Vision Express sets sights on more deals

Opticians chain Vision Express is keeping an eye out for further acquisitions following the takeover of Tesco Opticians last year, but its chief executive has no ambitions to overtake Specsavers as the UK's largest high street optician.

The company has spent the first months of 2018 working to integrate over 200 Tesco Opticians sites at a pace of around 10 locations per week, which will bring its final store footprint to 600 across the UK and Ireland.

Jonathan Lawson, chief executive of Vision Express, said: “We’ve got our hands full at the moment.

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“As and when further opportunities become available, either on a single site basis or groups, then we’ll look at all of those on merit.”

Jonathan Lawson - Vision Express

But he stressed the company does not have its sights set on outgrowing its next largest rival Specsavers and is happy to take the podium as number two when it comes to retail footprint.

Mr Lawson said: “Critically, we have no strategy to become the number one in terms of scale and size, it never has been a part of our ambition.

“Our focus is internally as a team is to be the best eyecare provider and eyecare retailer within the UK and Irish markets,and when we see it as the best, it is best in the eyes of the customer.

“So I have no objective to try and beat Specsavers in terms of scale and size.”

Jonathan Lawson - Vision Express

As the second largest high street optician, Vision Express was investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) over its takeover of Tesco Opticians, and was later forced to give up three sites.

Mr Lawson said he was disappointed with the outcome, but was not put off further deals by the probe, saying the divestment was “relatively” small against the portfolio of 600 stores.

He added: “I think overall, therefore, the CMA would align with us that our growing presence is a good thing for the market.”

Vision Express is still looking to drive up patient numbers and hopes the most recent deployment of its so-called Vision Van offering free eye tests for World Glaucoma week will help will draw Britons to its high street stores.

“Whenever we have launched these campaigns - and its one of the reasons that we support it with free eye tests - we see a significant increase in new customers,” he said. But the company has stopped short of diversifying into areas like hearing in hopes of being seen as a sight specialist, and has also managed to freeze the price of eye exams for the seven years that Mr Lawson has been at the helm.

That is despite costs rising on the back of the weak pound.

Vision Express - which is owned by Netherlands-based GrandVision - has seen its purchasing power diminish as a result of sterling’s collapse, as it sources the bulk of its supplies from the EU.

Mr Lawson said: “We have worked very hard with our group GrandVision to protect the customers from that increase, and we’ve pretty much absorbed all of that.”

That policy has propped up the number of eye exams across the business, even as UK consumers feel the squeeze of higher inflation and weak wage growth, the firm said. “We know that things have got tighter for our customers but we’re really encouraged that we’ve seen strong volume growth over the last few years,” Mr Lawson says.

The Vision Express boss said the added risks of Brexit - both currency related and otherwise - have not prompted any review of its ownership structure.

“We’re part of a very progressive group and it may surprise people to learn that we spend very little time, if any, discussing what may or may not happen in Brexit. I’m far more interested in discussing our business and our customers than what may or may not happen when the politicians have made their minds up.”

Tesco switch of vision to simplify and strengthen its UK business

Big four supermarket Tesco announced the sale of its opticians business to Vision Express last April.

Tesco said the deal would allow it to further simplify and strengthen its UK business.

The supermarket has been undergoing a turnaround under the leadership of CEO Dave Lewis.

Tesco recently completed a £4bn takeover of wholesaler Booker, creating a new powerhouse in Britain’s £200bn a year food market.

The deal received regulatory approval in December and both sets of shareholders backed the plan last month.

Mr Lewis said: “This merger is about growth, bringing together our complementary retail and wholesale skills to create the UK’s leading food business.”