Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Saturday, Jul 03, 2004
Industry & Economy
Essilor SRF bullish on India
Bangalore , July 2
UNTIL five years ago, spectacle-wearing Indians chose to look through glass, only glass. Anything else like plastic corrective lenses was almost anathema, whatever its advantages.
The scene is changing. If plastic lenses have today taken up some 10 per cent of the correctives or prescription market space, it has been no cakewalk; it has been a journey that is due in parts to technology, persistence of the manufacturers and also to a global shift from glass, according to Mr B. Jayanth, Managing Director of Essilor SRF Optics.
The Indian arm of Essilor International, the euro 2-billion global leader, was the first serious player to have a go at the glass barrier in the country with a $15-million-plus investment. When it set up shop in Bangalore in 1998, it had to cut through preconceptions about scratches on ordinary plastic and show that its special coated lenses can be thinner, lighter and easier to wear for high index users; in general, less of a headache than glass.
"Initially, penetration of plastic lenses was tough. It took us a year to correct the misconceptions," Mr Jayanth admitted. "Today we are witnessing a high double-digit growth."
Part of a global market of 800 million spectacle wearers, India is a late entrant to the plastic corrective eyewear. It, however, is showing a predictable pattern and going through what the US did in the 1980s or another glass adherent, China, until recently.
Essilor is luring the consumer with an array of thin and flat lenses that are coated to be scratch-proof; anti-reflectives; smooth progressives for the 40+ presbyotics without the tell-tale line in the middle of the lens; photochromatic; and the ultra-thin, shatter-proof polycarbonate material that goes into astronauts' helmets and plane windows.
The domestic figures are hazy but the overall optical market could be selling some 60 million pieces predominantly of glass and worth Rs 300-400 crore. As cosmetic values take precedence, there is also no certainty that Indians may not take a quantum leap from glass to polycarbonate lenses, an option that the West has taken to. In any case, Plastic lenses cost some 3-3.5 times their glass rivals at the lower end but are comparable for higher index and bifocals.
Essilor, for one, is trying to bring down the cost of its proprietary coating, according to Mr Jayanth. The imported raw material for spectacles also attracts peak customs duty compared to glass. Correcting this duty anomaly can make plastic lenses cheaper.
Essilor of France came in as a joint venture of SRF, which had its own lens processing lab. Soon it had scaled up its stake and expanded into a factory at Dodballapur and a chain of franchised labs across the country. It also bought a Chennai-based lab.
According to Mr Jayanth, acquisitions have been a part of Essilor's global strategy and "in India too, we would be following the same route and acquire some more labs. In two years' time, we want to be present in all parts of the country."
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