By Gloria Nicola

Despite the economic downturn and the massive consumer uncertainty about what the future holds, the sunglass business has not lost its sizzle. According to a recent article in The New York Times, the NPD Group, a marketing research firm, predicted sunglasses are replacing handbags as the image item among teenagers and young women. The report noted that while sales of handbags declined 14 percent in the past year eyewear sales rose by 10 percent—no doubt reinforced by consumer enthusiasm, fueled by the constant presence of celebrities in print and on screen wearing the hottest sunglass styles, retail’s growing focus on sunwear and the broadening awareness of the need for sun protection.

In fact, according to the findings of 20/20’s 2008 Sunwear Survey of Independents conducted by Jobson Optical Research in November 2008, 70 percent of respondents say their customers/patients are more knowledgeable about sunwear than they were five years ago, an increase from 65 percent in the 2007 study. In large part because consumers are better informed and have more sophisticated needs, they are more likely to turn to authorities in the field (ECPs) for their sunglass purchases. This has certainly helped the optical market grow its sunglass business. Indeed, 34 percent of the surveyed independents rank “superior service” as the number-one greatest differentiating quality they offer over other channels of distribution, followed closely by frame and lens knowledge (30 percent). An additional 24 percent cited product customization capabilities as something their customers seek. Price was only of very minor interest, cited by 7 percent.  

Although survey participants report sun wear product accounted for only about 10 percent of their gross retail dollar sales in 2008—similar to the previous three years—a substantial 72 percent say their Rx sun business is on the rise, up from 65 percent in 2007. What’s especially significant is the vast majority of Rx sunglasses (nearly 83 percent) dispensed by respondents retailed for more than $200 and slightly over 10 percent sold for more than $450. This is similar to the findings for Rx eyewear—those surveyed indicate the average price for nearly 78 percent of eyeglasses complete is in excess of $200 and close to 13 percent sells for more than $450.

Additionally, respondents say Rx sunglasses accounted for the majority (57 percent) of total retail sunwear only dollar sales in 2008, significant because Rx product commands the highest price points in the sun category. Also those polled report 43 percent of their patients request plano sunwear they purchase be fitted with Rx sun lenses.

Although clip-ons represented only 15 percent of retail sunwear dollars in 2008 (the same as in the previous two years), they contribute substantially to the bottom line. Survey respondents report more than 53 percent of all clips they dispense sell for between $21 and $60, and 35 percent sell for more than $60.

Another element that contributes significantly to the bottom line is premium lens materials, which continue to gain share in the sun lens market for both Rx and plano products. Findings for the 2008 survey indicate polycarbonate and plastic now each account for 39 percent of Rx sun lenses dispensed. In the past, plastic was the leader. An additional 16 percent of prescription sun lenses are made of high-index plastic. In the plano category, 42 percent of the sunglasses sold feature polycarbonate lenses, up from 40 percent in 2007; and 49 percent are equipped with plastic lenses, a decline from 52 percent in 2007.

Customized Rx programs are also on the upswing. Of those surveyed, 47 percent say they participate in prescription programs offered by name-brand sunwear/sports glass companies, an increase from 37 percent in 2007. However, this number 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 does bring 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 sports-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 sports glasses with hot colors and contemporary shapes without sacrificing performance. In fact, half of the respondents feel the lines between the two categories are blurring and 71 percent think the merging is beneficial to plano and Rx sunglasses. Indeed the blending of the two areas should be beneficial to both sunglass and sports glass sales. Those individuals—frequently women reluctant to wear sports glasses because they often seemed bulky and unattractive in the past—now have many excellent options. And performance features in fashion glasses appeal to those who may not be athletes, but think of themselves as having an active lifestyle.

20/20 magazine’s 2008 Sunwear MarketPulse study is based on data collected from structured email interviews with 190 independent optical retailers. 2007’s data was collected from structured email interviews with 180 independent optical retailers. These samples were derived from the propriety Jobson Database. All participants were contacted via email invitation and offered an incentive of a chance to win a $200 American Express gift card. When information is available, four-year comparisons are provided.
All interviews were conducted in November 2008. Data is presented from a retailer or practitioner’s perspective and may reflect seasonal market and thus behavioral fluctuations.

In 2006, 118 participants were contacted by phone by Jobson Research’s in-house staff.  All respondents were asked the same set of structured interview questions. No incentive was offered for participation. Interviews were conducted in October and November of 2006. Data from 20/20 Magazine’s 2005, 2006 and 2007 Sunwear Reports are included for trending purposes.

—¬≠Jennifer Zupnick and Megan Sahm,
Jobson Optical Research

For all your research needs, please visit or contact Megan Sahm at or (212) 219-7825.

Despite a generally bright outlook for the sunglass business, clouds are still scattered about. It’s apparent ECPs need to continue reinforcing the fact that everyone needs sun protection every day of the year. According to survey respondents, adults between the ages of 35 and 44 comprise 47 percent of those who buy prescription sunwear and mature adults (45 to 54), 39 percent. Young adults (17 to 34) account for another 12 percent of sunglass purchases. Unfortunately, those 55 and over only represented 1 percent of Rx sunwear buyers in 2008 and kids under 16, 1.5 percent.

As for gender differences, women were cited as buying more Rx sunwear by 49 percent of the respondents. Only 13 percent say men bought more sunwear. The good news is the percentage indicating equal representation from both sexes has increased over the past three years from 21 percent in 2006 to 32 percent in 2007 and 38 percent for 2008.

In regard to selling sun year around— essential because the sun knows no season—the majority of respondents (65 percent) characterize sunglass sales as “high” during July and August, and during May and June (50 percent). The other months tumble with only between 4 and 12 percent of respondents citing sunglass sales as “high.”

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 (43 percent) claim they always recommend their contact lens patients buy sunglasses. 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.  

Sunglasses have long been synonymous with glamour. With the nearly endless supply of fashionable sun styles currently offered coupled with intensive eye education, you can assure your patients have fun during all seasons in the sun—and, at the same time, make your own business even sunnier.