$2.3-Billion Sunglass Industry Has Its Day In the Sun

IT doesn't take a lot of sun to sell sunglasses, says Jack Chadsey, president of Sunglass Hut International, a retail chain based in Miami.

For example, business is good in London, where a few unexpected sunny days can send people scurrying for shades. And in snowy Minneapolis, the site of three thriving Sunglass Huts, people buy sunglasses for winter sports, driving, or for tropical vacations, Mr. Chadsey says.

Last year, American consumers spent $2.3 billion on nonprescription sunglasses. That is a sales jump of more than 14 percent from 1992, says Richard Enholm, chairman of the statistical committee of the Sunglass Association of America, an industry trade group in Norwalk, Conn.

The 260 million pairs of sunglasses sold include those bought from street vendors and at flea markets, as well as glasses purchased at drugstores, supermarkets, and boutiques. This growth should continue, with retail sunglass sales up 3 to 5 percent at all types of outlets this year, Mr. Enholm says.

Sunglasses priced higher than $30 represent the fastest-growing segment of the market, with specialty retailers reporting sales of $475 million last year, according to the Sunglass Association of America.

What makes the outlook so sunny for the sunglass industry? One factor is increased concern over the destruction of the ozone layer and the effects of ultra-violet rays, says Ralph Chou, spokesman for the Bethesda, Md.-based American Academy of Optometry.

Meanwhile, new, specialized markets have been cropping up. In January, Reebok International Ltd., a Stoughton, Mass., sportswear manufacturer, entered into a licensing agreement with Baby Optics of Utah to create a children's sunglass line priced at $15 to $25. The line consists of five children's styles, including two sports models. The glasses are also available in newborn sizes.

In May, Bausch & Lomb introduced the ``Covers'' line of children's sunglasses, which retail for about $29 and feature such models as ``the secret agent,'' available in multicolored, ``purple confetti'' frames.

The Gap, retailer of casual clothing, also added kids' sunglasses to its stores this spring. Last year, Sunglass Hut launched a children's line - ``Wee Blocks'' - that ranges in price from $15 to $45 a pair.

New markets have been created by advances in lens technology, which in turn have led to improvements in sunglasses designed for driving. According to a 1993 survey by Colorado-based National Demographics and Lifestyle, 91 percent of the men and women polled - all of whom were 25 years or older - mentioned driving as their No. 1 reason for wearing sunglasses.

Manufacturers have targeted this market with new lines that are often priced at more than $100. The lenses, which brighten or darken in response to different sunlight intensities, also filter out certain colors of the spectrum, making it easier to see the greens, reds, and yellows of traffic signals and signs.

The same technology is used in sports sunglasses, usually priced over $30. The Ray-Ban division of Rochester-based Bausch & Lomb introduced a series of golf sunglasses this year with lenses that filter out certain hues of blue, green, and red so that golfers are shaded from ultraviolet radiation, but can still see the green clearly. The frames are high-tech as well. A hinge along the frame can be released to tighten the fit when a golfer is swinging or to loosen it between rounds.

The sunglass market has become ``activity specific,'' Reebok spokesman Michael Payton says. Last November, the company launched a collection of ``sports performance'' eye wear that targeted the running, bicycling, and triathlon markets.

Fashion has always been a big consideration in sunglass purchases. Ironically, though, the first Hollywood stars to wear sunglasses did so to protect their eyes from the bright ultraviolet light emitted by carbon arc lamps used on indoor movie sets in the 1920s, Dr. Chou says.

Silent film stars of the day, such as Rudolph Valentino, looked so good wearing them that a fashion trend was born, he adds.

Today, sports figures and designers join film and recording artists as publicists for the industry.

Despite the different colors and technologies now available, sunglass styles from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s remain the most popular, according to Women's Wear Daily, a fashion- industry newspaper in New York. The aviator style, started by Ray Ban in 1937 under a government contract to the Air Force, is still a bestseller.

``The big classical names go back to World War II,'' Chou says. The late Beatles star John Lennon made sunglasses a part of our popular culture, but so did test pilot Chuck Yeager, he adds.

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