EYEWEAR IS AN ACCESSORIES MUST-HAVE, AND COMPANIES ARE RESPONDING BY GOING FULL STEAM AHEAD WITH EXPANSION.

Sunglass chains are shaking up the retail scene with innovative merchandising and marketing initiatives that are taking the category to new levels.

Fueled by an increase in the number of high-profile designers, including Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors, entering the eyewear arena and the adoption of eyewear by fashionistas as an accessories must-have — the category, particularly sunglasses, is booming. “Demand for fashion eyewear is growing in leaps and bounds,” said Richard Golden, founder of the Southfield, Mich.-based eyewear chain See. “Every day, there are more and more brands available, and there has been a lot more exposure of the category in magazines and on awards shows. Sunglasses have also had an aura of cool, and it’s true now more than ever.”

While the sunglasses specialty store arena is still dominated by a handful of major players — Cincinatti-based Sunglass Hut is by far the largest chain, with more than 2,000 units — a number of smaller chains are elbowing their way onto the scene.

Among those trying to snag a piece of the market are See, Solstice and Iacon. Small niche eyewear brands, including Oliver Peoples and Robert Marc, have also opened boutiques in an effort to increase revenue and heighten brand awareness.

The retail eyewear sector is growing, due in part to the flood of manufacturers getting in on the action. Last year, for example, eyewear giant Luxottica purchased Sunglass Hut, and Oakley purchased the Iacon chain. In addition, Safilo, the maker of Burberry and other designer eyewear brands, is an investor in a privately held group called Solstice Marketing Corp. that earlier this year purchased the Solstice chain from LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

Some of the chains, including Iacon and Solstice, only sell nonprescription sunwear, while others, including Oliver Peoples and See, sell nonprescription and prescription eyewear.

See, an acronym for Selective Eyewear Elements, currently has 13 units, including stores in West Hollywood, Calif.; Miami Beach; Ann Arbor, Mich., and Boulder, Colo.

The chain appeals to shoppers, said Golden, because it offers high-quality eyewear at midtier price points. Most of the frames — all of which bear the See label — retail for less than $200, with the bulk offered in the $140-to-$190 range.

Golden has been scouting locations in Manhattan and other areas, and he said See has the potential to have between 75 and 100 stores within the next 10 years. Most of the current stores are about 1,000 square feet.

Oakley, which operates a handful of stores under its core brand name, has aggressively moved into the retail arena with its recent purchase of Iacon. That company, now a division of Oakley, operates about 40 mall-based stores, under the banners Sunglass Designs, Sporting Eyes and Occhiali da Sole.

“We wanted to expand our retail presence,” said Gar Jackson, an Oakley spokesman. “These stores are located in the best malls in the country, and they provide an excellent base for us to continue our expansion.”

Oakley had another reason for getting into the retail business. The company needed to make up for lost sales after Sunglass Hut, its biggest distributor, said it would no longer carry the line after that chain was purchased by Luxottica, a manufacturer of sunglasses.

“Many manufacturers now are looking to capture greater margins by owning their own retail stores,” Jackson said.

Meanwhile, Solstice now has six stores and plans this year to open 10 units in the Northeast, said Ed Jankowski, chief operating officer of Solstice Marketing Corp.

“We see this as a national chain,” said Jankowski, who joined the firm in January from World Duty Free Americas and, before that, Liz Claiborne. “We are in the midst of looking at locations in a variety of markets and are exploring both malls and street areas.”

Among the brands Solstice carries are Gucci, Nike, Burberry, Kate Spade and Prada. “We are looking for the hottest, most fashion-forward brands,” he said.

Oliver Peoples, which sells its high-end frames around the world, opened its first boutique in 1986. The company now operates four stores, including a location that opened last year on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

Its stores are rather small, at 1,300 square feet on average, and its retail business now accounts for nearly $3 million a year. Oliver Peoples has taken its time opening stores, but Leight feels the firm has potential.

“There are a lot of suburbs in the U.S. that would appreciate our collection,” said co-founder and design director Larry Leight. “I definitely feel that there could be more of our stores.”

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