It’s been a tough year for the optical industry, especially optical labs. Soon after COVID hit regional lockdowns began, and many eyecare practices closed or reduced their patient hours.

Labs felt the impact almost immediately. A Vision Council Member Survey conducted in Spring, 2020 found that the majority of labs had reduced their production and service hours in response to decreased demand due to COVID-19. (see Fig. 1) As the volume of Rx orders fell, many labs reduced staff or staff hours.

However, the decrease in sales from brick-and-mortar optical locations was partly offset by an increase in online optical sales, as homebound consumers increasingly turned to eyeglass e-tailers. Labs had to quickly adapt to these shifting market dynamics by adjusting their service and delivery strategies.

The inability to see customers face-to-face prompted some labs to develop new tools to educate them about the latest lens technology. Labs also employed virtual service strategies such as webinars, online consultations and demonstrations to keep in touch with customers.

Many labs had not been prepared technologically to face these new customer care challenges so quickly. But Vision Monday spoke with several lab executives who helped their labs implement new ways of servicing accounts during the pandemic. Though challenging at times, these changes were ultimately positive and led to more opportunities for customer engagement going forward.

While we are beginning to see the emergence of a new normal, many of the lessons learned during the pandemic will form the basis of a new playbook for day-to-day operations, post-pandemic.

Eye-Kraft Optical Lab
Eye-Kraft Optical Lab has been helping eyecare professionals find the right lenses for patients for more than 60 years. Like most surfacing labs across North America, the pandemic caused a sharp decline in business beginning in March of 2020. As the effects of the pandemic became clear, Eye-Kraft was forced to lay off nearly 95 percent of their workforce, operating on skeleton crews to maintain service and production until order rates began to return to normal.

“At the start of 2020 things were very promising,” said Jason Sharpe, who recently became president and CEO of Eye-Kraft in St. Cloud, Minn., after serving in management roles at Essilor Laboratories of America (ELOA). “We slowed down gradually and that’s when we had to start with the furloughs and layoffs. We learned a lot of lessons on how to draw down production and still be profitable.

Sharpe said Eye-Kraft held off on layoffs as long as it could. The company began making non-production improvements like putting up plexiglass and building new workstations.

“When we first did need to lay people off, it was before we knew about the additional unemployment benefits and stimulus, so our owners offered their own supplemental bonuses for furloughed employees,” Sharpe explained. “While people were out we continued working on making the lab safe for when employees would be able to come back.”

Sharpe said the priority was to ensure that the staff was taken care of from the beginning, which in turn fostered stronger loyalty. He pointed out that it also helped build Eye-Kraft’s reputation as a workplace that looks out for its employees.

The lab, which primarily services the Minnesota and East Coast market, was able to stay open as an essential service. However, the majority of work switched over to prescriptions for first responders or special orders for ODs.

“We went from about 500 to 600 jobs a day down to around 20,” said Sharpe, noting this did not deter the staff or management from finding new ways to maintain the high level of customer service they were known for by their clients.

“We still assisted customers on the phone. If they wanted to ship a job to a home address, we were able to do that,” Sharpe said, adding sometimes this meant having to hold deliveries until stores opened up again.

Eye-Kraft also began offering several webinar options for their clients to educate them on the latest products and industry technology advancements such as ABO seminars and accredited CE courses. It proved to be an effective tactic for building customer loyalty.

“We embraced the Zoom and conference call model,” Sharpe said. “It’s not going to replace in-person interaction but it’s a great way to talk to 50 people in an hour.”

Sharpe said he and the team at Eye-Kraft understand that the effects of the pandemic are not going away any time soon, though the return to normal is coming. “The market is going to be changed,” Sharpe observed. “There is a new paradigm out there, but there are also a lot of opportunities. We have built a team and have a family business mindset.”

That solid underpinning gave Sharpe and his colleagues faith that they could not only pull through the pandemic, but emerge from it even stronger. “It was a disaster and it was very scary but we were never concerned it was going to be the end of us,” he said.

