"May I borrow your cheaters?" she asked. The woman was trim, glowing and the picture of active style in her tight running togs and state-of-the art sneakers. She was trying to read the price tag on a silk blouse.
It's an eye-opening experience. Baby boomers and fortysomethings are now facing a problem that no amount of conditioning, dieting, dressing or disguise can stem. They're becoming presbyopic, a condition in which the eyes lose some of the elasticity they need to switch focus on near objects. It's a time to look middle age in the eye -- in style -- and eye wear makers are tapping into that 40-but-fashionable market.
The Liz Claiborne label, known to stylish folks for clothes and accessories, is now appearing in department stores on over-the-counter magnifying glasses, or "readers."
"Lots of people are asking for them," says Lisa Kneval, an accessories sales consultant at Macy's at Marley Station. "They move pretty steadily, especially the full-frame red glasses that look like Sally Jessy Raphael. The tortoise shell full-frames are poplar too." The Claiborne readers retail for $28 and are selling well. They have yet to be marked down.
Suppliers to the drugstore trade are not far behind the famous labels. As soon as there's a trend, the knock-offs begin appearing in the less expensive lines.
Peter Petraka, whose Visual Scene company supplies all the Rite Aid Pharmacies in the Baltimore/Pennsylvania region, can talk fashion as well as sales.
"We ship reading glasses for middle American incomes, so basics are important, but so is style. We vary assortments to include a range of styles and colors. At a price point of $12 to $22, consumers can afford a wardrobe of readers -- full-frame Jackie-O's for chic, metallic finishes for sport and the small half-glasses for a small evening bag."
Jeffrey Levin, general manager of Field's Pharmacy on Reisterstown Road, advises some practical practice with readers. "The idea is to save in the beginning; eyes take a while to stabilize. You can buy and lose fancy glasses from the drugstore and it's no great financial loss, you can afford to experiment with what looks good."
Julie Bonneau, advertising manager of Dallas-based Bonneau Companies, who supply drugstores and general merchandise stores, says television and films have the biggest impact on eye wear. "Glasses are a fashion accessory, and people who need readers want them to look like the high-end prescription frames -- full frames, different textures and more color. Movie star sunglasses are a good trend indicator and we watch them closely."
For the beginning "cheater" there are specs beyond the half-moons that made everyone look like an aging Ben Franklin. Reading glasses are looking younger.