A pair of sunglasses priced at $90 or more might make some shoppers see red. But that kind of price hasn't prevented glasses made by a small Burbank company, Alpha Basics, from emerging as one of the summer's trendier brands.
The company's Perception sunglasses have been sold for the past six weeks at such elite department stores as Bloomingdale's in New York, Rich's in Atlanta, Burdines in Miami and San Francisco-based I. Magnin. The stores are promoting them largely by appealing to America's preoccupation with health and promising that the lenses will shield wearers' eyes from ultraviolet radiation and from "blue light."
In touting the sunglasses in ads, Rich's called them "a new way of seeing things," while Bloomingdale's went so far as to say they could "alter the vision of millions of Americans."
Alpha Basics is a tiny part of the nation's sunglasses industry, which sells an estimated 160 million pairs a year. But its recent sales to a group of fashionable stores nationwide came just in time for an obscure six-employee optical firm that in April had a list of impatient creditors and meager sales.
That was before Bloomingdale's in late May ordered 1,500 Perception sunglasses and advertised them in the New York Times in the first week of June. Bolstered by the prestige of the order, Alpha Basics soon was shipping sunglasses to other department stores that, like Bloomingdale's, are part of the Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores chain.
Alpha Basics says it has sold about 5,000 pairs in the past two months with sales of approximately $100,000 a month, about four times what they were a year ago, according to a company financial statement. The company is projecting sales of about $2 million and profit of more than $400,000 within the next year.
The key selling point of the Perception sunglasses, which retail for $90 to $110, is a lens that the company says increases sharpness and clarity of vision, especially in hazy or foggy weather, and also protects the eyes from harmful light rays.
Like a number of other sunglasses on the market, the Perception glasses shade the eyes from ultraviolet radiation, which many scientists say can lead to cataracts. The difference between its sunglasses and most of the others on the market, the company contends, is that its lenses also help screen out "blue light," a spectrum of rays that some researchers believe can hurt the eyes.
Gene Moss, a Cincinnati-based health physicist with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, said that research on the effects of blue light is inconclusive but strongly indicates that prolonged exposure causes photochemical damage to the eye. Extended exposure to blue light rays, he said, can result in lesions in the retina and "senile macular degeneration," a condition marked by such problems as difficulty reading a newspaper or recognizing details in objects.
Mixed Sales Reported
Whether Perception is just another fad or the beginning of a new trend in sunglasses design is unclear. Buyers for department stores report sales results so far are mixed, noting that the glasses require a more extensive sales presentation by clerks than do most sunglasses.
"It doesn't sell itself on the counter. It really has to be explained," said Joan Bergholt, I. Magnin's merchandise manager for fashion accessories.
Although the Bloomingdale's order was a turning point for Alpha Basics, Shelly Thomas, an assistant buyer for the New York store, said the glasses have not been easy to sell.
"Once the customer tries them on and walks outside, they are usually sold. But the trick is getting people to come into the store and look at the glasses to see how they work," she said.
The lenses in the sunglasses sold by Alpha Basics were designed by Joseph Berg, the company's president and controlling shareholder who for more than 20 years owned a laboratory in Burbank where he colored prescription sunglasses and designed special window shades used by NASA in some of its Apollo flights.
Berg, 49, said he began working on the Perception glasses after reading a February, 1983, article in the Journal of Occupational Medicine by Dr. William T. Ham Jr., a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, discussing the dangers of ultraviolet radiation and blue light.
The manufacturing process that Berg designed involves immersing racks of hard plastic lenses for about 10 minutes in an orange-brown solution--the formula of which he won't disclose--heated to about 200 degrees. The lenses, which emerge from the solution with an orange tint, then are treated with colors such as khaki, brown and orange-yellow to give them a more appealing look.
Stores Choose Frames
Alpha Basics then placed the lenses into frames bought according to the department stores' guidelines. They include common aviator-style frames and large-frame models known as the "Jackie O" style.