It’s looking good for eye care

The eye care market has remained static, but with an ageing UK population and an increasing demand for quality products, it faces a rose-tinted future

Mintel’s latest research into the optical goods market identifies a two-tier eye care market. The total market for optical goods and eye care products is estimated to be worth about &£2bn in 2000. The proportion of spectacle and contact lens wearers in the UK remains largely static, at about 60 per cent of all adults.

The research highlights how financially better-off consumers are increasingly demanding stylish, designer frames and new technology lenses. By contrast, those of more limited means or with family and other financial commitments, take a more pragmatic and finance-led approach.

The stagnation in the market overall may seem surprising in view of the fact that the UK has an ageing population, and that more people having sight tests are being issued with prescriptions for glasses. This increase in prescriptions is part of a long-term trend related to the ageing population.

Department of Health estimates show that 16.2 million sight tests were carried out during the year to March 2000, only slightly higher than the 15.6 million in the preceding year, and is in line with population growth.

Spectacles remains the largest sector of the eye-wear market, at 69 per cent of the market, which reflects the greater number of consumers who wear glasses and the older age profile of these wearers. The substantial growth in volume of spectacles sold during 1997 and 1998, as a result of the high levels of two-for-one offers, has slowed.

Product development has been steady, and has resulted in lightweight, virtually unbreakable spectacles, thinner lenses and more comfortable frames. But the key development has been the uptake of designer name frames, particularly at the young and affluent end of the market.

Contact lens use has fluctuated only fractionally since 1995, and remains at about six per cent of all adults. The strong trend in the contact lens market towards disposable lenses has driven volume sales, while value growth has been more modest.

Contact lenses now account for 12 per cent of the market overall by value. Product innovation has been a key ingredient of growth. Recent innovations include continuous-wear lenses, which can be worn day and night for up to 30 days, and these have contributed to the significant increase of sales of multi-use and daily disposable lenses.

However, this shift towards daily disposable contact lenses has caused sales of contact lens solutions – needed primarily for non-disposable and multi-use disposable lenses – to go into decline.

Sales of other eye care solutions remain buoyant, although they only account for a very small percentage of the overall total. These solutions include eye-baths and eye drops to treat tired, dry eyes caused by pollution, pollen, dust or eye strain. The market appears to have reached a plateau since 1998, with a value of &£22m.

External lifestyle factors, including environmental pollution and the greater use of computers, as well as the promotion of eye care products, have kept the market stable.

In terms of distribution, the major retail opticians such as Specsavers, Boots Opticians, Dollond & Aitchison and Vision Express lead the market.

The need for a prescription for spectacles and contact lenses is a constraining factor, although there is no requirement for consumers to purchase their spectacles or lenses from the optician issuing the prescription.

Some pharmacies are now offering a dispensing service for spectacles, but this is relatively small scale. A key development in recent years has been the expansion of Tesco’ss presence in the market, and the rise of Internet-based companies, which primarily supply contact lenses, although, as yet, these occupy a very small percentage of the total market.

Exclusive consumer research conducted for Mintel by BMRB illustrates the range of factors consumers consider to be important when choosing an optician.

Qualified opticians and knowledgeable, friendly staff are issues which are particularly important to older people, who form the bulk of the market. Younger people, although still expecting qualified staff and good service, tend to be more price-oriented, with choice and speed of service also highlighted as important factors.

The prospects for the optical goods and eye care market are promising. The ageing population should gradually increase demand for spectacles, while higher levels of wealth and demand for quality, design and service among the key young and middle-aged consumers should ensure that value sales grow.

Factfile is edited by Julia Day. Amanda White, Mintel analyst, contributed.

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