Polarized lenses have had an image problem. Although prized by athletes, outdoor enthusiasts and others with active lifestyles for their glare-blocking properties, polarized lenses are not regarded as essential by many sunglass wearers, particularly those who favor fashion over performance.

Yet polarized sunwear—both prescription and plano—is increasingly being viewed as an avenue for “upside” growth in the optical industry as a variety of forces converge to push polarized products to the forefront. Major retailers are gearing up to promote polarized. Lens suppliers have introduced new technologies that are expanding the capabilities and range of polarized products. New equipment and processing techniques are enabling prescription laboratories to manufacture prescription lenses for wrapped sunglasses and other fashionable styles.

Despite the uncertain economic outlook, a changing health care reimbursement environment and a competitive landscape changed by digital trends, one thing is sure, to quote one famously optimistic view: the sun will come out tomorrow.

The increasing opportunities for polarized sunwear, and sunwear in general, are riding two major demographic waves. The first, Baby Boomers, the group which has long been a major force for the ophthalmic/optical channel among independent ECPs and optical retailers, is aging and searching for comfortable, technical sun protection options. There is still much work to be done in raising consumer awareness of the dangers of UV, but this huge customer group is poised and ready to embrace Rx sun protection ideas and products.

The second group, Millenials, who are plano customers, but also, importantly, still a healthy proportion of single-vision Rx patients, are bringing their own ideas and receptivity to lifestyle, sport and fashion sunwear concepts to the market.

These bigger trends, and a crescendo of recent developments in the arena of polarized, glare-reduction sunwear lenses, both plano and Rx-friendly (see timeline, Page 46), have got several influential market observers and participants planning around the promise of polarized, particularly in 2014.

Jobson Research, which annually surveys eye-care professionals about various aspects of their business, reported in its 2013 Premium Lenses MarketPulse Survey for 20/20 Magazine that 66 percent of ECPs surveyed said that they had experienced an increase in polarized lens sales. The MarketPulse 2012 and 2011 surveys on the same topic reflected more than half of the ECP respondents saying the same thing—that their polarized sun lens sales were on the rise.

Luxottica Retail, through all of its brands, intends to promote new technologies in Rx sun in 2014. Sunglass Hut in particular has been emphasizing the features and benefits of polarized lenses and will continue to do so next year, executives said.
Representing the larger retail platforms of LensCrafters and Sunglass Hut, Luxottica Retail executives at the group’s most recent investor day presentation earlier this month pointed to polarized specifically as a category that will be a focused initiative for the next several years. Sun, in general, said Andrea Guerra, Luxottica Group’s CEO, will be supported by “the further premiumization of the sunwear category and [reflects] an increase in the number of frames purchased per customer, as North American consumers continue to focus on brands, style and design, and opt for polarized lenses as part of their eyewear selection.”

In the presentation to analysts about the potential of reaching what he describes as the “untouched” market, Guerra pointed out, “Think about how digital surfacing allowed a completely different way and perception of sun Rx. Ten years ago, if someone was wearing prescription sunwear, you could spot them right away, very rectangular, flat lenses. Today, 80 percent to 85 percent of what you see in Sunglass Hut is Rx-able. This is what’s completely new, and we have a new generation coming into this prescription world,” he said.

Eric Anderson, president of LensCrafters, added further comments as part of his discussion of the retailer’s move to position itself as a global premium vision care leader. He said, “The sun category in North America is truly an emerging market. Too many eyeglass wearers are walking around without proper sun protection or squinting without proper visual acuity in many situations, including driving the kids to soccer practice. We have plans to grow this business dramatically.”

And the company reflected that part of its past and future investments in the North American market are resulting in digital lens surfacing capabilities for its retail group support and its own brands that will bring sun Rx technology even further to the forefront next year.

Essilor has also been more active in its efforts to promote sunwear, which the company is approaching from a health and wellness perspective. This summer, the company acquired full ownership of Transitions Optical, which has been experiencing success with its new Vantage indoor-outdoor polarized photochromic lenses and Intercast, a sunlens company whose NXT polarized lenses are used in many premium sunglass brands.

Speaking to financial analysts following Essilor’s announcement in July that it is acquiring Transitions Optical and Intercast, company chairman Hubert Sagnieres discussed the importance of “brightness management,” which he referred to as “an essential vision need.”

These developments bode well for the growth of polarized lenses and sunwear overall. ■