Supplier insight

Contact lens suppliers: reasons to be “cautiously optimistic”

Contact lens manufacturers share their insight on how COVID-19 has affected the category, and how the customer journey may shift in the future

glasses and contact lens case

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all aspects of eye care, and the contact lens segment has not escaped the pressure. From the restrictions to travel limiting the ability to purchase new lenses in-store, to a reduction in the typical usage occasions for customers, contact lens suppliers have felt the effects.

A recent survey by Johnson & Johnson Vision found 43% of patients say they are wearing contact lenses less than before lockdown.

“There is certainly a significant impact in the short-term,” explained Jakob Sveen, head of Northern Europe and general manager for UK and Ireland

With 89% of respondents saying they are likely to return to their normal contact lens wear, however, he added: “We are hopeful that the rebound will come.”

As other markets have opened ahead of the UK, contact lens manufacturers have been able to develop a picture of how the recovery could play out.

Where some countries loosened restrictions ahead of the UK, Mr Sveen noted there had been a “pent up demand” for eye health that had not fallen into the essential care category, “but are still top of the mind for those patients in need.”

Chantelle Cook, Alcon general manager, UK and Ireland, has observed a similar pattern, suggesting that in some European markets there have been some people “keen to get their lenses fitted.”

Sharing best practice and learnings from other markets that reduced restrictions ahead of the UK has been a helpful resource in the lockdown.

“We’ve been very lucky to be able to speak to some of the optometrists in markets like the Nordics, to hear how they have opened their practices, some of the precautions they have taken, and how they adapted,” Ms Cook explained.

Using the phrase “cautiously optimistic” however, Ms Cook pointed to the local lockdowns, such as the one introduced in Leicester, as a reason for a conservative approach.

Education and idea sharing

For some, the lockdown provided a unique opportunity to complete additional learning and education and many suppliers sought to meet this demand with new webinar and digital content.

CooperVision brought forward the launch of its new eLearning platform in April to provide practitioners and staff the opportunity to build on their skills and knowledge. Speaking to OT, head of professional services, Krupa Patel, explained the platform has welcomed over 7000 attendees since its launch.

With new guidance released as practices return to routine services, CooperVision has compiled the key information into a free ‘mini module,’ at the end of which, registrants can download a certificate of completion.

Over the next few months Ms Patel said the company is reviewing its online education plan to offer bite-sized content in addition to its full-length sessions and is also exploring how it can adapt its approach for various groups such as undergraduates, pre-registration optometrists and trainee contact lens opticians.

Getting home deliveries up and running was a transformational change for some

Kamlesh Chauhan, director of professional affairs, UK, Ireland, Nordics and DACH for Johnson & Johnson Vision

Kamlesh Chauhan, director of professional affairs, UK, Ireland, Nordics and DACH for Johnson & Johnson Vision has seen an “eagerness” from eye care professionals (ECPs) to engage in online learning.

Through lockdown, J&J has supported more than 2500 ECPs through live training, both webinars and peer discussions, along with 1200 support staff.

Meanwhile, support has continued for students through its Success Through Education Programme (STEP), engaging approximately 500 students during lockdown.

“For students it has been a really challenging time because they don’t know when their exams would be or when they can start their jobs,” commented Dr Chauhan, explaining that they had been working with stakeholders to keep students up to date.

J&J has been running programmes to help get practices prepare to get back to seeing patients and doing so safely, as well as streamlining the examination and without compromising safety and quality. The team have also organised an accredited peer workshop to explore how practitioners can welcome patients safely back into practice.

“We have to realise that, ultimately, if a practice can’t be profitable, it can’t provide the eye care services it needs to,” Dr Chauhan said.

The team are also looking at how it can support ECPs to innovate their practice infrastructure.

“That is critically important,” Dr Chauhan continued. “Getting home deliveries up and running was a transformational change for some.”

Commenting on the increased uptake in home delivery services, Mr Sveen added that for those patients who preferred going into store for a more personal interaction, “that stopped almost overnight.

“There was a need to switch, and I think realising the convenience of home delivery and that you can still have a good relationship with your local ECP has been a learning,” Mr Sveen explained, suggesting that a trend going forwards will be supporting practices through some of those learnings of the payment schemes.

Protecting revenue streams

Over the lockdown, subscription models for contact lenses have provided a much-needed income as practices closed their doors.

Alcon has seen the numbers of its direct-to-patient scheme more than double.

“I think that has been a really big lesson for everyone,” Ms Cook commented. “Something that is a great service for people can also continue to keep your revenue stream and business afloat.”

A key takeaway from the crisis has been to “never assume business is always going to be fine,” Ms Cook suggested.

“I think about the conversations I had with customers last year about snow days and we laughed that it is always good to have your customers on a scheme. No-one could have foreseen this,” she explained. “I think it is really important that customers are reflecting on how they protect their businesses, not just for now, but in the future. Who knows what else is around the corner.”

