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Eyes Capades

Marchon helps the eyewear business grow into a powerhouse at retail.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 07/01/2008

WITH AN EVER-GROWING ROSTER OF BRANDS, MARCHON BRINGS ITS A-game to retailers.

When the firm started in 1983, sunglasses were not the juggernaut they are now, as consumers today build eyewear wardrobes, as opposed to merely buying a requisite frame each year.

But company founders Al Berg, Larry Roth and Jeff White foresaw the category’s potential and started making strategic moves to grow a licensing empire out of its small office in Melville, N.Y., on Long Island.

Today, the firm has over 2,500 employees worldwide and brands that are carried in hundreds of premium doors globally.

Marchon’s game plan has been to keep close relationships with retail partners — most of which are larger department and specialty stores like Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s and Saks.

“Our wholesale strategy to sunglass retailers is clear and focused,” said Mark Ginsberg, senior vice president of Marchon’s designer brands. “We start by matching each brand with the appropriate retailer and placing the right product in preselected doors.”

Marchon works with its accounts to ensure that its products are displayed and merchandised properly and according to brand. The company often designs a custom marketing strategy to fit each individual door. For example, Marchon sends visual displays for the Fendi brand to its smaller optical accounts. It’s a small but powerful way to showcase a brand to a potential customer.

The licensed Coach eyewear, for example, is a key performer in all Macy’s doors across the country, as is Michael Michael Kors.

“Marchon and Macy’s West have a great business partnership that has only gotten stronger over the years,” said Jennifer Doan, Macy’s West buyer for fashion accessories.

At Neiman’s, Marchon’s luxury brands, such as Michael Kors and Fendi, match the customer base. Neiman’s also picked up the new Emilio Pucci collection for spring, and it projects that the Italian firm’s eyewear will be a top seller.

Marchon’s 12 brands have a solid base of consumers in the U.S. and internationally — customers who enjoy buying into the American lifestyle featured in its Michael Michael Kors collection as well as Calvin Klein, Coach, Nautica, Nike and Sean John. Industry observers say Marchon has helped create the premier American “resort” accessory and all the attributes that go with it — from lounging on a yacht in Michael Kors aviators to sailing one in Nautica’s polarized lenses.

The maker is also aware that there is a new climate for sunglass sales — retailers are reacting to the idea that the category is changing. Eyewear is no longer a summer accessory to be pushed aside for scarves and gloves come winter.

“As the market has evolved, so has our strategy,” Ginsberg said. “Selling sunglasses has become a year-round business in department stores, with dedicated floor space and sophisticated presentations. Enhanced displays, in-store shop environments, more frequent introduction of new product and strong use of licensor imagery help to set brands apart from the competition while speaking to the design aesthetic of a brand’s DNA. It is no longer frames on a board — it is now a strategic process involving all aspects of retail merchandising.”

“Vision Watch,” a study conducted by optical publisher Jobson and the Vision Council of America, said sales of nonprescription sunglasses totaled $2.12 billion in the last year, up 13.5 percent from 2004, with 112 million pairs sold. Specialty stores, drugstores and mass merchants are sales leaders in dollar terms, accruing more than $1.4 billion in sales last year.

Bergdorf Goodman, which carries Fendi apparel as well as the eyewear, arranges some of that eyewear in its fifth floor accessories department, not just on the main floor. The goal is to attract a new customer who might not necessarily be looking for sunglasses.

In the past few years, eyewear has become an integral part of a retailer’s accessories offerings.

“It has been explosive,” said Ed Burstell, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of beauty, jewelry and accessories for Bergdorf’s. “Our customer has responded to this very large designer offering we have. The trends come and go, but the business is resilient in that the customer embraces every new trend. Is everything big? Yes. Vintage-inspired? Yes. They’ve created this cyclical desire the same way you’d create for new [ready-to-wear] product every season.”

As shoppers build eyewear wardrobes, Marchon strives to showcase all its brands in a given store.

“We ensure proper presentation via breadth of assortment, visual merchandising guidelines and proper training and support,” Ginsberg said. “Positioning is key and proper presentation is a requirement of all doors, high-end or accessible.”

However, Marchon chief executive Berg has found some ways in which department stores can improve eyewear sales.

“There needs to be a lot of work at retail,” Berg said. “The products are presented front-forward, consumers don’t see the excitement of the temple. Another issue is the education of [salespeople] and what they know about the product. It’s difficult to sell a higher-priced product if they don’t know why they’re higher.”

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., also stated that education is of great importance.

“It’s now become about finding a retail outlet that offers choice and knowledge of product,” Cohen said. “You’ve got to be able to help consumers understand differences, quality, price points — it’s not as easy a shopping experience as putting them on a display.”

But Berg is positive about the gains eyewear has been making at retail, stating, “Sunglasses were never included in fashion categories. Shoes and handbags were there, but sunglasses is a category that has grown into its own. We are very close to being accepted as a major accessories category.”

In addition to multibrand retailers, Marchon’s licensors have their own stores where they often present eyewear in a retail environment that tells the brand’s story. In a Coach, Michael Kors or Calvin Klein store, for instance, the eyewear is tied into the other accessories, and that can enhance a firm’s branding capabilities.

In contrast, sunglass specialty stores such as Optical Shop of Aspen, Sunsights by Solstice and Ilori rely on the eyewear to be strong enough to exist on its own.

“With specific regard to sunglasses, department stores can present brand stories across many categories using common design vocabulary — iconic hardware, logo treatments, repeat patterns — so that it is clear to the customer what the point of view of a particular brand may be,” Ginsberg said. “In a sun-specific store, more reliance is placed on collateral materials, including visual imagery, branded displays — but in all instances, customer service is key.”

Like other specialty stores, Henri Bendel has had a long relationship with Marchon. It carries Fendi and Michael Kors and picked up Pucci for spring. Bendel’s has also begun strategically placing its eyewear throughout the store to complement a runway look or complete a fashion story. Many of its younger customers have come to rely on the eyewear offerings as an entry point into a designer brand, according to Scott Schramm, senior vice president and general merchandising manager of fashion for the retailer. The Marchon brands, he said, have a sharp focus and direction.

“All of Marchon’s brands have a purpose and clear demarcations between them,” Schramm said. “We have a great relationship with them.”