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EYEGLASSES—Eyeglass Firm Moves to Counter Lasik Surgery Trend

For three decades, Rem Eyewear has served two generations of its family ownership well. But it didn’t take 20/20 vision to see the writing on the wall. With the growing popularity of Lasik surgery, a procedure that corrects some forms of vision problems, the demand for so-called ophthalmic eyeglass frames (those used for prescription glasses) is sliding. Without a program to diversify, Rem’s business would be stymied. Earlier this year, Rem began adding reading glasses and sunglasses to its product offerings and expanding its children’s offerings. “We’re trying to be proactive and analyze where our business will grow,” said Mike Hundert, the company’s president and chief executive officer. Hundert took the reins of the family-owned company in 1981 and oversaw Rem’s move into designer-name brands, a business that boosted eyewear sales through the 1980s and much of the 1990s. But as quality improved, creating frames that last longer, and as enthusiasm for the newest looks faded, frame sales industry-wide have flattened. Sun Valley-based Rem is not the only company eyeing the potential problems that frame makers face, but it is on the cutting edge of those looking for ways to buffer its business, industry observers said. “If Rem isn’t the first company, it’s certainly in the first tier of companies trying to take a leadership position and diversify from ophthalmic frames,” said Marge Axelrad, senior vice president for editorial content at Jobson Publishing LLC, publisher of the industry’s trade journals, 20/20 and Vision Monday. Lasik, short for laser-assisted in-situ keratomileusis, was approved by the FDA only last year. But already it has grown into a $3 billion-a-year industry. Already this year, about 500,000 people have undergone Lasik surgery. Next year the number is expected to swell to 1.2 million, according to industry estimates. And, as additional procedures to treat a wider variety of vision problems come online, and the price of the surgery goes down from an average of $2,500 per eye currently, that number can rise farther still. That is troubling news to makers of eyeglass frames, who have in recent years, seen sales slow. In 1990, retail sales of frames, lenses and contact lenses combined reached $11.4 billion, according to Jobson Optical Group research. By 1995, that number had grown to $13.8 billion, and in 1999 sales totaled $16 billion. But this year, Axelrad said, sales are projected to bottom out at $16.3 billion. “In the last two to three years, the rate of growth shrunk to about 2 percent a year,” Axelrad said. Rem has put into place a two-part strategy hoping to counteract the market forces at work in the industry. On the one hand, the company is building an international distribution chain it hopes will help attract the most desirable designer names, a strategy to compete against bigger players in the industry. At the same time, Rem is moving to add new product lines: reading glasses, sunglasses and children’s eyewear. So far, Lasik surgery is mostly used to treat nearsightedness. Although other procedures are under development that can treat conditions like farsightedness and astigmatism, Lasik so far is not likely to impact presbyopia, an affliction that drives nearly all middle-aged people to don reading glasses. Opticians have largely steered clear of the over-the-counter reading glasses sold in department stores and by mass merchants. But Rem, through a partnership with a company called MicroVision Optical, has begun marketing a number of novelty reading glasses that are attracting interest in its established chain of distribution as well as chains like Sunglass Hut. “With the aging population not only having expendable income but also being particularly vain, there’s a clear opportunity for more expensive and better-designed reading glasses,” said Hundert. In January, the company introduced its Pen Reader, which are tiny reading glasses that are stored inside a large-sized ballpoint pen, at prices ranging from $59.95 to $99.95, depending on the type of pen. Because of its size, the Pen Reader cannot be used with lenses prescribed by an eye doctor. Another version, Folding Vision, can be folded to fit into a metal case the size of a business-card holder. It can hold customized prescription lenses as well. So far, Rem has sold several million dollars worth of the Pen Reader. The category now accounts for about 10 percent of the company’s business, and Hundert said he could sell more if MicroVision were able to speed its production. Like reading glasses, the market for non-prescription sunglasses is also expected to continue to increase regardless of the inroads made by Lasik. Indeed, some say Lasik will increase the demand for high-end sunglasses because the procedure can make eyes more sensitive to light. Working with brands like Timberland, Lauren Hutton, Converse and Cosmopolitan, Rem is beefing up its offering of sunglasses. Finally, the company has begun to build its collection of children’s eyewear, in large part because Lasik cannot be performed on people under 21. “We created a line under the Converse brand for kids 8 to 12 years old,” Hundert said. “It’s been extremely successful. This spring, we’ve decided to expand that further to 4- to 8-year olds.” Already this year, Rem, which does not release its sales figures, has seen revenues grow by about 25 percent as a result of the changes. And Hundert expects the upward momentum to continue. “What I am convinced of is our customer base will continue to expand and, as that happens, the company will become much more solid,” he said. “With a more solid foundation, we can continue to build more stories.”

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