Use today's color-changing lenses to help boost your sales

April 15, 2008

Due perhaps to the uniqueness of the photochromic lenses or a pent up demand for the product, the Corning products were extremely popular with consumers hoping to avoid the expense of purchasing dedicated prescription sunglasses. Dispensing ophthalmologists and their opticians, however, quickly became aware of the product's shortcomings.

Photochromic lenses are far from new. The first photochromic products were introduced in 1966-Corning's PhotoGray and later PhotoBrown lenses, made of glass. Due perhaps to the uniqueness of the lenses or a pent up demand for the product, the Corning products were extremely popular with consumers hoping to avoid the expense of purchasing dedicated prescription sunglasses.

Dispensing ophthalmologists and their opticians, however, quickly became aware of the product's shortcomings. Patients returned, saying the lenses were heavy, did not get as dark as traditional sunglasses, did not darken quickly, took a long time to lighten, and did not lighten completely. In addition, the lens' depth of color decreased at temperatures above 80º F. Most important, the lenses did not darken completely while the wearer was driving.

Over the years, manufacturers have risen to the challenge of overcoming the drawbacks of photochromic lenses. After some significant failures by other companies, in 1990, Transitions Optical Inc. became the first company to successfully market a plastic photochromic lens, its Transitions product. Being made of plastic helped the Transitions lens overcome the weight problem of its predecessors.

Manufacturers also have developed improved ways of producing photochromic lenses, each hoping to eliminate or minimize one or more of the problems mentioned above. These technologies:

Imbibing. In this patented process, a dye containing photochromic molecules penetrates the lens surface deeply enough to become a permanent part of it. That process makes the photochromic material impervious to scratches on the lens surface.

In-mass. Photosensitive chemicals are mixed uniformly throughout the lens material during manufacture.

Coating. A layer of photochromic dye is applied to the lens and bonded using heat or a chemical process. The dye also can be applied using spin coating technology.

Photochromics then and now

The performance of contemporary photochromic lenses is dramatically better than that of their early counterparts. Proof of this improvement is the sixth generation of the Transitions product, aptly named Transitions VI, which was released in February. According to the company, these lenses become as dark as non-variable sunglasses (88% dark at 73º F), darken more quickly, and lighten more quickly than previous generations of the lens. Transitions VI lenses become as clear as regular clear lenses indoors and at night and are less sensitive to temperatures above 80º F (73% dark at 95º F).

Dispensing ophthalmologists will want to know that 17% of all eyeglass wearers in the United States purchase photochromic lenses, according to Transitions Optical Inc. Ophthalmology dispensaries and private optometry practices see a higher percentage, perhaps because of the demographics of those patients. Among my clients, best-in-class sales performances exceed 35%.

It should not be surprising to learn that photochromic lenses now are available in mid-index and high-index lens materials. Photochromics are being made in an ever-increasing range of lens styles as well. Of greater importance to younger consumers and those baby boomers who are beginning to be seen by ophthalmologists, photochromics now are available in a wide variety of fashion colors, not just the traditional gray and brown.

The final frontier

The last hurdle for traditional photochromic lenses to overcome has been the inability to change while the wearer is driving. Another new product has come to market, however: Drivewear lenses (Younger Optics). Drivewear, created primarily for daylight driving and outdoor use, is the first lens to combine polarization with photochromic capabilities in one lens. That technology enables the lens to be activated not only by UV light, but also by visible light in conditions such as behind the windshield of a car and intense light outdoors.

Things you can do

If your dispensary's sales of photochromic lenses are below the best-in-class sales figure:

Arthur De Gennaro is president of Arthur De Gennaro & Associates LLC, an ophthalmic practice management firm that specializes in optical dispensary issues. De Gennaro is the author of the book The Dispensing Ophthalmologist, slated for release by the American Academy of Ophthalmology this summer. He can be reached at 803/359-7887, arthur@adegennaro.com
, or through the company's Web site, http://www.adegennaro.com/.