Lens Choices


Polycarbonate Powerhouse Stokes Sales

By Andrew Karp
In the early 1990s, polycarbonate was just starting to shed its safety-only image and become widely recognized as a versatile, everyday lens material. Many retail chains and eyecare practitioners still treated polycarbonate as a second-best choice after high-index and standard plastic, questioning its clarity and optics. Only a few actively promoted it.

One retailer who believed in poly’s potential was Drake McLean. A decade ago, McLean, an optician who was then vice president of the San Antonio, Texas-based Dietz-McLean chain, was won over by polycarbonate’s unique combination of thin, lightweight, impact-resistant and UV-blocking properties. He and his staff positioned poly as their lens material of choice. Dietz-McLean then made a significant investment in polycarbonate, optimizing its lab operations to process the material and creating sales, marketing and merchandising programs to bring poly to the attention of customers. The strategy was successful.

After just three years, polycarbonate accounted for 85 to 90 percent of the chain’s lens sales, McLean told L&T in 1997. It remains the company’s number-one lens material today.

“Ninety to 95 percent of our patients get polycarbonate lenses,” says McLean, now president of the eight-store chain. “If someone’s not getting polycarbonate, it’s truly an exception.”

One of the main reasons Dietz-McLean embraced polycarbonate was the relatively wide product offering that was available, even in 1994. “We had a bifocal and a progressive, so we could maintain our product mix and go after most of our customers,” he recalls.

In the past decade, the range of polycarbonate lenses has expanded considerably. “We now have numerous choices for polycarbonate progressives.” McLean favors the Tegra polycarbonate product line from Vision-Ease. “Tegra brought three things into polycarbonate,” says McLean. “It’s ‘water white,’ has an aspheric design and a much tougher scratch coating. With those three components, there have been no clarity issues.”

Polycarbonate is particularly effective as a sunlens, McLean says. He is a big fan of polarized polycarbonate lenses, which he sources from Younger, KBco and Vision-Ease. “They’re awesome,” he remarks. “Not only is the customer getting a light and thin lens, but it’s polarized too.

McLean estimates three-quarters of the sunwear his stores sell is polarized. “Polarized is very well received by our customers,” he says, noting that “in south Texas, it’s sunglass season all year round.”

The popularity of polarized sunlenses at Dietz-McLean is indirectly related to polycarbonate’s popularity, according to McLean.

“When we took a stand and said polycarbonate would be our lens of choice, by default our sunlens choice became polarized,” he explains. “Due to the difficulty of tinting polycarbonate to dark sun shades, we have just opted to sell polarized product.”

The surge in rimless frame sales is another factor fueling polycarbonate’s growth, McLean says. “Rimless is huge and it seems to fit well with polycarbonate. If we were to take polycarbonate out of the picture and incorporate CR-39 [monomer from PPG] back in, the level of rimless mountings we would do today would be a nightmare. I remember when faceted glasses were popular and even some of the drill mounts that preceded rimless. People would sit on their glasses and the lenses would split out because they were brittle. You don’t see that with polycarbonate at all. “Polycarbonate has enhanced rimless because of its lightweight characteristics of polycarbonate,” he adds. “For example, if you take people who are in a metal frame and put them in Airlock by Marchon with polycarbonate lenses, they’re amazed.”

Dietz-McLean often polishes the edge of its polycarbonate lenses, an effect that can further enhance the look of a rimless frame. “More than half of our lenses come with polished edges,” says McLean. “It’s just part of the lens.”

When it began promoting polycarbonate a decade ago, Dietz-McLean, like some other retailers, created a consumer-friendly name for the lens material. “We used to call it the ‘STL’ lens, an abbreviation for ‘strong, thin and light,’” he recalls. However, Dietz-McLean has largely dropped the tag. “It requires one more layer of explanation,” says McLean. “Now, we simply refer to it as a polycarbonate lens.”

For Dietz-McLean, a simple, direct approach is best for selling polycarbonate, a lens material with enough built-in appeal to win over almost any customer.