Despite a slump in optical retail sales caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a strong year for online optical sales. Total optical retail sales fell 17.4 percent from December 2019 to December 2020 and $36.05 billion in retail revenues during the same period, according to The Vision Council’s VisionWatch report for Q4 2020. Yet online sales of eyeglass frames topped 9 million pairs during the same period, a 22 percent increase over the previous year.

As the number of consumers who buy their eyewear online continues to rise, optical labs are discovering that servicing this growing market is good for business.

Although some labs were working with online accounts before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the online opportunity became more apparent in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many optical retailers and eyecare practices to close or restrict their hours for months at a time. As more consumers turned to online eyewear sites when denied access to their local ECP or optical shop, online vendors sought established labs to handle the surge in prescriptions.

To support the additional volume of Rx orders from online vendors, labs are upgrading their lab management systems to produce more accurate prescriptions. Some are also adding frame inventories and offering direct shipping.

As consumers become more confident with buying eyewear online, it’s expected labs will play an even larger role in eyewear e-commerce.

One lab that has adjusted to the new online opportunity is Toronto-based Plastic Plus, which has operated as an independent surfacing lab for more than 40 years. Five years ago, the company began making upgrades to its production line and lab management system to better support online eyewear retailers. Presently, Plastic Plus services online retailers who do dispense in stores. (Full disclosure: the author is the communications director for Plastic Plus.)

Plastic Plus is increasingly being approached by small to mid-sized e-commerce sites in the U.S. and the U.K. to assist with order fulfillment. Integration of online eyewear fulfillment was a major catalyst for the lab’s expansion to a new 30,000 square foot facility five years ago, Plastic Plus president Paul Faibish said.

“We understand the way customers purchase their glasses is changing,” said Faibish. “We know that ECPs will eventually have to integrate online sales into their business model and we will be there to support them. We also see the continued growth of online eyewear sales and have put the resources and people in place to meet this growing industry.”

To be prepared for changing trends in optical sales, Plastic Plus upgraded its lab management system adding features such as a frame catalog and tracing integration.

“We have the trace files for all the frames already in our system so, if necessary, we can replicate a single lens or pair without needing the frame on-site,” Faibish explained.

As some online eyewear companies consider building in-house labs, Faibish believes surfacing labs like Plastic Plus offer a capacity and logistical edge. In addition to already having a large selection of single vision and progressive lens options in-house, they also already have the necessary certifications and FDA approvals required to manufacture lenses saving online retailers thousands of dollars each year.

Faibish said working with a lab also gives the bonus of being able to ramp up production at a much faster rate. Quality control is also built into every order, meaning there is a lower risk of job rejection at the consumer end with job accuracy checked before and after production by verification machines before shipping.

As COVID-19 began, he said the lab experienced a significant uptick in work. A trend he believes will continue well after the pandemic is over.

“I think online will become 10 percent of the market in a very short time,” he said. “This is primarily a business of single vision lenses but with the development of progressive lens technology that doesn’t require a seg height you are going to see online eyewear sales increase rapidly.”

Many online retailers are already feeling the pressure of increased customer demand driven by the pandemic and a greater level of comfort with online purchases.

Andy Bilinsky, co-founder and CEO of online eyewear company Lensabl, said COVID-19 drove their sales up more than 200 percent between March 2020 and December 2020. He believes online retailers will continue to gain leverage with their labs as the industry gains the trust of more consumers.

To improve the quality of products and service from labs, Bilinsky suggested labs should hire resources that have experience working with online, direct-to-consumer businesses and update their software to accommodate the requirements around data transfer and order processing.

Lensabl is already driving this shift in business. It built a proprietary piece of technology called OmniVision that reduced the amount of manual work required while making it easier for labs to fulfill a complete lens and frame order.

OmniVision is a headless lab services API that enables a direct flow of data from any e-commerce platform mapped correctly into a lab’s order management software. OmniVision also can ingest order status updates from the lab in real-time and communicate that information back to the customer via the e-commerce site.

“Labs were not originally set up to ingest that volume of data in that way. There is a big technology gap between e-commerce and how to order/Rx information gets to labs. There is a lot of room to grow there,” he emphasized.

Bilinsky believes some of the change can happen with labs hiring staff who are experienced in e-commerce to assist with both production, technology, and service. He points out that labs may not be used to the unique technology and operational standards e-commerce companies require just yet.

“Labs, as vendors, need to staff up appropriately,” Bilinsky observed. “It’s a different level of service required when dealing with hundreds or thousands of orders per day,” he said, noting many e-commerce companies will not want to take on the burden of starting their own lab, so they will need labs to help meet their service needs for better vertical integration.

Software developers, such as WINK, are helping both labs and ECPs adjust to the requirements of online ordering. The company’s practice management and electronic medical records software enables ECPs to grow their business, both in-store and online, by simplifying the frame and lens ordering experience. The software allows retailers to download catalogs from multiple labs and frame manufacturers, thereby increasing patient choice.

Christian Mokbel, founder & CEO of WINK Technologies, said his team continues to find new ways to make the frame and lens ordering experience more automated to reduce the chance of errors and reduce job turnaround time at the lab.

“WINK was built with the supply chain in mind. All the lens validation is done by WINK, and by having this validation and subsequent integration with the ophthalmic lab, it limits the ordering errors,” explained Mokbel. He said, “WINK can help online retailers by preventing the consumer from choosing a lens that may be out of range for his prescription.

“We are reducing the job turnaround time and saving money for the labs,” Mokbel noted, suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic has made consumers more conscious of online order wait times. He believes consumers are now used to getting their online orders fast thanks to a greater reliance on online retailers such as Amazon, and they expect the same of online eyewear retailers too.

“If we think about what happened last year, people were stuck at home and it was extremely easy to order household products online,” Mokbel said. “Well, water flows downhill, and labs that make it easier for ECPs to sell lenses online will be able to capitalize on this trend.”