Overturning a lower court's decision, a French court of appeals has allowed the Visual voluntary group to continue to run an original TV commercial that questions the quality of the lenses offered by competitors as part of their frequent ?two for one? promotions. Implying that the competitors' glasses may just as well have been cut out from a car's windshield or some other objects, Visual's humorous TV spot didn't single out any specific competitor but Alain Afflelou, the country's largest chain of franchised optical stores, felt attacked and requested a temporary injunction, claiming that Visual's campaign insinuates that French retailers may be using dishonest methods. Afflelou is now planning to request a full trial on the subject and to take the matter to the Cour de Cassation, France's supreme court.

At least two-thirds of French opticians, including those affiliated with Optic 2000 and other buying groups, are promoting themselves by offering two pairs of spectacles for the price of one, according to Visual, which says this has led consumer into a mercantilistic mentality about eyewear. Optic 2000, which pioneered the scheme, is now offering them in titanium and polycarbonate with the second pair equipped with a sunshield in fashionable colors such as pink and blue.

Visual, a younger buying group that began to promote its own banner and store concept only in 1996, has decided to set itself apart from the competition by offering instead since last Jan. 17 an anti-reflection coating for one symbolic euro for the purchase of a pair of glasses, and by insisting on the technical quality of its lenses and the professional level of the affiliated opticians. Visual spends about e7 million a year on advertising, promotion, direct marketing and the training of the opticians' sales staff on their own premises.

Last year, Visual grew faster than the French optical market, which rose by only 0.4 percent according to GfK. The 280 affiliated retailers, 16 more than at the end of the previous year, saw their sales rise by 6 percent on a same-store basis. Together, they had retail sales of about e130 million, or 16 percent more than in 2001. Aside from them, Visual services over 100 independent retailers who prefer to use their own banner. Together with Atol, another French buying group, it services a total of about 760 stores that represent about 10 percent of the national market.

With the financial backing of Natexis, a French investment fund that acquired a 33 percent stake in the company three years ago, Visual has acquired a total of 23 directly owned optical stores, including 11 that belonged to a major franchisee of Afflelou until recently. Visual plans to keep the better locations and to resell the others to independent retailers.

On the other hand, Visual has decided to stop a 4-year-old experiment with a dozen small franchisees in the French part of Switzerland. The affiliated opticians in that country had approached Visual because of the new competition from Optic 2000, Afflelou and Fielmann, but the cooperation didn't work because of differences between the two markets and the limited scope of the venture. Visual, which is aiming for a network of 400 stores under its own banner in 2-3 years' time, says its priority now is to assert its presence in some 40 major French towns where it's still absent. On the other hand, the company is ready at any time to form at any time a joint venture with an existing buying group in any other European country that would actively participate in a common project.