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By the numbers
Here’s a look at sales in the retail optical business in recent years:
2008 $32.8 billion
2009 $32.1 billion
2010 $31.9 billion
2011 $32.7 billion
Source: Jobson Optical Research
Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Eyemart Express general manager Dave Wolf, helping a customer, thinks a recent move out of Glenbrook Square will make the store more accessible for customers.

Optical firms see improvement

Start of school year expected to keep upward trend going

Eyemart Express optician Heidi Tone helps customer Lauraine Baxter pick out glasses.

Retailers have their eye on the optical industry during back-to-school season.

Many vision centers say they are posting gains thanks to a modestly improving economy. Last year, the business saw U.S. sales rise to nearly $33 billion – a 2.5 percent increase – after a couple of years of falling sales. Officials believe the trend will continue and that children’s glasses will play a big part.

According to a poll by the Vision Council of Alexandria, Va., youths up to age 14 accounted for 15 percent of total gross dollar sales. The group represents the manufacturers and suppliers of the optical market.

The survey consisted of 211 independent optical retailers who service children and adults. It was conducted for Jobson Optical Research of New York. Officials could not provide a margin of error for the poll. There are about 50,000 optical locations in the United States.

“Sales are definitely getting better,” said Jennifer Zupnick, senior research analyst with Jobson Optical. “It is a combination of things. People getting jobs and the economy just overall doing better are reasons. People have money to spend on an extra pair of glasses or to buy a pair of sunglasses.”

The spring survey also revealed that 31 percent of the respondents reported an increase in children’s eyewear.

“Back-to-school is one of our busiest times of the year for sure,” said Natacia Justice, store manager of Eyecare Express, across from Northcrest Shopping Center in Fort Wayne. “We have a special now where kids can get two pairs of glasses, lenses, frames and a free exam for $59.”

South Bend-based Eyecare Express also has locations in Indianapolis and Terre Haute. It has been in Fort Wayne for two years.

Even though many students have returned to class, back-to-school traffic is still brisk as some parents find out their children are complaining of the blackboard being blurry.

“Oh yeah,” Justice said. “That happens a lot.”

Eyemart Express recently left Glenbrook Square mall for a location management felt had easier access for customers. The store opened Monday at 515 E. Coliseum Blvd., next to Carlos O’Kelly’s and Half Price Books.

“We wanted people to be able to park at the front door,” general manager Dave Wolf said. “This is better and more convenient for our customers because the mall can get really congested, especially during the Christmas season.”

Like many other vision centers, Eyemart Express has an in-store optical lab offering one-hour service. A complete pair of glasses starts at less than $40.

Texas-based Eyemart Express is the seventh largest retail optical outlet in the nation with more than 135 stores in 31 states. Wolf said his store sales are already on pace to top last year.

“We’re up about 25 percent this year,” he said. “Back-to-school shopping certainly keeps us busy.”