, particularly in view of the recent bankruptcy of another Italian buying group, OptoTrade. One of its members, a chain of 29 stores called Pro-Vision, is now affiliated with Vision Is.

Particularly strong in Central Italy and in peripheral regions such as Piedmont, Apulia and Sicily, the Vision Is network consists of nearly 500 optical stores. Most of the retail members have only one or two stores, but one of them, Dino Scopece, which has just opened its 18th store in Apulia.

The membership has been relatively stable over the past few years on a net basis. As the conditions for membership are rather strict, some relatively weak retailers have left the organization and have been replaced by bigger and better ones. The average annual turnover per store within the group is now around €285,000, compared with an Italian average of €190,000. There is room for further improvement, considering the fact that the stores operated by the members of bigger and older franchising groups such as Krys and Optic 2000 in France have annual sales of more than €500,000.

Vision Is is an 11-year-old old group run by one of its founders, Moreno Sereni, who worked previously for companies such as as Hydron, Ciba Vision and Wesley Jessen. The issuance of centralized invoices and their settlement is the latest in a long string of new initiatives that have been recently taken by the group, whose head office moved a few months ago to larger premises hosting a staff of 22 employees near one of Rome's two airports.

Among other things, Vision Is is expanding its three-year-old range of private label products, which already represent about 30 percent of the opticians' revenues. After launching Is Day and Is Night, a complete line of contact lenses and solutions made by CooperVision, Ciba Vision and Schalcon, and Romeo Vanci, a range of 300 prescription frames partly made in Italy and partly in China, it is now adding a younger line of spectacles under the RV label.

Retail members can select the styles that they wish to order on the group's website, www.visionisgroup.it. They can reorder them when they run out and they can even exchange them with other models.

Vision Is has also introduced a standardized set of tools, called Is Care, that help the optician to provide a better individualized service to his customers. The opticians who agree to follow these and other guidelines in terms of customer service, store layout and product will get a special quality label called Is Care. This certification program was finalized at the Mido show last March with the qualification of the first 18 Is Care quality centers, and the number of Is Care centers is set to grow to 25 at the next Mido. The latest tool is a distinctive eyewear case developed by Vision Is which is remitted by the retail members to their customers when they buy a new pair of glasses. A similar concept has been recently adopted by Zeiss.

Coordinated by a highly dynamic executive who worked previously as a journalist, Irene del Prato, a big marketing and merchandising program is being run by Vision Is to draw more traffic to the affiliated stores and to stimulate purchases. A strong Christmas sales campaign is currently in full swing. The group also puts out a nice consumer magazine every four months, called Sunrise, with a circulation of at least 50,000 copies, which is available in Vision Is stores and on demand.

These and other marketing and merchandising ideas are being shared by Vision Is with a Korean buying and franchising group, 1001 Optical, that recently slimmed down and went under new ownership. Besides its own store in Seoul, it was previously quoted on the local stock exchange. Since last March, the new owner of 1001 Optical is Tomato D&C, a Korean company that is also involved in the beauty care business.

Following the change of ownership, three small affiliated Korean eyewear chains with a total of 150 stores - Eyevill Optical, O.K. Optical and Eyemart - are not working with 1001 Optical anymore. Three other Korean chains ? See Channel, Ankung Nara and 1001 ? are still part of the group, but the total number of their stores has declined to 660 doors. The group had also 150 affiliated stores in Mainland China, but they have all pulled out.

The reorganized Korean group is now planning to deepen the collaboration with Vision Is besides the supply of know-how, developing jointly a collection of frames and sunglasses made in Italy for the South Korean market and possibly extending the collaboration to other countries.