Three factors defined the eyewear sector at Summer Market: interchangeable lenses, RX ability and high-quality optics at affordable price points. While some manufacturers offered all three, sunglass buyers could count on at least two of these 2005 highlights from virtually every vender with product to display.
The options available in optics for the new spring season will allow retailers to offer their customers an array of choices seldom seen in an assortment of accessories. As a potential profit center with long margins and a return on investment that can be measured by square inches rather than feet, specialty retailers now have a variety of products that can not only reinforce their technical fashion-forward image, but boost their sales with consistent repeat purchases and more items per transaction.
From $12 to $200, optics buyers in 2005 will be able to build assortments that will not only allow them to sell up or down along several prices points but across many brands as well. Special features like multiple lens options and free protective carrying cases have taken eyewear out of the impulse-buy category with stock at the front register. High-quality optics can become a draw for consumers, bringing them into retail shops for the expressed purpose of buying a pair of prescription-ready sunglasses or sport shields that can be customized for a variety of different activities. This is by definition a high-profile customer with the disposable income to purchase more than just sunglasses and can be up-sold into other gear.
Even manufacturers like Pepper's, known for its display rack programs of eyewear under $20, brought new styles in two distinct collections differentiating its high-end performance and style sensitive products from its low price point items, called Chili's, which dealers buy by the box. An assortment of rose-colored polarized lenses for both men and women maxing out at $84.95 retail made the case for good optics, while giving the dealer a 60 percent margin. Even interchangeable models came in under $50, and Jeremy Brandfass, director of sourcing and operations, touted the company's ability to offer prescription lenses upon request.
Not to be outdone, low price eyewear provider Optic Nerve showed its proverbial metal by offering an entire collection under $60, including styles with polarized lenses and others with interchangeable high-impact polycarbonate lenses. With the bulk of its price points at $40 or more, it would seem that the company aims to occupy and hold a niche at that middle range between sunglasses you buy as throwaways and those you plan to keep for as long as you don't lose or break them. Michael Dahlberg, the eyewear buyer at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, once said of Optic Nerve, "They're the best cheap sunglasses you'll ever buy." With this new collection, which offers removable prescription inserts by master optician Scott Hulbirt, the company has become much more than that.
A lesser-known brand, Zeal Optics, provides a complete assortment of sport-specific eyewear. The RX'ability factor is something this brand takes very seriously. In almost 20 styles, each with at least five colors, Zeal offers Swap-Out interchangeable lenses that are available in prescription polarized and reading options. But they're not cheap. A Zeal Optics equipped pair of prescription sunglasses can cost more than $200. But anyone who wears specs for seeing knows that the right grind of glass is worth the price if it means clear vision and performance comfort. Making this custom eyewear option available to consumers who look to their specialty retailer for the best in technical gear can put the optics department in a completely different league when it comes to service.
The highest quality lenses and frames were offered by the major brands you'd expect and a new player you might not. Smith has a variety of lifestyle eyewear starting at $70 and going up to $130-plus. Polarize them and the prices along with the quality migrate to the high end. Handmade acetate frames that look like works of art for your face are built with rugged durability for full-impact applications that belie their stylish design. Interchangeable lenses, called Sliders, round out the program and an RX series provides the frames for prescription replacements.
The surprise showing came from The North Face with an eyewear collection as good as any we saw. Under a licensing agreement with Italy's fifth largest eyewear company Marcolin, TNF did itself proud in an offering of sunglasses with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from the technically driven fashion-friendly giant. Interchangeable sport shields, RX'able glacier glasses and casual frames starting at $65 have made The North Face a legitimate player in this market in its second season.
The most pleasant surprise came from classic mountaineering eyewear manufacturer Julbo. The third-generation-owned French company has introduced a line of sleek middle price point styles starting at $49 with removable side shields and rap around looks that bring this trade veteran squarely into the new millennium. Interchangeable? RX'able? Affordable? You better believe it.