KEEP YOUR SHADES ON! SUNGLASSES ARE NOW DE RIGEUER YEAR ROUND THANKS TO MORE AND MORE DESIGNER LINES.
Byline: Marc Karimzadeh
Sunglasses are becoming a bigger presence in accessories departments, and that’s not just because it’s summer. According to retailers and manufacturers, the classification is registering healthy sell-throughs because consumers are learning to think about sunglasses as another accessory: they wardrobe pairs for different outfits and wear them day and night, regardless of the season and climate.
This is good news for manufacturers, who are no strangers to struggle, particularly with their main distribution of department stores and the three Os: ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians.
In the past, part of the problem was that the bulk of optical stores traditionally shied away from fashion styles and often marketed sunglasses for their functional, not fashionable features. This approach didn’t help drive fashion-savvy consumers to stores to build volume. Meanwhile, department stores positioned sunglasses on the main floor for spring and summer, then reduced or moved them altogether during winter in favor of other seasonal businesses such as cold weather accessories. Because of the inconsistent presence, few stores invested significantly in display fixtures, marketing or staff training.
However, strong trends, such as rimless shields and gradient-style lenses, are generating increased consumer demand. Fall looks such as crystal embellishments, laser-cut patterns, lenses with tattoo effects or studs should continue the momentum. “There has been a lot of fashion, and all the color and rimless styles have turned the business around,” said Joyce Packman, divisional merchandise manager at Bloomingdale’s. “We have seen double-digit increases for the spring season. The designer part, which accounts for over 60 percent of our merchandise, is what’s driving the business.”
A sign of the sector’s strong health is the growth of new licenses with established apparel or accessories designers. In recent months, these included Kate Spade, who launched a quirky eyewear line with Safilo Group, Costume National, which licensed Marcolin, and Marc Jacobs who signed with De Rigo. CXD, Charmant Group’s upscale division, which makes Michael Kors’s new eyewear line, was also licensed to produce and distribute sunglasses and ophthalmic frames branded Boss Women, to launch at Vision Expo East March 2002.
“All the new licensing arrangements with key designers have made the sunglass business so dominant,” said Eileen Warner, vice president and dmm at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Chanel, Gucci and Prada are three key resources, and there’s been a lot of exposure in the media to make [sunglasses] a must-have.”
Warner explained that Saks Fifth Avenue has increased its sunglasses space by 25 to 50 percent in most store locations. Since last fall, the company has been expanding its department in the New York flagship “dramatically,” she said, combining two separate islands into one in a well-trafficked location on the main floor. In doing so, Saks joined Lord & Taylor, which also moved its sunglasses department in its Fifth Avenue store to a more centrally located space on the main floor and added vertical fixtures dotted around a central glass case station. This open-sell approach adds liveliness to the area and makes it easier for the consumer to try on styles without the help of a salesperson.
“With the advent of designer sunglasses, all of a sudden the advertising is there and the consumer is coming in and asking for them,” said Richard Morgenthal, president of the four-unit Morgenthal-Frederics stores. Morgenthal said that in the past year, the company started to increase its designer offering, which used to account for just 5 percent. By the end of the year, he expects the segment to account for 20 percent of its assortment.
While the growth of licensed designer lines has helped increase the classification’s visibility, some noted this was a double-edged sword. As is often the case with brand extensions through licenses, many fashion companies know little about the workings of the optical industry and therefore let licensees take total control of lines and their distribution.
“The business of [designer] licensing demands a bigger distribution, because designers get royalties which demand large sales and therefore less exclusive distribution,” said Robert Marc, the designer and president of Robert Marc Opticians, which has six stores in Manhattan. The pressures of selling through as many doors as possible can result in a distribution strategy that is inconsistent with the overall brand.
Also, since there are only a handful of manufacturers who focus on licensed designer brands, it can often result in too much similarity in looks from one brand to another, which further confuses consumers.
Some industry executives said the designer segment is rapidly reaching the saturation point.
“There are as many licenses as there are fashion houses,” said eyewear maker Christian Roth, who is also the creative director at CXD. “While fashion is not perceived as overcrowded, designer eyewear licenses follow each other so closely in styling that it does look overcrowded.”
“The challenge for designers is making sure the lines all don’t look alike, for each brand to find its own identity,” agreed Helen Neff, president and chief executive officer of Solstice, the LVMH-owned chain of sunglasses stores with six units in the U.S. “It’s being creative in every aspect, from temple design to the lens treatments and types of metal [designers] use.”
“[Vendors] need to concentrate on a little more than just the frame,” said Larry Leight, co-founder and chief officer of design at Oliver Peoples, which holds the license for Paul Smith. Leight, who also consults on the design of eyewear lines by Prada, Miu Miu, Jil Sander and Vera Wang, pointed to case designs as a way to differentiate lines. “Everybody is just using the same [case],” he said. “Now, the total ‘togetherness’ of the collection will be important. The attention to detail is what people are going to look for.” Oliver Peoples, he said, is developing new case designs for the next few collections. While few design details were available, Leight said these could possibly hold two frames, suitable for customers who wardrobe them.
Part of the problem with sameness on the selling floor is that stores often only carry a small selection of each brand, rather than a deeper assortment that showcases a brand’s entire look.
“When you have a small representation of a brand, [stores] tend to focus on bestsellers. These bestsellers can be very similar, and the eyewear assortment will compete,” said Jean Scott, vice president of product development at Luxottica Group. “It’s getting more and more crowded, and it is a category where the retailer has to pick the designer that fits your environment.”
Display is another challenge with designer lines, explained Jim Simon, vice president of CXD. Traditionally, department stores display prolific amounts of frames in glass display cases, with little room for point-of-sale material or brand-specific case designs that could differentiate lines. “Merchandising is critical to all the brand images,” Simon noted, who pointed to store-in-store concepts in apparel as a possibility for sunglasses departments. However, restricted space is a challenge.
“[Stores] would have to cut the number of vendors or possibly merchandise sunglasses within a designer’s clothing collection,” he said, adding that dual exposure would be ideal.
Because many stores still treat sunglasses as a summer business, some company executives said real estate continues to be a key challenge. “The biggest challenge faced by the retail sunglasses industry is that department stores dedicate a relatively small amount of space to our product, making growth in our area more difficult to achieve,” said Claudio Gottardi, president and ceo of Safilo USA, which manufactures eyewear for designer brands such as Christian Dior, Gucci and Ralph Lauren.
One way to reach sales increase in a restricted area is to introduce a higher price point to help raise volume per square foot in limited retail real estate. Consumers, however, still need to be educated about paying for a higher ticket item.
“The most important feature is a well-trained person,” said Al Berg, co-president of Marchon Eyewear, which sells roughly $400 million of licensed eyewear from such names as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. Berg added that department stores have often sold sunglasses according to what the customer would like to pay. Instead, he suggests they train their sales staff to educate consumers on the added features that come with higher price points.
But given the enthusiasm for designer shades, things could change soon.
“The entire retail community is looking at sunglasses as the next big accessory,” Berg said. “Now, they are building bigger departments, sprinkling in some of the brands for excitement and expanding cases, so you end up with a greater spotlight on the sunglass market.”