NEW YORK — The past five years have seen an explosion of designer and celebrity-driven eyewear collections, with manufacturers making major pushes to develop department-store business. Now, optical stores — whose venues typically appear more clinical than consumer oriented — have gotten into the act, improving customer service and adding merchandising displays, making them seem more like retail stores.

Barbara Koos, director of frame purchasing at Pearl Vision, said the firm’s company-owned and franchised stores are undergoing a merchandising facelift, slated to be completed in August.

“The new look will showcase trend materials for each designer, as well as educational displays that will inform customers about everything from choosing the best frame shapes for their faces to new innovations, such as Flex-on bendable, metal frames,” said Koos.

She added that the Dallas-based chain’s current emphasis is still on recognizable designer brands — an area that now accounts for over 80 percent of the firm’s business.

Koos cited a variety of thin metal frames, especially those with unusual color or foil treatments and metal and plastic combinations as this season’s major trend, but that “the rest of this year will see growth in unisex frames, retro looks and innovations in women’s lines, like floral-embossed temple treatments, as well as narrower, oval-shaped frames.”

LensCrafters’ overall mission is to provide choice for the consumer — in style, color, detailing and price, according to Sandy Likes, senior frame buyer for the Cincinnati-based company.

Likes indicated that the firm’s marketing strategies for this year are geared toward educating consumers about innovations in frame technology.

“We’ve planned in-store merchandising and displays that focus on flexible frames, hinges and temples, and explain how the smaller, thinner and lighter look in glasses is still durable,” Likes said.

LensCrafters’ stores are organized by departments, such as men’s or women’s traditional frames, sunglasses, and an area called “classics” which features fashion-oriented frames, including Polo, Giorgio Armani and University Collection.

The company also offers three price ranges — frames under $50, $50 to $100 and the boutique area, with frame styles retailing at over $100.

Likes said the chain’s fashion offerings this year center on a wide variety of metal looks, with new color applications, matte finishes and subtle color combinations, most featured on small frames.

Ruth Domber, owner of 1010 Optics, an optical boutique with two locations in the New York area, believes that, because of its unique combination of medicine and retailing, the eyewear business is one of the few areas where the majority of consumers “haven’t a clue” what brand or type of frame to buy.

“We make a concerted effort to educate our customers, to ensure they end up wearing what their prescription demands, as well as what frame best suits their needs,” Domber said.

She cited in-depth optician training and customer service as central to the success of small retailers.”All my opticians receive extensive training in areas such as facial shape, color and lifestyle needs to insure a customized fit,” she explained.

Domber added that she tries to find and feature American and European collections without a wide distribution in this country. The average retail price of the frames she sells ranges from $250 to $270.

Seattle-based optical retailer Carol Norbeck, owner of three stores called Optical Illusions, says, “Consumers want to be educated. We try to let them know that, while they may not have a choice about wearing glasses, they do have a multitude of frame options.”

Norbeck noted that one large group of eyeglass wearers, aging baby boomers, places the same emphasis on design in frame selection, that they do with many purchases.

This group, “while lacking any preconceived notions about eyewear specifically, does, however, insist that frames be progressive looking and make some sort of fashion or personal statement,” she explained. “They also aren’t locked into having their exam and purchasing frames in the same place.”

Norbeck added that many people now own a wardrobe of eyewear; in fact, two-thirds of all the frames she sells represent second, third or fourth purchases, which convey a different look, level of seriousness, or are sports or activity-specific.

On the manufacturer’s side, eyewear vendors are going after the latest technological innovations, as well as designer and branded labels, with plenty of retail-level support, in order to boost their recognition levels among consumers.

“The optical market is a growing channel for us,” said Wendy Berke, marketing manager for Vuarnet, the California-based high-performance eyewear firm, “and we’ve specifically developed products and support materials to meet their needs.”

In the past, the firm’s advertising was geared to the sports consumer, and sports-specific publications, but it has expanded more each year to include fashion and lifestyle books.

“We’re known primarily as a sport-specific line, but we now know that consumers want fashion as well as function,” Berke noted.

On tap for this year is a billboard campaign slated to run in Vuarnet’s top-selling markets across the country. Cities include New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Texas, the Rocky Mountain area and Miami, where Miami Dolphins safety Louis Oliver will be featured.

All of Vuarnet’s in-store merchandising materials mirror the image of the print and billboard campaigns. In addition, the firm holds educational clinics for store clerks on the technical and fashion aspects of all its products.

Berke added that increased consumer awareness of high-performance lenses, technology and protective abilities has helped the company with its past problems concerning price resistance.

“A growing segment of the population now has no problem paying about $100 retail for a multifunctional pair of glasses,” Berke said.

Safilo, U.S.A., the Fairfield, N.J.-based firm, is launching Blue Bay, a collection of optical and sun eyewear that is specifically geared to the MTV culture.

“The Blue Bay line was created to reach out to the young and trendy — 18-to-25-year-olds — who are very brand-conscious,” said Frank Karlo, chief operating officer.

The collection, which features metal and plastic frame silhouettes in oval, round and cat’s-eye shapes, is set to debut in optical stores this month.

Blue Bay will be supported by a television campaign targeted to youth- oriented programming, including MTV, with coordinating in-store merchandising and a gift-with-purchase program. Frame buyers will receive a Warner Brothers alternative-rock compilation compact disc.

In addition to the Blue Bay campaign, Karlo added that Safilo will more than double its consumer advertising efforts in 1994. Although he declined to give a figure, he cited prime-time national network news programming, outdoor advertising and event sponsorships as targeted areas.

Ed Kauz, president of Renaissance Eyewear, based in Cranford, N.J., said the firm has added to its roster of licensees and is now focused on expanding distribution, especially in the ophthalmic area.

“In the last several months, we’ve added about 40 ophthalmic sales reps, bringing the total to about 110,” Kauz said.

The company’s most recent licensee is Reebok, whose newest products will be at optical stores this month, and also in retail catalogs — an area that previously hasn’t concentrated on such high-performance items.

First is a coated lens that blocks ultraviolet rays, glare and the light rays that obscure detail, maximizing light levels and providing sharper vision. Second are two lightweight frames — under two ounces each — called The Eliminator and The Intimidator. They will be available through the Saks Fifth Avenue Folio catalog in April.

Henry Sand, senior vice president of sales and marketing, at Luxottica, the Italian eyewear firm with U.S. headquarters in Port Washington, N.Y., said that optical retailers, regardless of size, have become much more merchandising-driven in their presentations and sales staffs.

“We’ve created an entire product line of fixtures and point-of-purchase materials for nondesigner merchandise called “Power Pro,” said Sand. “It includes wall decorations, fantasy frame calendars and photos, and premium items available to retailers.”

The company’s designer merchandising features counter cards, silk drapes, posters and fixtures to hold frames, along with photos of ways retailers can create an environment representing each collection’s image and still best display the products.

Norman Salik, vice president of marketing for the eyewear division of Bausch & Lomb, said that, while all retailers are focused on fashion-forward merchandise now, it is the specialty stores — like Sunglass Hut and Sunsations — that are also technology-driven.

“The specialty store’s success is a result of utilizing knowledgeable and well-trained staffs that are capable of selling both technology and style,” Salik said.

While the firm’s long-time Aviator and Wayfarer styles continue to be leaders, Bausch & Lomb has two new high tech lenses and a sterling silver collection on tap for this spring.

ChroMax, a driving lense, enhances reds and greens and is said to speed up driver reaction times. DiamondHard is a lens-coating process that renders glasses virtually scratch-resistant and will be available initially on the firm’s Killer Loop performance collection, and rolled out later to other sections of the line.

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