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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lens King Moves to Moscow

An international optical retailing company is hoping to grab a share of the Russian market, investing $50 million in 60 stores in Russia in the next five years. Eight of the stores are to open in Moscow by the end of this year.

Lensmaster, set up by U.S. entrepreneur Dean Butler, who previously started the Lens Crafters chain in the United States and Vision Express in Europe, now has one store operating in Moscow.

Butler has bailed out of his other ventures, first selling Lens Crafters and then unloading Vision Express, with its $1 billion in annual sales, in 1997. Now Butler is chief executive of Winning Vision, the company that owns Lensmaster, said Majid Sajadi, Winning Vision's managing director.

Vision Express used to have a store in St. Petersburg, but the company closed it in 1997 after a dispute with its Russian partner. Now the new chain faces tough competition on Moscow's optical services market, with existing outlets greeting the newcomers with scorn and derision.

Lensmaster has launched a massive advertising campaign on two television channels, centered around what the company says is its strongest point - one-hour service, made famous in the United States by Lens Crafters. The company says equipment installed in its labs allows it to produce lenses fitting 95 percent of prescriptions, including sophisticated models such as multi-focal ones, in one hour.

Competitors say the new chain will not survive in Moscow because the market is already packed.

"It's impossible to create such a large chain, there's no market for it," said Surjan Singh Kushwaha, the owner of Comec, a leading optical chain with 15 stores in Moscow. Kushwaha said there are plenty of stores catering to the upper end of the market while the lower one is flooded with cheap glasses from China.

"This is dishonest competition, they try to make idiots out of us," said a senior manager of Interoptika, Moscow's most exclusive optical store, referring to Lensmaster's advertising campaign. "We are all laughing at them, there are no places under the sun left, competition is very stiff."

The store at Nikolskaya Ulitsa looked busy on Monday afternoon, though. Analysts said Lensmaster was likely to succeed by targeting the middle class.

"Glasses in one hour is not something amazing, Lensmaster simply passes it off as something unusual," said Yury Kostylyov, an editor of the magazine Mir Optiki. But the company "does want to make its product more affordable," Kostylyov said, adding that Lensmaster's prices are lower than their competitors'. "The market is not saturated yet, there's enough work for everybody."

"As regards its equipment, [Lensmaster] is close to perfection," Kostylyov said. Kostylyov added, however, that the variety of contact lenses offered by Lensmaster was not yet wide enough.

"At the end of the day, there is room in Moscow for another 20 to 30 optical stores," said a manager of a large optical wholesale company who asked not to be named. "Lensmaster is trying to appeal to ordinary people who have a job and a reasonable amount of money," as opposed to "New Russians who go for a gold Cartier."

Lensmaster's Sajadi admitted that the company expected its sales to be down 30 percent from the initial plan in the medium term, but hoped that they would reach about $2 million in about two years. "The market here is so large that this is still going to be a very profitable business," he said. "The rent has come down sharply, making the market very attractive from the retailing point of view, and TV advertising prices have been reduced significantly."