50 years ago, Alain Afflelou entered the optical franchise market. With 47 points of sale in Belgium, the eyewear manufacturer is now run by the founder’s son, Anthony, 31. No upheaval on the horizon, but a roadmap that is consistent in the face of increasingly strong competition.
He converted optics to marketing, according to the famous reptilian-looking advertiser, Jacques Séguéla. Coming from a man capable of selling fridges to Inuit, the sentence is a compliment. The optician is Alain Afflelou, 74 years old. Before him, stores looked like pharmacies where it was forbidden to touch a frame. The French eyewear manufacturer who opened his first store just 50 years ago, known for his slogans that won’t let go (“Il est fou Afflelou”, “Tchin-tchin, your second pair for one euro more”), handed over to his son Anthony, 31, today. The appointment is not the work of the prince, we want to know: it was endorsed by the British investment fund Lion Capital and the Caisse de depot du Québec, majority shareholders up to 71%.
He converted optics to marketing, according to the famous reptilian-looking advertiser, Jacques Séguéla. Coming from a man capable of selling fridges to Inuit, the sentence is a compliment. The optician is Alain Afflelou, 74 years old. Before him, stores looked like pharmacies where it was forbidden to touch a frame. The French eyewear manufacturer who opened his first store just 50 years ago, known for his slogans that won’t let go (“Il est fou Afflelou”, “Tchin-tchin, your second pair for one euro more”), handed over to his son Anthony, 31, today. The appointment is not the work of the prince, we want to know: it was endorsed by the British investment fund Lion Capital and the Caisse de depot du Québec, majority shareholders up to 71%. The group, 29% owned by the Afflelou family, has a network of 1,500 points of sale worldwide (including 47 in Belgium) for a turnover of 980 million euros. The appointment of the new leader, would it initiate a new turn? “We are not going to revolutionize the company but there are certain developments with a clear roadmap”, advances the young CEO in his Parisian offices. What about this roadmap? The optician, who has taken up the challenge of expanding his core business to hearing correction, is continuing his path towards audio, without however setting specific objectives. Eleven years after its launch, the “Alain Afflelou acousticien” brand generates 10% of turnover in France. Elsewhere, the offer is embryonic. In Belgium, only one store of the brand offers this service. A measured step forward which does not undermine the confidence of Anthony Afflelou for whom “the prospects for the audio market are exceptional”. The coming surge of grandpa boomers could prove him right. It remains to overcome the seniors who refuse 7 times out of 10 to be fitted despite a proven hearing loss. “Hearing aids are still a taboo subject”, concedes Anthony Afflelou who avoids using the word ‘prostheses’, a term deemed too medical and not very commercial which does not correspond to what the future should hold for us. “When I immersed myself in the field four years ago, I discovered products that are jewels of technology. The main suppliers are spending considerable sums on R&D. We are talking about connected products that will look more and more like more like in-ear headphones comparable to the ones you use to listen to music with your mobile phone. My belief is that in a few years, someone in their 20s or 70s will be wearing ears the same accessories, except that for the person whose hearing is impaired, these accessories will allow him to hear better.” The new emblematic figure of Afflelou has rubbed shoulders with all departments, or almost of the company. Apart from appearing in one of the “Tchin-Tchin” commercials when he was eight years old, Anthony joined the family business about ten months after completing his business studies. In 2015, he managed a point of sale in Madrid, then joined the international development team in Geneva, co-directed the group’s digital transformation 18 months later, then directed marketing and communication before joining the supreme position. A course completed at a run. At the Afflelou, we don’t waste time. In less than a decade and a half, the father transformed a modest optician’s shop in the suburbs of Bordeaux into a leading brand. Driven by success, the businessman becomes a fashionable decision-maker, typical of the 1980s, who leads the way and travels by private jet. Thanks to his advertising appearances, he is one of the few bosses that the general public is able to recognize on the street. We push the door of his shops as we enter a friend. Times have changed. A few years ago, the mentor gave up his place on the small screen to a star on the big screen, Sharon Stone, to propel the brand’s image internationally. Today, the time of female ambassadors is over. Communication, to which the company devotes 7% of its turnover, has decided to dispense with muses. The latest ad plays on youth, eccentricity and inclusion. Syncopated editing, body in motion, Apple is not far away. “The advantage of muses is their fame. Sharon Stone helped us to pass a milestone in notoriety. Today, we want more universal communication, which is more representative of the population at large.” The spot in question boasts Magic products, customizable eyeglasses on which you just clip a second frame to protect yourself from the sun or for the pleasure of changing your appearance. And thanks to digital developments, everyone who has a computer or a smartphone can do virtual fittings from their sofa by connecting to the home site. Recently put on the market, the Magic line, sold between 100 and 250 euros, far from entry-level products, is an Afflelou exclusive. The firm wants to make it known. No more question, as in the past, of taking refuge behind anonymity with generic products. The Afflelou label is now written in full on the frames. “In Geneva, we have a team of around ten designers who work exclusively on our new collections. The feedback from our customers has been very positive: one out of two new Afflelou customers is a Magic customer.” Afflelou’s private label (private label) references now account for 30% of in-store purchases, the rest being generated by major brands such as Nike, Prada, Gucci and Lacoste. A strategy of verticalization intended to repel the onslaught of competition which took a new turn last year with the takeover of the GrandVision chain by the giant EssilorLuxottica. Not content with being the leading network of optical franchises in the world, the Franco-Italian multinational, born of a merger in 2018, is also a leader in the manufacture of lenses and frames. “This implies a very strong homogenization of the market with prices which will tend downwards and brand-names which will emerge, predicts management. However, this situation is not only due to the EssilorLuxottica merger. The inflationary context contributes to this. The whole challenge of our strategy is to see how to work with the best suppliers while keeping our independence and our DNA.” A challenge that the Afflelou are ready to take up as siblings. Alongside Anthony, the youngest, there is Lionel, 48, number two in the group while the eldest, Laurent, 50, is in charge of openings. And then there is the founding father who has not retired from business, far from it. Although he left operational management in 2012, Alain Afflelou continues to scrupulously monitor the growth of his 50-year-old “baby”, actively participating in all strategic meetings. “I have set my retirement at 100,” recently confided friend Jacques Séguéla. Who says better?