By Gloria Nicola

Courted by everyone from fashion designers and food manufacturers to giant retailers, kids are the consumers of today… and tomorrow. They may be pint-sized, but they are supersized in buying power and attitude. The optical industry needs to pay attention to them. Selling eyewear to children can no longer be handled satisfactorily with a small selection of down-sized adult product. It’s a full-blown business with a need for its own specific product—product that’s as varied and distinctive as its young customers. According to respondents to 20/20’s Kid’s Eyewear MarketPulse Survey 2009, children from infancy to 14 years old represented 20 percent of their customer base in the past year, the same percentage as indicated in the 2008 survey. Additionally, children’s eyewear and related products accounted for 15 percent of total gross dollar sales, again the same as in 2008. However, in the current survey—perhaps because of the weak economy—only 35 percent indicated an increase in total gross sales from children’s products versus five years ago and 56 percent said sales stayed the same; in the 2008 survey, 42 percent cited an increase and 49 percent reported sales remaining the same as they were five years before. In both years, only 9 percent reported a decrease.

Regarding the average children’s complete eyewear retail sale (excluding eye exam fee), 49 percent of the 2009 survey respondents said the sale per patient increased in the past five years; 46 percent reported no changed. In 2008, 55 percent reported an increase and 40 percent said there was no change. But, in fact, this survey indicates the average retail sale for kids’ frames has risen steadily from $120 in 2007 and $125 in 2008 to $129 in 2009. On the other hand, the average retail price for children’s spectacle lenses has remained steady at $100 since 2006.

What’s selling to this market? In regard to lens materials, polycarbonate is clearly the buzzword—undoubtedly as a result of eyecare professionals’ efforts to inform parents on the necessity of impact-resistant materials. Of those surveyed, 60 percent reported polycarbonate lenses comprised a greater proportion of total children’s eyewear dollars than they did five years ago, edging up slightly from the 58 percent who reported an increase in polycarbonate sales in last year’s survey. In addition, 55 percent of participants reported a decrease over the past five years in the sale of standard plastic lenses for children, up from 51 percent cited in 2008.

With frame materials, there has been a definite shift in preferences, following the trend in the adult market toward plastic. Metal is still generally preferred for children because of its easier adjustability. But plastic has been showing substantial gains in kids’ eyewear sales. Of those surveyed in 2009, 47 percent reported an increase in frame dollar sales attributed to plastic materials in the past five years, up from 29 percent in 2006. Only 26 percent reported an increase in dollar sales from metal frames, a sharp decline from 55 percent indicated in 2006.

Another growth area for children and a very positive one is in protective sport eyewear—again probably taking its cues from the increasing interest in sport eyewear among adults. The vast majority of those retailers surveyed, 90 percent, reported selling protective sport eyewear to children, the same as last year. And 84 percent said they dispense contact lenses to kids—an option especially for children active in sports—and again comparable to the 83 percent reported in the previous year.

In the area of brand names, however, the kids’ market does not seem to be taking its direction from the grown ups. While brands continue to be of major interest in the optical world in general, those participating in the children’s survey reported only 33 percent of their total children’s frame sales was in branded or licensed frames in the last year. Additionally, only 32 percent of the retailers said the percentage of their total kids’ frame dollar sales volume generated by branded names has increased in the past five years, down from 36 percent the previous year. And indeed other findings in the survey confirmed branding wasn’t top of mind in the kids’ market. Respondents said name brands were of major importance to 40 percent of their child patients and only 19 percent of the parents.

An area that would definitely benefit by taking more direction from the adult market is sunwear. Unfortunately, selling sunwear to kids is a challenge for ECPs. In fact, 61 percent of respondents cited it as a major challenge. An additional 34 percent viewed it as a minor challenge and only 6 percent said it was no challenge at all. The main reason for these findings is undoubtedly parents’ reluctance to spend money on eyewear likely to be lost or forgotten.  Fortunately, because of the necessity of protecting young eyes from the sun, there is some good news. Of those surveyed in 2009, 75 percent said they sell sunwear to children and 95 percent dispense frames with photochromic lenses. In fact, photochromics are the sun option sold the most to children, noted by 76 percent of the 2009 respondents, an increase from the 70 percent reported last year—no doubt because it doesn’t involve buying another frame and also is at lower risk for being lost since the eyewear does not have to be removed when inside. Plano sunglasses, Rx sunwear complete and sun clips accounted for only 10 percent, 9 percent and 5 percent of the kids’ sunglass market, respectively.

Although dispensing sunwear was the challenge most cited by survey participants in working with children, a variety of other challenges specific to the kids’ market is likely to occur. Most notably, there are two sets of customers per visit—the parents and the child—often with widely varying tastes and priorities, including budget considerations. Of those polled, 27 percent saw budget restrictions as a major challenge; 62 percent reported it as a minor challenge. Additionally, 15 percent said getting parents and children to agree on what eyewear to purchase was a major challenge; for 63 percent, it was a minor challenge. However, it does appear the kids and their parents are coming a little closer in their eyewear interests—perhaps each learning a bit from the other generation. For the first time in the history of this survey, both parents (87 percent) and children (62 percent) cited durability and functional features as the number-one concern in purchasing eyewear for kids. However, having a broad range of color options was the second key concern for kids, cited by 61 percent as “very important” and closely trailing durability/functionality, whereas only 42 percent of the survey respondents indicated color was of major importance to the parents.

What can manufacturers and vendors do to help ECPs successfully meet the challenges in building their kids’ business? As indicated on the pages of this issue, a large selection of fun and highly functional kids’ products is available. And manufacturers and vendors continue to partner with retailers to offer marketing tools. The most effective method, according to 38 percent of those surveyed, is point-of-purchase materials, followed by special promotions, cited by 22 percent.

Although, according to this survey, children’s eyewear did not show significant growth in the past year—we can definitely cite the weak economy as a reason, probably the main reason—this category certainly held its own. In the area of optical retail, the kids’ business is still relatively young. But with time and dedicated effort, it can mature into the fully grown business it needs to be… because it is our future and the future of eyewear.

To purchase the full report visit www.jobson and click on Research Products/Marketpulse. Or call (212) 274-7164 for more information.

20/20’s Kid’s Eyewear MarketPulse Survey 2009 was conducted in April 2009 by Jobson Optical Research’s in-house research staff. The sample of 224 independent optical retailers, who sell to children as well as other age groups, was derived from the proprietary Jobson Optical Research database. Only the responses of dispensers who sell eyewear to children were included in the report. The 2007, 2008 and 2009 studies were conducted online where participants were recruited by email and the questionnaire was completed via the Internet. Respondents were offered the chance to enter a drawing to win a $200 American Express gift card as an incentive in 2008 and 2009 and a $300 American Express gift card in 2007. The 2005 and 2006 studies were conducted via telephone and no incentive was offered.
—Jennifer Zupnick
Jobson Optical Research