New Look

Supermarkets should give eye care, which includes over-the-counter medications and corrective eyewear, a second look. Except for the contact lens segment, eye care in general is posting positive sales numbers, boosted by an aging population and consumers' tendency to self-treat eye problems. The element of fashion also comes into play with increasing eyeglass sales, which some retailers see as deserving

Supermarkets should give eye care, which includes over-the-counter medications and corrective eyewear, a second look.

Except for the contact lens segment, eye care in general is posting positive sales numbers, boosted by an aging population and consumers' tendency to self-treat eye problems. The element of fashion also comes into play with increasing eyeglass sales, which some retailers see as deserving of more space than a simple spinner rack.

While many grocers include the minimum space required for eye care products near their pharmacies and over-the-counter aisles, the category is often not promoted or merchandised as well as it could be, noted Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, a retail consultancy in Libertyville, Ill. “The problem with supermarkets is they still look at it eye care as a convenience category, whereas for many customers it is a destination category. Supermarkets don't think of the heavy user.”

For example, contact lens wearers typically purchase fresh contact lens cleaning solutions every quarter. Supermarket chains that provide coupons for lens cleaners monthly may snag those repeat purchasers away from drug stores and mass merchandisers, Wisner said.

According to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc., sales of eye care and allergy drops, such as Alcon Opti Free, Visine and Allergan Refresh Tears, increased 3.7% to $937.9 million in food, drug and mass merchandise outlets, excluding Wal-Mart, for the 52 weeks ending Aug. 10, 2008. Sales of boric acid, a contact lens cleaner, grew 12.4% during the same period.

While the overall reading glass and contact lens market grew between 4% and 10% annually between 2002 and 2007 in all retail outlets, sunglasses and off-the-shelf eyeglasses realized growth of 25%, to $4.8 billion, from 2005 to 2007, according to research firm Mintel International Group, Chicago.

Besides using reading glasses to correct vision, consumers are purchasing reading glasses and sunglasses as a fashion accessory.

“The biggest thing in eyewear is getting into the fashion accessory portion of it. People are looking to spend a bit more than $5 and $10 on reading glasses,” said a nonfood executive with a Southeastern grocery chain. As a result, the chain is adding more premium reading glasses in various styles, in addition to its value packs of three or four pairs.

“Body and face adornments seem more ‘hip’ today among younger respondents than previously,” commented Billy Hulkower, senior analyst for Mintel International Group. “Why wear contacts when you are actively trying to make your face more interesting?”

In addition, traditional fashion labels such as Dior, which consistently launch new eyeglasses lines, increase the prominence of eyeglasses as a fashion category, Hulkower said.

“Between an aging population that can't get enough of the $15 reading glasses and the wardrobe of sunglasses and eyeglasses that people carry, the opportunity is to start looking at this category as more than a $2.99 lens-solution category,” said Candace Corlett, principal of research and consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, New York.

As a result of more Baby Boomers buying reading glasses, the Southeastern grocery chain mentioned above is cross-promoting eyedrops with reading glasses more often, and sunglasses with sun care and seasonal sections for summer. “There are cross-purchases between eyedrops and eyewear. As people get older, they use both,” said the chain's nonfood executive.

In addition, the retailer's 4-foot to 8-foot glasses and eye care sets are located directly across from first aid and digestive products in its HBC sets. “People who are buying eye care products are usually older, and sometimes are looking for digestive products as well,” the nonfood executive stated.

Baby Boomers are also choosing different pairs of reading glasses for different situations and styles. “In the old days, a single spinner rack was going to take care of it. People are more style-conscious now, and people who wear reading glasses have multiple pairs,” Wisner said.

“This is a generation that remains stalwart in clinging to youthful appearances and attitudes, and reading glasses are an indisputable — and perhaps depressing — sign of aging. Selecting to buy high-style reading glasses or bifocals is a way to change a depressing element of the aging process,” Hulkower added.

CONTACT SOLUTIONS

The contact lens market is changing. While contact lens wetting and cleaning solutions are still popular, the number of contact lens wearers is decreasing due to the availability of corrective laser surgery, and because many consumers are switching from long-wear contacts to daily wear and disposable lenses.

“New contact lens wearers are generally found among those age 12-17 years old, a population that has been in decline from 2002-2007,” according to a statement in Mintel's recent report, “Glasses and Contact Lenses — U.S.” As a result, overall contact lens sales fell 6% to $613 million from 2005 to 2007, according to Mintel.

Disposable lenses have also cut into the overall contact lens solution market.

“So many people have moved to disposable lenses that the need for all the maintenance kinds of solutions has decreased,” Wisner said.

As a result, sales of lens care tablets and accessories dropped 6% during the period tracked by IRI in food, drug and mass outlets. Food stores realized the biggest hit in the tablets and accessories market with a 13.5% drop in sales.

Retailers and consultants also report that sales of contact lens cleaners fell after Bausch & Lomb discontinued sales for its ReNu with MoistureLoc product in 2006 when some consumers experienced complications due to a defect in its formulation.

In the overall $940 million eye care solution category, the products with the highest growth in food, drug and mass stores included Amo Complete Eye/Lens Care Solution, Allergan Optive, Zaditor, Alcon Systane, Ciba Vision Clear Care and Alcon Opti Free Replenish.

Eye and lens care solutions grew 2.5% in supermarkets during IRI's tracking period, to $296 million, but sales of private-label eye and lens solutions dropped 11.8% in food stores.

In the eyedrops category, Visine eyedrops and eyewash are used by nearly half of consumers who wear glasses and contact lenses, while the Clear Eyes brand has a 23% market penetration, according to Mintel.