Considerations for onsite prescription eyewear

October 15, 2009

Today's wholesale optical lab is one of the longest-running constants in the history of American manufacturing.

Today's wholesale optical lab is one of the longest-running constants in the history of American manufacturing. Its legacy has been centered on a long-standing tradition of primarily local eye-care professional relationships, educational support, and, of course, the delivery of qualitatively superior eyewear for the patient's individual ophthalmic needs.

Not unlike virtually all manufacturing industries, the growth and stability of the U.S. wholesale optical lab community has been and continues to be affected by a now very global economy, ever-changing market dynamics including consolidation (mergers and acquisitions), and costly new technologic advances in lens materials and equipment. These changes have led to a growing loss of the local "general store" feel and much of the historically familial and organic relevance of wholesale labs. By and large these changes have also led to adoption of greater levels of cost efficiencies, focus on drivers of business, easier or more expedited access to new technology, and a "big-box" methodology and structure as the norm. Much of this has been more a behind the scenes reality versus any change or untoward effect to the individual lab's own closely held relationship with the local eye-care professional. At least that is and has been the hope and the goal.

Market dynamics

As a backdrop to this, one of the largest third-party payer organizations (vision insurance) has recently announced plans, beginning in 2010, to allow optometrists to perform in-office finishing of lenses for their covered patients under this national coverage plan. Prior to this time all patient prescription lens work had to be processed and finished in the particular third-party payer's wholly owned or certified wholesale optical production labs. This policy shift can be viewed as a significant potential game changer that will, by its very nature, strengthen any current in-office lens finishing practice; it may also encourage those that have heretofore resisted the idea of in-office edging to consider it now for all the established reasons, but also to remain competitive and have greater control over their business financial destiny.

Add to this new and select market eyewear niches that both wholesale lab and retail-based eye-care professionals are taking advantage of to boost their own business models during these still somewhat uncertain economic times. One such growing niche is what is known as "magnetic sun lenses." Unlike a traditional sunwear "clip-on" product, the magnetic sun lens is processed (edged and finished with specific edger-based 3D drilled holes for magnet insertion) to match the individual prescription of the patient's ophthalmic lens and base curve uniformly. This device not only provides sun protection but there is no loss of visual acuity that may otherwise potentially occur to some degree with a more traditional clip-on product. The relevance of this product technology advancement has been profiting both wholesale labs (that do the magnetic sun lens processing onsite) and eye-care professionals as a more economic and attractive alternative to often more costly specific prescription sunwear (effectively a separate set of glasses versus the simpler and more ergonomic magnetic sun lenses). The cost differential between the two can be up to $100 or more.