To continue the song’s lyrics… “and face it with a grin.” And why not? The sun is always there. The customers—and that’s everyone under the sun—are everywhere. An amazing assortment of high-style, high-tech product is certainly there. All you need to do is seize the opportunity and make a hot business— sun protection—even hotter. —Gloria Nicola

According to 20/20’s current Sunwear Survey of Independents conducted in October of 2006, 80 percent of those surveyed say their Rx sun business is on the rise, gradually climbing from the 73 percent and 74 percent cited in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Additionally, respondents report Rx sunglasses accounted for the majority (59 percent) of total retail sunwear only dollar sales in 2006, up from 49 percent in 2005. Also significant is the average price of an Rx sunglass in 2006, to an all-time high of $283.36, now on par with the average price of a pair of eyeglasses—$284.93— indicated by 2006 survey participants. Another category showing a record-high price was clipons, cited at $77.21 in 2006. This number is also important to the overall bottom line since respondents report 21 percent of Rx eyeglasses (complete) they dispense are sold with a clip.

Several factors contribute to these positive findings. Of the independents surveyed, 77 percent report consumers are more knowledgeable about sunwear than they were five years ago, due no doubt to the extensive media coverage dealing with the harmful effects of the sun coupled with the constant presence of actors and other celebrities in print and on screen wearing the hottest sunglass styles.

Also factoring into the positive results are the services and products optical can provide consumers that set them apart from other channels of distribution. One noteworthy service is customized Rx programs. Of those surveyed, 40 percent say they participate in prescription programs offered by name-brand sunwear/sport companies. This figure, which unfortunately dropped from the 45 percent cited in 2005, should be considerably higher. Retailers need to follow the direction of vendors, who have dedicated their effort to creating programs that duplicate proprietary performance-oriented features in prescription lenses.

The performance factor brings up another aspect that has been beneficial to the sun business. The past few years have witnessed a definite merging between fashion-oriented sunwear and sport-oriented sunglasses. Fashion sunglasses, although designed for street and urban wear, often are available with a variety of performance features including polarization and grippable rubberized bridges and temple tips. And manufacturers are dressing up sport glasses with hot colors and contemporary shapes without sacrificing performance. In fact, 58 percent of respondents feel the lines between the two categories are blurring and 79 percent think the merging is beneficial to plano and Rx sunglasses. In fact, the blending of the two areas should be beneficial to both sunglass and sport glass sales. Those individuals—frequently women reluctant to wear sport glasses because they often seemed bulky and unattractive in the past—now have many satisfactory options available. And performance features in fashion glasses appeal to those who may not be athletes, but think of themselves as having an active lifestyle. Specialized products—in particular polarization— also do well for the optical market and certainly help the bottom line. On average, 78 percent of all clip-ons, 62 percent of Rx sunwear and 51 percent of plano sunwear sold by the survey participants are polarized.

Another specialized product optical retailers offer consumers is photochromic lenses, a technology that has recently become a popular item for children, in large part because it only involves the purchase of one pair of eyewear. Indeed 57 percent of those surveyed sell photochromics to children under the age of 16, up from 33 percent and 54 percent, indicated in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Still another specialty item available to optical retailers is a selection of premium lens materials. Although the majority of sun lenses dispensed by respondents (54 percent for Rx and 50 percent for plano) is plastic, polycarbonate accounts for 32 percent of Rx sunlenses sold and 35 percent of plano among those surveyed, up from 23 percent and 28 percent, respectively, in 2005. An additional 9 percent of prescription sun lenses are made of high-index plastic.

Despite the above cited warming trends, there are some cool spots optical retailers need to address. The sun does not discriminate based on age, gender or season. Yet 47 percent of the respondents say their primary customers are between the ages of 35 and 44. Only 12 percent say those 55 and older were major sunwear purchasers. Although the 12 percent is low, it’s substantially higher than the 1 percent indicated for this demographic in 2005. What’s most unsettling, though, is not one respondent in the past three years indicated children under 16 as major buyers of sunwear. Gender, too, is an issue with 65 percent of the respondents saying women were their primary customers for sunwear. Only 14 percent claim men as their major sunglass customers. Granted women have a reputation for liking to shop and definitely see sunglasses as a fashion accessory. Selling sunwear to men is undoubtedly more work, but it is certainly possible—especially if retailers focus on the technology features and benefits of sun lenses. And it is essential.

Just like it is essential to sell sunwear year around. Yet the majority of respondents characterize sunglass sales as high only during July and August (76 percent) and May and June (55 percent) and tumbling for the rest of the year— ranging from a high of 20 percent for September and October to a low of 9 to 11 percent in November through February. Another area in which optical is falling far short of its potential is in dispensing sunglasses to contact lens wearers. Less than half of the retailers surveyed (49 percent) claim they always recommend their contact lens patients buy sunglasses and 20 percent never even address the sunglass issue with contact lens wearers. Even more alarming only 11 percent say their patients make a sunwear purchase at the time they are fitted for new contact lenses even though they will need sunglasses the moment they step outside. How you as an eyecare professional face these challenges will determine your future business potential and the future well-being of your customers. So to get back to that song, “let the sun shine in.” [It will anyway]. “And face it with a grin. Smilers never lose And frowners never win.” Or to broadly paraphrase. Face the sunwear market with a positive attitude and give it its rightful place in the optical arena. It can only be a win/win situation for you and for your customers.


20/20 Magazine’s 2006 Sunwear Report is based on data collected from structured phone interviews with 118 independent optical retailers and practitioners. All respondents were asked the same set of questions and offered no incentive to participate. The survey sample was developed to reflect the national population of independent optical retailers and practitioners based on U.S. Census regions. This sample was derived from the proprietary Jobson Optical Research Database. All interviews were conducted in October and November of 2006. Data is presented from a retailer’s or practitioner’s perspective and may reflect seasonal market and thus behavioral fluctuations.

Data from 20/20 Magazine’s 2004 and 2005 Sunwear Reports are included for trending purposes. Note: Due to the limitations of a structured interview format, not all respondents provided complete answers to all survey questions.

—Beth Briggs & Jennifer Zupnick, Research Analysts