Optical recovering post-recession, with Internet leading the way

September 18, 2014

The U.S. optical industry is in full recovery mode, and the outlook on future growth is good, reported Shawn Shafer, program manager for The Vision Council, at state of the industry meeting at Vision Expo West in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas-The U.S. optical industry is in full recovery mode, and the outlook on future growth is good, reported Shawn Shafer, program manager for The Vision Council, at state of the industry meeting at Vision Expo West in Las Vegas.

Most notably, Shafer says the troubles of 2013 seem to be dissipating as consumer and business confidence levels continue to rise and leading economic indicators are pointing towards a positive recovery.

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“We're thinking the growth we've seen will continue,” Shafer said, adding that the adult population is flexing its purchasing muscle with strong purchasing growth from April of last year in both general and optical goods and services. From April 2013 to April 2014, the optical market has seen an increase from 11.6 percent to 14.9 percent of U.S. adults exhibiting purchasing activity.

Industry sales in various categories have also risen over the past year, this despite the percentage of American's using any form of vision correction has remained steady at 75.4 percent, only 0.2 percentage points less over last year. Most notably, sales of contact lenses have grown by 11.6 percent over the past two years to $4.3 billion, followed closely by ophthalmic lenses which have seen a 10.7 percent rise to $11.3 billion.

However, the biggest comes as no surprise to most: online sales. Once more, online sales across the board have seen double-digit growth, with Plano sunglasses leading the charge with a 35.3 percent growth in sales from June 2012 to the same time this year. But contact lenses continue to lead the market, with $629 million in online sales, a 16.5 percent rise in the same time period. Online frame and lens sales, which saw 31.3 and 27.2 percent growth respectively, still only made up a small percentage of their overall sales figures, representing $252 million and $168 million of their respective figures. But the rise towards online sales is certain to only continue growing.

The key for independents for stemming the tide of customers turning to online purchasing is in how those customers are handled when in the office, said The Vision Council's Sr. Director of Industry Research Steve Kodey.

"Managed care is key in all of this," Kodey said. "Health-oriented customers need to be treated well when they're at the practice," otherwise they'll look elsewhere when making their lens purchases. One indicator points to just how costly mismanaged personalized care can be.

"Before the recession, walk-out rates were around 30 percent, but once the recession hit and physicians had more time they could spend on individuals, those rates dropped to around 25 percent," Kodey said. "However, now that times are getting better, eyecare practitioners are spending a little less time taking care of their patients, and we're seeing walk-out rates that reflect that, now at about 28 percent."

Whether those figures are directly affected by physician time spent per patient or a byproduct of seeing less loyal patients coming back to eye care facilities is another question, but one thing is for sure, Shafer said: individualized care will be key to beating back the growing tide of Internet sales cannibalizing the independent practitioner's market.

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