Good Service Begins With Honesty
For some optical retailers, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to reassess the performance of their lab and learn how prepared it is for handling emergencies.

Neil Uher, president of, learned about his lab’s limitations soon after the pandemic began. Primarily an online retailer, ships glasses to customers across Canada and the U.S. The company also operates a retail store in Illinois. Although the company does most of its Rx work at its in-house lab, it outsources special surfacing jobs to another lab for completion.

Though he anticipated delays due to the pandemic, he was surprised to find out that his outside lab, which he was depending on more than usual, was running a skeleton crew for only a couple days per week.

He said shortly after the pandemic began, the lab began having service delivery issues but didn’t tell its clients, leaving them scrambling to explain order delays to their own customers. This prompted a quick shift to another lab to handle surfacing jobs.

Uher believes that most retailers (either in-store or online) will understand a service delay if they are kept informed about the problem. He noted even though the pandemic was an unexpected situation, it provides insight into a lab’s disaster preparedness, and the importance they place on customer service.

“It’s really important to let your accounts know. You need to be more proactive than reactive. Send out an eblast or make a call—something is better than nothing. If you do something more proactively so we can plan ahead of time, your customers are going to be more sympathetic because they know the struggles everyone is going through. Communication is the key to productivity, by keeping us all in the loop.”

A Team Approach to Service
Across North America, optical labs redistributed their workforce to maintain customer service and protect their employees. In Canada, where lockdowns were stricter than in some other parts of the world, a work from home scenario was almost unavoidable. This left labs to come up with virtual ways to maintain customer service while keeping production going.

Centennial Optical, an independent ophthalmic frame and lens distribution lab based in Toronto, was among the first labs in the country to notice a decline in business.

“A week before the shutdown orders were issued, our business was down 50 percent. Once the shutdown orders went into place on March 16, we were down by 95 percent,” said Centennial president and CEO Allen Nightingale.

He said the lab quickly reduced its staffing levels, keeping only the executive team and a few members of the production staff in the lab to continue to process orders. Customer service staff were sent home and all communication, even within the lab itself was moved to virtual.

The lab has added several production efficiencies to maintain service including auto transfer and checking systems. He said the lab has tried to combine as many functions, such as picking and scanning, into singular operating zones as possible to avoid having to move people or products around the lab unnecessarily.

Nightingale said this practice will continue in the short term, as new COVID variants continue to emerge. The management team re-evaluated their service model to find new ways to maintain customer service, while their staff worked from home.

“We had 18 customer service people in an open area, and we know we couldn’t keep doing that. We had 14 people move out to work from home and were able to seamlessly maintain customer service,” he said, adding anyone in accounting, finance, and product development were also among the employees moved to remote work.

For Nightingale, maintaining a strong corporate culture was important during COVID-19, especially with staff working off-site. He said every effort was made to accommodate the staff, and that employees’ safety always came before the sale.

“Everyone on the team is contributing. None of us want one of our people to get COVID. Our sales reps are not required to do visits and we have set up new reports and software to do virtual calls. Our goal was to the weather storm by being safe,” he said.

Though Centennial hasn’t divulged the specifics of their internal adjustments to customers, they have still kept them informed about service changes.

“We have never communicated our internal efforts, except a generalization that we have taken every step to ensure a safe environment. I think people would be positively surprised by our efforts,” he said.

Though an end to the pandemic is not in sight yet, Nightingale said Centennial will continue to do whatever it takes to protect its team and its customers. He believes that a strong leadership has been the key to surviving the challenges of doing business in a pandemic.

“Management should be the last people to see change and protect. If you don’t put your people first, then they don’t respect you for your actions,” he said, adding maintaining a strong commitment to each other and their customers will see them through. “Overall, except for the shutdown periods, our sales recovered and continue to grow strongly and consistently, as they did pre-COVID.”