Lens Choices

CABO from Hobie Polarized Sunglasses photographed by Nedjeljko Matura

Sunglasses combining high style with high-performance features are among this winter’s hottest sellers. The popularity of Oakley, Hobie, Maui Jim and Costa Del Mar as well as other brands that emphasize performance features as much as fashion is evidence that many consumers want sunglasses—both plano and prescription, that convey coolness and promise to enhance vision.

Consumers’ growing interest in performance-oriented sunglasses has spurred manufacturers to introduced increasingly sophisticated products. Recently, several companies have released innovative lenses featuring new materials and coatings as well as polarizing and other light-filtering technologies optimized for various activities. The range and depth of sunlens options has never been greater.

“Lenses and lens technology is coming up very fast in terms of equaling the cosmetic concern,” says J. Dart Messick, optician and president of Kennedy & Perkins, a six-store Connecticut chain headquartered in New Haven. “In the old days, you were concerned first with vision and then the fashion issue. Now with Boomers needing progressives, the lenses are very important. As a result, the new technologies in sunlenses are far superior.”

As sunlenses get more advanced, are retailers and dispensers becoming savvier in their selling approach? Are the features and benefits of today’s high-performance sunlenses being effectively communicated to consumers? Which of these benefits matter most to them?

Polarization is the feature customers look for, according to Amy King, an optician and manager of The Eye Place, a Birmingham, Ala. store with a large sunglass display area.

“About three out of five patients who buy prescription lenses buy polarized,” she says. “If someone is buying off-the-board planos to go over their contacts, 50 percent buy polarized.”

Geography is part of the reason polarized lenses are popular at The Eye Place. “We’re in an area surrounded by lakes,” explains King. “There’s a lot of hunting and fishing, such as bass tournaments. Plus we’re about four hours from the Gulf.”

Although some customers prefer fashion sunglasses such as Ralph Lauren, King says she “pushes polarized. We will hand every patient a non-polarized pair and a polarized pair, and then show them something in the parking lot with glare reflecting off it.” While these demonstrations are usually effective, men are more attuned than women to the performance aspect of a lens, King notes.

The Eye Place sells single-vision polarized lenses made of standard plastic for $159; polycarbonate lenses in wrap frame sell for about $199. “Those are my high-performance glasses,” King details. In contrast, she offers non-polarized lenses “fully loaded with UV and tint” for about $100.

One of premium polarized brands offered at The Eye Place—Costa Del Mar—sells for between $129 and $169, depending whether patients choose any of eight lens options, including glass or plastic lenses or mirrors. “Mirrors are usually a cosmetic choice,” King notes. “It depends on the person.” King says The Eye Place recently increased sales of Oakley mirrored sunglasses, although she sometimes replaces the original lenses with her own lenses and mirrors.

Among the other top-selling sunglasses at The Eye Place are Fossil, Sàfilo, Chesterfield and Carerra. King estimates about 80 percent of the buyers of these brands are men.

Optician David A. Peterson at Everett Optometry Clinic, Everett, Wash., believes sunlens performance is more important than ever for his patients. Along with polarized lenses, he often recommends backside AR coating.

“We emphazise backside AR to help with bounce-back glare,” he explains. “It depends on the individual and what their sensitivity to light and glare is.” Most of the quality plano sunglass brands he dispenses already have backside AR, he notes.

Some patients are quite specific about their sunglass performance needs. “I had a patient recently who was looking for a sunglass for bicycling,” says Peterson. “He wanted better protection from wind and glare. So I showed him a pair of Silhouette Adidas that had an Rx insert in it. He thought that was a pretty slick. They have two lens color options and a polycarbonate lens, which is lightweight and blocks UV.”

While performance is important to many patients, Peterson notes that the discussion often starts with style. “A lot of people who come in want a particular sunglass because they’ve seen athletes wear them on TV. They ask if we have anything like it.”

Patients are more knowledgeable than ever when buying sunglasses, partly because they do research on the Internet before coming to the dispensary, notes Peterson. Though some purchase sunglasses online, they still come to him for help with lens options. “One patient got a frame online and we put our lenses in,” he says.

When shopping for sunglasses, most patients are interested in style first, agrees optician Jack Clarkson at Raymond Opticians in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. “They might have an idea of what they want for lenses, but it’s very vague. After they’ve made a choice of frame, we have to demonstrate different options for them. If they’re driving a car or going to the beach, we’ll offer them polarized. If they are shooters or need to work in low light, we offer colors such as orange and vermillion.”

Most of the sunglasses Clarkson dispenses are prescription. “We very seldom sell plano sunglasses,” he says. “Most people don’t want to spend that much money for plain sunglasses.”

Richard Glisker, an optician and owner of World of Vision, Vero Beach, Fla., says his patients are much less concerned about lens performance than style. “Ninety percent of the time, the styling comes first,” says Glisker, whose leading sunglass brands include Costa Del Mar and Nike.

“I don’t have a very young crowd here. As long as it’s a protective lens blocking out UV, they’re satisfied. We usually discuss polarized. That’s about it.”

Although it’s tempting for a dispenser to go into detail about the performance features and benefits of a sunlens, Messick of Kennedy & Perkins cautions that patients can easily get overwhelmed with information. “As you go up the line with better quality lenses, there comes a point where people are over-teched. If you can’t get your message across in 30 seconds or so, the person isn’t going to get it. You have to judge each customer individually. If you get a young kid who wants a pair of Oakleys because he wants to look cool on his snowboard, he probably won’t want to hear all about the technical benefits.”

Matching Color with Function
When recommending a sunlens color, always take into account a patient’s hair color and skin tone. In addition, it’s important to learn what activities the patient plans to do while wearing the lens. A questionnaire that allows the patient to check off occupational and recreational activities is a good way to obtain this information.

Brown/Amber: Provides contrast and minimizes eyestrain. Best for high-glare sports like skiing and boating. Excellent choice for driving, because they lessen the glare of scattered light from dirty windshields, smog and haze. May cause greens to appear greener and neons to fade.

Green: Provides contrast in low light and reduces eyestrain in bright light. A typical multi-use color for everyday wear.

Gray: This neutral tone provides true perception and low color distortion. Gray is a general purpose color that does not enhance contrast. It works best when true color values are important. Gray lenses are recommended for pilots, farmers, construction workers, surveyors and other outdoor occupations. They are typically not the best choice for sports.

Vermilion: Provides good color perception in low light. Very good at contrasting objects against blue and green background, making it a popular choice for ski goggles.

Yellow: Known for providing excellent depth perception and contrast in low light. Used frequently for shooting glasses.

Gray/Green Polarized: Polarized lenses that block light at certain angles, removing glare. This is the color of choice for driving and fishing.