Economy Impacts Mass Merchants, Warehouse Clubs

NEW YORK—Despite ongoing issues in the U.S. economy—particularly high unemployment levels often resulting in consumers’ loss of insurance benefits—some of the mass merchandising chains and warehouse clubs hosting vision centers saw their optical sales increase during 2010. For others, closures of underperforming locations eroded their eyewear/eyecare revenues.

During calendar 2010, these national and regional retail players increased their aggregate U.S. optical revenues to an estimated $2,312.4 million. Their combined number of in-store vision centers grew slightly last year as well, to an estimated 4,345 units—an increase of just 39 optical locations over this group’s 2009 optical store/department count.

Wal-Mart Stores continued to dominate the mass merchant/warehouse club segment of the optical business in 2010, with an estimated 2,530 company-owned vision centers in its Walmart discount stores, 227 leased departments operated inside Walmart stores by National Vision, and 507 Sam’s Club optical departments. Those three operations gave the discount giant an estimated 3,264 optical locations under its two retail brands, including its leased vision centers.

The mass merchants and clubs in this group generally are continuing to expand their store counts this year despite the economy, although the pace of expansion has slowed for some players. For example, after opening eight new U.S. warehouse clubs in the last four months of 2010, Costco executives have said they plan to add about 15 more clubs worldwide by the end of August. And ShopKo is including vision centers in some of its new Hometown Store locations, a new retail concept targeting smaller markets.

One question mark for this year will be future ownership of BJ’s Wholesale, which announced three months ago it is exploring “strategic alternatives,” including the possible sale of the company.