Where practices may have a percentage of their patients already on home deliveries, Ms Cook said the company is focusing on helping practices to get the rest of their patients onboard a direct scheme, particularly with the potential threat of a second wave of the virus.

The strength of the subscription model is something that CooperVision’s head of professional services, Krupa Patel, has also noted, explaining that contact lenses have offered “strong business resilience” over the past few months, particularly for those offering a subscription model, and “in many cases, a practice’s only income stream.”

Early in the lockdown, the company expanded its VisionXtra scheme to include the Republic of Ireland.

As well as supporting business, direct-to-patient schemes could also offer a change to the customer journey. A recent consumer survey by CooperVision found that 78% of contact lens wearers agree their lenses should be delivered to their house, rather than picking them up in-store.

Ms Patel suggested that this presents an opportunity to leverage these schemes to improve the customer journey and also help to “protect retailer loyalty.”

The new shop window

As practices work to minimise unnecessary physical contact, future approaches could involve greater digital support, suggested Neil Retallic, European professional services director for Menicon.

“Our customers still have the motivation to, at times, want to wear contact lenses for some things, and spectacles for other activities,” Mr Retallic commented. “The underlying heart of what we are doing hasn’t really changed, and the risk of them having any issues hasn’t really changed.”

“It is how we are going to communicate with them and provide that service that might take different channels,” he suggested.

He highlighted that during the lockdown, many people were turning to social media for their information, and suggested the profession could utilise social media to share information or guidance, and help patients keep connected between appointments.

This has translated to a push to leverage social media to better communicate with customers, even when the practice itself has had to close its doors.

This is a trend Dimple Zala, professional affairs manager UK/Ireland and Nordics for Bausch + Lomb, has also observed, and one she believes will grow in the future.

“If you think about the reduction in footfall on the High Street, the fact that the general public may be less comfortable shopping on the High Street now, really the shopfront is now online, and we have to think about how we are going to bring the practice window, that normally prospective patients would have walked past, into their homes.”

Ms Zala added, “The power of social media is the obvious way forward.”

Digital opportunities

COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of online platforms, Ms Zala suggested, commenting that while online purchasing could be here to stay, it could be a good thing.

She suggests the profession needs to adapt to these changing behaviours, and services such as home deliveries could be a positive step.

Alongside the company’s established Bausch + Lomb Direct scheme, the company has plans to launch a new e-commerce feature that will enable practices to set up online reordering for their cash-paying patients.

Rather than these patients being tempted to purchase online, the company hopes this system will help practices set up patients on a system where they can control when they want to order their lenses.

“What this will do is hopefully enable the patient to stay with the practice but give them the freedom of paying as they go for their contact lenses,” Ms Zala added.

We have to think about how we are going to bring the practice window, that normally prospective patients would have walked past, into their homes

Dimple Zala, professional affairs manager UK/Ireland and Nordics for Bausch + Lomb

CooperVision’s Krupa Patel also highlights the opportunity for change amidst the shifting environment, as well as a challenge to “think differently.”

Remote consultations were one way practitioners have been able to respond, she suggested, with insights from the US market suggesting approximately 20% of patients who used telemedicine services feel the quality of care was similar to, or higher than, an in-person visit.

“So it begs the question, what part should telehealth play in practice going forwards?” Ms Patel asked. She added that with these new services, the typical patient journey has “evolved almost overnight.”

The personal touch

J&J has also noted a “real desire” from ECPs to enhance digital strategy and better use social media platforms.

This is something Dr Chauhan believes will continue, particularly with chair-time constrained by the additional safety protocols. He suggests: “We have seen a real spike in interest and this is an area we think is here to stay, certainly in aftercare.”

“COVID has certainly changed how we view the patient experience,” commented Mr Sveen, suggesting the changes brought about by necessity of the lockdown have also provided opportunities, such as in engaging with patients before they come into the store, or enhancing digital engagement.

“Already there are early conversations around – what are those green shoots of ideas that we can keep as we come out of recovery that make it a more convenient and much better experience overall for patients?”

However, Mr Sveen emphasised that the human-touch will still be central.

“The core of this industry and optometry is that patient relationship with the professional. Whether that happens in the chair, on the store floor, or through social media, that engagement is at the heart of what the industry is all about, and that will not change.”

For an exploration of COVID-19 and contact lens wear, take a look at our CET article on the topic.

Share your views on contact lens practice during COVID-19

OT has launched a survey to explore how COVID-19 has affected the working patterns of optometrists, including contact lens practice, and how customer behaviours towards contact lenses have changed through the pandemic.
Conducted in partnership with Johnson & Johnson Vision, the OT reader insights survey is open to all practising optometrist AOP members in the UK. Responses will be used anonymously to guide content and services to support the needs of members.

All AOP members who complete the survey and provide an email address will also be entered into a prize draw.