Cover Story: Toughing It Out: Top Labs Show Resilience in Uphill Market

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NEW YORK—In today’s challenging economic climate, flat is the new up, according to conventional wisdom. By that measure, even the modest gains made this year by the largest U.S. wholesale optical laboratories and reported in Vision Monday’s newly released 2009 Top Labs Report, are noteworthy.

The new data in the report provides a statistical snapshot of the Top 25 Independent U.S. Wholesale Labs and the Top 5 U.S. Supplier-Owned U.S. Wholesale Lab Networks. Published annually since 1991, the Top Labs Report ranks the 30 labs by Rx sales (pairs of prescription lenses produced) and the number of Rx jobs produced per day. The report also measures the percent of uncut Rx jobs produced by the Top Labs, the number of employees at each lab and other key performance criteria.

Although some of the 30 labs surveyed prospered while others struggled, overall the wholesalers again proved their resilience and stability, continuing to serve as a vital resource for eyecare professionals seeking new lens technology. Combined net sales for the Top Labs, including both the supplier-owned lab networks and the independent labs rose to $2,021.4 million, up 2.2 percent from 2008. Total Rx sales reached a record $1,702.3 million, a 3.3 percent increase over 2008. The Top Labs collectively produced a total of 124,945 Rx jobs per day, or approximately 31.3 million Rx jobs annually, representing a 1 percent increase over 2008.


 

Top 5 Supplier-Owned Networks

The Top 5 Supplier-Owned Wholesale Lab Networks turned in another solid performance in 2009. Collectively, the Top 5 will generate $1,477 million in total net sales, up 4.6 percent over 2008.

Total Rx sales, which is based on the labs’ core business of surfacing and finishing prescription lenses and is the basis of the primary ranking of the Top Labs, amounted to $1,293.9 million, or 91.5 percent of total net sales on average. Although Rx sales for the Top 5 grew 5 percent from 2008, it amounts to a smaller proportion of the Top 5’s total net sales than in 2008. Conversely, the proportion of sales of non-Rx products such as stock lenses, frames and contact lenses, increased among the Top 5 this year.

The number of Rx jobs per day for the Top 5 totaled 93,400, up 1.7 percent over 2008. On an annualized basis, this amounts to a total of about 23.3 million Rx jobs, up from 22.9 million last year. The average proportion of uncut lens jobs among the Top 5 was 36.2 percent, the same as ’08.

The Top 5 added three individual lab locations in the past 12 months, bringing the total number to 175. The Top 5 work force consists of 9,170 employees in 2009, up 2.8 percent over 2008.

A significant portion of the Top 5’s growth resulted from acquisitions. Notably, Essilor acquired 12 independent labs in 2009, including two that ranked among VM’s Top 25 Independent Wholesale Labs in 2008—Pech Optical, based in Sioux City, Iowa (Number 2) and Southwest Lens, based in Dallas, Texas (Number 24).

The Top 25 Independents

Individually, many of the Top 25 Independent Labs experienced gains in 2009. Twelve of the Top 25 increased their Rx sales; 10 produced more Rx jobs per day in 2009 than in 2008.

However, in 2009, as in the previous year, the Top 25 experienced a collective downturn in sales and productivity. The decline is partly due to continuing industry consolidation, which has resulted in several large independent wholesalers such as Pech Optical joining a Supplier-Owned Lab Network.

The total aggregate net sales for the Top 25 Independents was $544.4 million, a 4.2 percent decrease from 2008. Total Rx sales for the Top 25 amounted to $408.8 million, down 2.1 percent from 2008 and the lowest level since 2005. Rx sales accounted for 94.5 percent of net sales for the Top 25, up from 92.6 percent in 2008. This increase, and the corresponding decline in non-Rx sales, is in contrast to the decreasing percentage of Rx sales among the Top 5 Supplier-Owned Labs.

Unit sales among the Top 25 fell slightly to 31,545 Rx jobs per day, down 1.2 percent from 2008. This amounts to approximately 7.9 million Rx jobs per year, flat with year ago levels. Uncut lenses, on average, accounted for 35.5 percent of Rx jobs produced by the Top 25, up 9.9 percent over 2008.