Industry profile

A growing, diverse industry

President of CooperVision, Daniel McBride, talks to OT  about the key trends in the contact lens market, the impact of COVID-19 and the need for practices to innovate

contact lens illustration

The recovery of the contact lens market has been impressive, from what was a complete pit that all markets fell into.

What we found is that when the markets opened up, there was a strong recovery.

In North America much of the market is approaching a full recovery, other than the coasts, so there is still a lot of opportunity in places like California and New York, where business is still down. Looking at the Asia-Pacific market, which was highly sensitive to the pandemic, we are starting to see a pretty strong recovery there now too. Probably the weakest region is Europe, and that appears to be based on the slow vaccine rollout.

We’re seeing a strong recovery when markets open, but when a country goes back into lockdown, we immediately see a pullback. Consumers are relatively healthy. There is certainly a segment that was extremely negatively affected in losing their jobs because of the pandemic, but by and large consumers are in good shape and ready to buy once the markets open.

A big worry in the middle of the pandemic was for practices that were damaged quite severely and just watched their business dry up. Supporting that recovery has been a large part of CooperVision’s focus.

One of the trends we observed over the course of the year was a big spike in online purchases.

Consumers were looking at where they could get their product, and they couldn’t always get it from their normal eye care practice, so they were finding online vendors.

I think practices do need to stay aware of this, though what we did find is that consumers like to go back to their normal shopping habits so there was a good rebound for practices. But when I think about it globally, online was around 18–20% of the market pre-pandemic and it has shifted up to maybe 20-22% of the market. This shift definitely has a long-term impact on practices.

Practices are still the place to go, however, and the eye care practitioner (ECP) still has the primary relationship with the customer. If they leverage that relationship, then our observation is that many consumers like to buy from their practitioners.

One of the biggest trends, still, is daily disposable silicone hydrogel (SiHy) contact lenses.

We have a massive trend of people moving into daily disposable contact lenses and that becoming the lens of choice from the very beginning. In the industry, over half of daily disposable lenses are still in older products and standard hydrogel products, so the amount of people shifting into a healthier and higher oxygen modality is exciting.

The other thing is that daily disposables were previously for a select few people who could fit them, because they were more expensive and more difficult to make. It was for sphere patients, a limited range of toric patients, and even fewer multifocal patients – nobody else could really go into the lens. I think that is a big change now.

We’re expanding our toric ranges on all of our daily disposable products. We intend to offer a toric range that is the same as your standard FRP range so that anybody can make a choice in products, and that really opens up the category.

The other exciting piece of this is understanding that the category can be so much bigger and recognising that there is no real reason to limit people on what products they can have. Products like Biofinity XR and Biofinity Toric Multifocal, for example. There are a host of people at a certain age, who will say: “I can’t wear contact lenses, they don’t make them for me.” That is not true anymore. We will make contact lenses for anybody and any eye.

The industry has talked about telehealth for a long period of time, but has been really slow to adopt.

Our industry tends to be fairly slow to adopt new technology, but I think the pandemic has accelerated the trend towards that.

When we think about things like myopia management, for example, we know that it requires multiple parent conversations. Telehealth allows ECPs to do that in a safe space – parents can be at home, they can have their computer in front of them and research what you are telling them.

Certainly, we are seeing models that are being tested out globally where whole segments of practice are going into telehealth – at least on a screening or repeat consumer basis.

I think it is a big benefit for contact lenses. The one complaint that we get about contact lenses is that they take longer to fit, and so take longer in the chair. If you can take some of that burden off the practice, it allows you to get more people through.

Fitting glasses is quicker and more profitable in the short-term. But there is a lot of data to suggest that contact lens wearers are actually more profitable consumers. They spend more in the store at the end of the day. Those of us who have been wearing contact lenses for most of our life will also have several pairs of glasses and wear both. Having stores recognise that contact lens wearers are their strongest consumers will be important. Telehealth helps to eliminate some of the perceived downside that they can take longer to service.

Practices can take advantage of the fact that the pandemic forced us to learn some new skills, and those skills can make all of our businesses and interactions better.

We are going to be innovating, bringing expanded parameter ranges, doing new things within the science and bringing in new clinical information so ECPs are better able to explain to consumers what they are getting.

But it is going to require a little bit of investment on the ECP side too. That is going to involve making sure you are up to date on the latest in the clinical information. But you are also going to have to innovate within your practice too. Telehealth is a great example of that: you need to be able to reach consumers in their homes and in different ways to provide them with greater pieces of information.

Practices are probably going to have to embrace some e-commerce. Consumers want to buy products when they want to buy them. So, at midnight when they are online, can they buy their product from you? Or do they have to buy it from an online vendor? Because they want to buy from you if you have made it convenient for them.

The benefit of this is that we have an industry that is phenomenal. It is growing, contact lenses connect with consumers, and there are new products available to engage with customers. It has been a tough year for everyone, but it is a great industry to be in.

  • As told to Kimberley Young.