Vision Council Survey Predicts Online Retailing Will Increase

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While the majority of leading national and regional brick-and-mortar retailers in the U.S. are not talking about their plans for online optical retailing (see “When Will Brick Add Click?,” page 42) and eyeglass retailers with online-only operations are doing all they can to compete with each other (see “Online Retailers Talk Shop,” page 44), The December 2011 Vision Council VisionWatch Internet Influence Report has determined that “over the years, the number of buyers who will possibly or probably use the internet to buy eyewear in the future will increase.”

The VisionWatch study set out to gauge how consumers are using the internet when shopping for Rx eyeglasses, plano sunglasses, contact lenses and over-the-counter readers based on 9,408 responses from American adults during December 2011 who had purchased at least one of these products over the previous six months.

The 2011 Internet Influence Report compares 2011 results with those of 2010 and 2009. Regarding eyeglasses specifically, those who indicated they would “use the internet in any capacity whatsoever (including any basic searching and comparisons) when purchasing” eyeglasses increased from 11.1 percent in 2010 to 16.8 percent in 2011. The report estimates that “it is likely that close to 1.5 million to 1.7 million pairs of Rx eyeglasses were purchased online during the 12-month period ending December 2011.”

In the other product categories, those who purchased through a particular website also decreased for sunglasses (from 28.4 percent in 2010 to 26.1 percent in 2011), but increased about 10 percent for OTC readers (from 35.1 percent in 2010 to 45.7 percent in 2011) and also for contact lenses (from 35.1 percent in 2010 to 45.7 percent in 2011).

So, while actually purchasing products directly from a website is on the increase in some categories, it is not in others. “Americans were most likely to use the internet when buying contact lenses, and 26.7 percent of recent buyers used the internet to any extent during their last contact lens purchase. Even fewer Rx eyeglass buyers (16.8 percent), plano sunglass buyers (17.5 percent) and OTC readers buyers (7.1 percent) used the internet for any assistance during their last purchase,” according to the study.

 
 

Other major conclusions reached by the VisionWatch study included:
  • Despite a relatively high number of consumers using the internet to some extent when shopping for general retail goods, the practice is still not as prevalent when consumers are shopping for eyewear.
  • When using the internet to search for eyewear, most Americans are usually window shopping online, conducting research and activities that are utilized to help them purchase eyewear in-person at a future date.
  • While many consumers generally turn to internet search engines for assistance when buying eyewear, there were some differences in the types of websites used based on the type of eyewear being purchased. For Rx eyeglasses, people tend to use websites operated by known eyeglass retailers.
  • Approximately 32 percent of people using the internet to assist in their last purchase of eyewear actually made the purchase directly online. By category, the purchases broke down as follows: eyeglasses (2.4 percent), OTC readers (3 percent), plano sunglasses (4.3 percent) and contact lenses (16.4 percent).
  • Men, younger Americans, Americans with relatively high incomes, Americans from the Northeast region of the country, and Americans who use the internet when shopping for general retail goods were all more likely than other groups to have directly purchased eyewear online within the past six months.
  • Online eyeglass buyers prefer to use websites operated by eyewear retailers, especially retailers that only have a presence on the web (e.g. eyebuydirect.com, framesdirect.com, coastal.com).
  • Over the years, the number of eyewear buyers who will possibly or probably use the internet to buy eyewear in the future continues to increase.
  • Consumers using the internet to some extent already when purchasing eyewear will likely continue to do so in the future.
  • Most of the 563 consumers that recently purchased eyewear online within the past six months are satisfied with their purchase online. In fact, 48.5 percent rated their recent online buying experience as “excellent” and 40.5 percent rated it as “good.”
  • It seems that most people are avoiding the internet when shopping for eyewear because they enjoy buying eyewear in-person and cannot physically try on eyewear online. For American adults who recently purchased Rx eyeglasses, the trusted relationship they have with their eyecare professional or retailer was another factor that impeded their use of the internet when recently purchasing eyeglasses.
  • About 35.7 percent of recent eyewear buyers with easy access to the internet claimed that they will not use the internet for any assistance or functions when purchasing eyewear in the future (continuing a steady decline from 2007 through 2010).
  • One of the main differences when comparing the 2007-2009 studies to the 2010-2011 studies is that there are more eyewear buyers who purchased from independent retailers in 2010 and 2011 who are likely to use the internet for future optical shopping and buying functions. Moreover, it seems that a larger portion of Americans over the age of 35 are likely to try buying eyewear from the internet at some point in the future. In the past, an overwhelming majority of eyewear buyers who were likely to “defect” to the internet came from the 18- to 34-year-old group and were primarily consumers who bought from conventional chain or mass merchant retailers. The results of this report indicate that the profile of potential “optical online buyer” is changing slightly now.
The study concluded: “When compared with the results from 2007-2010 Internet Influence studies, Americans seem more likely to be interested in using the internet to help them buy all types of eyewear. From 2010 to 2011, interest in using the internet to buy eyewear increased the most for plano sunglasses, Rx eyeglasses and Rx lenses. The portion of consumers planning to use the internet to purchase contact lenses has also increased; however, it has not risen as fast as future online purchase intent for other optical products—most likely because there are already a large number of consumers online buying contact lenses over the internet.

In terms of demographics, there has been an increase in possible internet usage across most consumer demographics, but from 2010 to 2011 the largest increases occurred among men, middle aged Americans (between the ages of 35 to 54) and among consumers who recently purchased eyewear from an independent ECP retailer.