The overall market situation in Germany is apparently a bit better with the inclusion of Fielmann, the country's largest optical retailer, which now claims increased national market shares of about 43 percent in volume and 23 percent in value, followed at a distance by Apollo-Optik, whose market share in value is estimated at 7 percent. Including Fielmann, which tends to cater to a younger clientele than the average German optician, the drop in value was more like 4 percent over the first 9 months, as compared to the same period a year ago.

In fact, its low-price attitude allowed Fielmann to record a same-store increase of 4.6 percent in Germany in the 3rd quarter ended Sept. 30. In Austria, the like-for-like increase was 15.2 percent. In Switzerland, where Fielmann is already the second-largest factor in the market, there was an extraordinary rise of 16.7 percent in the quarter.

The months of October and November went quite well also for the German company. Besides its successful expansion abroad, the growth is partly driven by higher sales of contact lenses and progressive lenses, partly sourced from Essilor, Hoya and Zeiss. With its current production of 3 million lenses a year, Fielmann's new lens production and logistic center in Rathenaw is supply only about 20 percent of the chain's lens requirements, but the proportion should increase to about 30 percent in the next few years. Rathenaw will also produce about 5 million frames this year.

The good score of the 3rd quarter contributed to raise the group's revenues for the first 9 months of 2002 by 5.4 percent, in absolute terms, to e488.5 million, and margins increased, thanks to cost controls. Pre-tax and after-tax earnings rose by 7.9 percent, with net income reaching a level of e37,174,000. Including external sales to franchisees, the turnover rose by 5.6 percent to e604.3 million.

While its present growth rate is far below the 17.2 percent annual average of the last 20 years, Fielmann managed to outperform the market like in other tough periods.

Fielmann expects a further ?significant? increase in pre-tax earnings on total sales of more than e800 million for this year. The group's store network has risen by only 10 units this year, and also for next year investment will be limited to a maximum of 10-12 new stores, with minimum expansion in Germany.

While the company is still looking at expansion opportunities in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, notably in the UK, Spain and Northern Italy, about 5-7 new Fielmann stores will be opened next year in The Netherlands, capitalizing on the publicity stemming from its price war against SpecSavers in Enschede. The first ones are planned for locations in Emmen and Nejmegen. Fielmann is looking at a total of about 50 stores in Holland in the medium term.