Consumer sentiment and purchasing patterns are shifting—some would say at high speed— to an online experience as an everyday approach for conducting daily routines. This holds as true for eyecare—especially among contact lens wearers—as it does for people shopping for consumer staples.

Indeed the trajectory of online shopping is quite impressive during the pandemic and in some ways is a telling sign for the future of retail. Currently, U.S. shoppers spend approximately $400 billion on their online retail purchases—and this is expected to reach almost $600 billion by 2024, according to some forecasts.

“The eyecare landscape is becoming increasingly complex due to rapidly evolving patient and practice needs. Virtual connection, on-demand services, and digital technology and solutions have become engrained in our daily lives,” Alcon’s Laura Walker, vice president, business unit head, Digital Innovation, said. “In fact, it is estimated that nearly 20 percent of patients go online to initially purchase their contact lenses and the trend of online sales is expected to continue to grow.”

As a result, in 2020, Alcon created and piloted “Marlo”—a digital platform that provides a contact lens ordering experience patients expect from online retailers. Marlo is offered within the independent ECP’s practice. The platform allows patients to conveniently order, reorder and track their Alcon contact lens order online and have their lenses shipped right to their doorstep, while keeping the relationship and revenue with their existing ECP.

Alcon, with its Marlo program, is one of a growing number of firms with online ordering and fulfillment platforms that seek to maintain the ECP connection for contact lens patients. ABB Optical Group, with, Johnson & Johnson Vision Care (which offers a fulfillment program for AcuVue lenses) and CooperVision’s LensFerry are also deeply involved in this business. The LensFerry service is available to patients regardless of the lens manufacturer that they want to order from and have delivered.

“In developing Marlo, we listened to ECPs, their staff and patients, and built the platform based on their input,” Walker said. “In this way, Marlo is focused on delivering on patient expectations for convenience while ensuring the practice experience benefits through increasing efficiency and keeping contact lens revenue with the ECP.”

As a global leader in eyecare, Alcon is always working to address its customers’ needs. Marlo represents—which is solely for ordering Alcon lenses—a new frontier in patient and eye doctor interaction—keeping the ECP at the core while balancing the needs of the patient to help ensure ongoing connectivity between the practice and the patient continues beyond the eye exam room.

“The COVID-19 pandemic encouraged the acceleration of digital health solutions in eyecare, but even before the pandemic, advancing digital health solutions was core to innovation for the optometry community,” Walker said. “Our goal is to always help our customers stay connected with their patients.”

According to Walker, the feedback about Marlo from ECPs has been “overwhelmingly positive.” She added, “Marlo represents a new frontier in patient/ECP interaction. Sixty-two percent of patients are more satisfied with their eye doctor as a result of ordering through Marlo. Furthermore, 65 percent of patients are more likely to recommend their eye doctor as a result of ordering through Marlo.”

She added, “During the global COVID-19 pandemic, we know that serving patients has become increasingly challenging. Marlo practices are able to keep revenue flowing into the practice due to capturing contact lens sales through Marlo. It has allowed them to continue employing staff, earning income and delivering patient satisfaction, even during these unprecedented times.”

Patients who prefer an Amazon-type experience have other options. EyeCare Prime, a subsidiary of CooperVision, offers LensFerry—a doctor-friendly e-commerce contact lens service that enables patients to order lenses from optometry practices 24/7 via text, tablet, or computer, with deliveries directly to their homes.

“At the height of closures due to the pandemic, we recognized that many eyecare practices could benefit from the ability to offer online contact lens purchases,” Melissa Kiewe, vice president of marketing, North America, CooperVision, told Vision Monday. “From March through December 2020, we offered LensFerry to practices free of charge to support them in capturing as much revenue as possible. For many, contact lens sales were the only source of revenue during that time.”

Between March and April, when the COVID-19 pandemic first began, EyeCare Prime reports that LensFerry usage spiked more than 90 percent. As practices reopened and things settled into the “new normal,” usage leveled off but has remained an average of 20 percent higher over the previous year.

“With practices working to limit the number of patients coming through their doors, and patients avoiding unnecessary trips to the eye doctor, e-commerce services have been the best solution for everyone,” Kiewe said. “We have seen a 25 percent increase in the number of practices enrolled in LensFerry since last year. As concerns over the pandemic continue—and now that ECPs and their patients have experienced the convenience of the service—I expect demand will continue to grow.”

Enhancing patient experience is a key driving force behind the move to online ordering, noted Erika Jurrens, ABB Optical Group’s senior vice president of strategy & commercialization. “The patient experience is the new battlefront,” she said. “That experience extends from the eye exam all the way through to how they purchase and receive products. Businesses that transform their capabilities and adopt strategic, proactive measures to provide a buying and shipping experience that meets the standards of 2021 will be poised to succeed.”

Yet, Jurrens noted, in today’s competitive marketplace where the battle comes down to capturing the retail sale, it is more important than ever to choose a technology platform that secures not just the retail sales, but the patients’ data and, most importantly, also works to preserve the patient relationship.

ABB encourages offices to use online ordering and direct-to-patient shipping methods for a number of reasons, but there are four primary factors, she said. They are: many patients prefer it, patients return less product to their doctor when shipped to their home, it requires less time for staff to remind patients to come back for the product and when patients order their lenses through an online ordering platform, such as ABB’s, they can sign up for subscription services. And with the subscription service, it ensures they never run out of contact lenses.

“This also allows for the ECP to retain the patient’s sale,” Jurrens said. “ABB offers the platform and AutoShip methods to meet both the patient and practitioner need. ABB’s allows patients to do business with ECPs the way they prefer.”

She noted that patients also appreciate being able to buy contact lenses online from the doctor who prescribed their lenses. “The goal is to partner with ECPs to make it easy for them to do business with their practice. The direct to patient shipment, from ABB, looks like it came direct from the doctor, and reinforces the ever-important patient/doctor connection,” she said.

With J&J Vision Care’s MyAcuVue subscription service, the objective is to provide a “convenient, affordable way to have AcuVue brand contact lenses delivered” to the patient’s door.

Patients can sign up upon visiting a participating MyAcuVue subscription ECP practice and obtain a valid prescription. Upon sign-up, the patient receives a recurring shipment at their home. There are no shipping fees and patients can cancel or modify their subscription at any time for free.