NEW YORK — Solstice, the budding sunglass retailer, is stepping up its growth with a slew of store openings, including a new 600-square-foot unit that opened this past Saturday on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue here.The firm, which now has seven units, plans to open nine other stores this year, including two more units in New York, and hopes to open about 30 more in 2003 and about 30 in 2004, said Ed Jankowski, chief operating officer of Solstice."We feel we have the potential to be a 100-store chain," Jankowski said. "There is a real void in the industry for sunglass retailers. Sunglasses are such a fashion statement right now and have become a fashion accessory similar to handbags and shoes."Solstice was launched by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1999, but was sold earlier this year to a group of investors that includes Safilo Group, the giant Italian eyewear manufacturer. The fast-growing chain is now operated by a privately held firm based in New York called Solstice Marketing Concepts LLC.Jankowski declined to give overall sales for Solstice, but said its stores on average have sales of about $1 million a year.By aggressively opening sunglass-only stores, Solstice is looking to make serious inroads in a field that is virtually dominated by the Sunglass Hut chain, which now operates more than 1,500 units worldwide.Solstice works to differentiate itself by offering sunglasses displayed in an open environment and not behind a counter.The stores, which are generally 800 to 1,000 square feet, carry a wide range of products ranging in price from about $50 to $500, including brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Prada, Guess and Nike.In addition to the new 42nd Street location, Solstice stores are slated to open in Manhattan later this year on 34th Street and in SoHo, which will be a flagship. Three stores are also planned for Florida: International Plaza in Tampa, Town Center Mall in Boca Raton and Lincoln Road in the South Beach area of Miami Beach. Other stores are slated for the Short Hills Mall in Short Hills, N.J.; Roosevelt Field in Garden City, N.Y., and in Village at Corte Madera in Corte Madera, Calif.Jankowski declined to specify how much of a stake Safilo Group has in the chain, although he said Solstice’s operation is completely separate from Safilo’s. He noted that about 40 percent of the chain’s offerings come from Safilo.Nonetheless, Safilo’s investment in Solstice is part of a larger industry trend of eyewear manufacturers getting more aggressive in the retail arena. Luxottica Group SpA last year purchased Sunglass Hut, and Oakley Inc. recently acquired the Iacon chain.

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