Ophthalmic Goods

SIC 3851

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This classification includes establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing ophthalmic frames, lenses, contact lenses, and sunglass lenses. Establishments involved in manufacturing molded glass blanks are included in SIC 3229: Pressed and Blown Glass and Glassware, Not Elsewhere Classified; and businesses engaged in grinding lenses and fitting glasses to prescriptions are classified in SIC 5995: Optical Goods Stores.

Industry Snapshot

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008, shipment values for the ophthalmic goods industry totaled $5.8 billion. This figure represented an aggregate value of shipments largely derived from the production of four primary products: contact lenses; prescription ophthalmic lenses; frames; and other prescription and nonprescription eyewear, including safety glasses, reading glasses, and sunglasses.

Contact lenses dominated the ophthalmic goods market in the 2000s, accounting for more than 40 percent of the total shipments delivered by the industry, with soft contact lenses representing 98 percent of the contact lens product share. Glass and plastic ophthalmic focus lenses accounted for more than 20 percent of the industry's shipments, with plastic lenses accounting for approximately 90 percent of the lens market. Ophthalmic frames accounted for two percent of the product share. Other ophthalmic products include reading glasses, sunglasses, safety eyewear, underwater goggles, reading and simple magnifiers, and ophthalmic lens coating.

The ophthalmic goods industry was predominantly populated by relatively small manufacturing operations. According to Dun & Bradstreet, 1,244 U.S. establishments with a total of 33,552 employees were involved in manufacturing ophthalmic goods in 2009. The top three percent of the largest establishments (more than 250 employees) accounted for the majority of all revenues. Typically, the larger companies do not solely manufacture ophthalmic goods but manufacture a diverse line of products to generate sales. For example, a leading company in the industry, Bausch & Lomb Inc., garnered only one-third of its sales in the mid-2000s from contact lenses. The majority of the company's revenues were generated from lens care and pharmaceuticals.

According to The Vision Council (formerly the Vision Council of America), in 2006 approximately 168.5 million Americans adults (75 percent of the adult population) wore corrective lenses. Independent vision centers held about half of the market.

Background and Development

Until the 1960s, growth in the ophthalmic goods industry had occurred at a steady, predictable rate, largely dictated by the rate of population growth in the United States. During the 1960s, however, an increased demand for ophthalmic products elevated the production and sales levels of manufacturers to an unprecedented high. A combination of several factors prompted this remarkable surge in growth, including a dramatic rise in the nation's population and an increase in the availability of eye examinations. The advent of contact lenses in the 1950s as a genuine alternative to conventional corrective eyewear, however, contributed most significantly to the growth of the ophthalmic goods industry.

Although extraordinary gains were achieved by contact lens manufacturers and retailers during the first years of quantifiable production in the 1950s, certain difficulties associated with the early development of contact lenses slowed the public's acceptance of the new product. On average, a pair of contact lenses sold for $200, an exceedingly high price to pay for many consumers, and the discomfort caused by wearing the hard, hydrophobic lenses, which initially covered most of the exposed eyeball, dissuaded a considerable percentage of consumers from making a long-term conversion to contact lenses. According to industry estimates, roughly half the people who began fittings for contact lenses reverted back to conventional corrective eyewear, a rate of attrition that continued to plague contact lens manufacturers into the 1970s.

Despite the high cost of these lenses and the discomfort they often caused, consumers purchased enough contact lenses to push annual sales from $2 million in 1950 to $60 million by 1959. The number of contact lens manufacturers, the majority of which were small, privately owned companies, also increased at a commensurate rate during the decade, climbing from 20 in 1950 to more than 400 by 1960. This proliferation of contact lens manufacturers led to a rash of deceptive advertising complaints issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and sparked several fiercely contested patent disputes, as the excitement generated by the creation of a new, potentially lucrative market within the ophthalmic goods industry attracted increased competition. Complaints filed by the FTC, 15 of which were recorded in 1961 compared to only four prior to 1960, and patent disputes, along with issues such as whether only ophthalmologists and oculists should be allowed to prescribe and fit contact lenses, caused the sales of contact lenses to stagnate at the close of the decade. But these were problems generally associated with the nascence of the market and, as such, inflicted only a temporary setback on the burgeoning industry.

By the mid-1960s, improvements had been made in contact lenses, although their cost still hovered around $200 a pair. The thickness of the plastic used to manufacture the lenses had been reduced, alleviating some of the irritation experienced when a contact lens wearer's eyelid passed over the lens, and the diameter of the lenses had also been reduced so that they only covered the iris and the pupil, rather than the entire exposed eyeball. Shortly before these improvements were made, however, a discovery of lasting importance for the future of the contact lens market overshadowed the technological strides made by the industry in hard contact lens design--although it would be years before its impact would be felt by manufacturers and retailers. In 1965, two Czechoslovakian scientists, Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lim, were awarded a patent for their invention, five years earlier, of a soft plastic suitable for body implants that could also be used to produce contact lenses. Marking the beginning of soft contact lenses, which would eventually account for an overwhelming percentage of contact lens sales, the pliable, hydrophilic material absorbed tears rather than shedding them, as did hard contact lenses, and virtually eliminated any sensation of the eyelid passing over the lens.

Concurrent with the encouraging development of soft contact lenses, the rest of the ophthalmic goods industry was expanding at a robust rate, exceeding the rate of growth in the nation's population. From 1955 to 1965, the population over the age of five increased 18.4 percent, whereas the number of corrective eyewear users rose by 30 percent. This growth was primarily attributable to a greater portion of the population undergoing complete eye examinations, a trend facilitated by Medicare and Medicaid health programs, increased screening for vision acuity in public school systems, and states requiring mandatory eye examinations for people applying for driving licenses. The increasing number of union optical plans, coupled with a greater number of corrective lens wearers purchasing more than one pair of ophthalmic lenses and frames, also fueled the expansion of the ophthalmic market in the 1960s.

New product developments in the conventional corrective eyewear field also contributed to the gains achieved by the ophthalmic industry in the 1960s. One of the four leading publicly held companies engaged in the ophthalmic goods industry at the time, American Optical Corporation, introduced a new single vision lens that provided increased visual sharpness and less distortion from peripheral angles of view. Another leader in the industry, Univis, developed bifocal lenses in 1964 without a visible line separating each half of the lens. Plastic, shatterproof, and lightweight lenses also made their debut in the 1960s. Accounting for only five percent of total corrective lens sales by the mid-1960s, plastic lens sales, nevertheless, had been growing faster than the industry itself during the decade.

Sunglasses also experienced a surge in sales during the 1960s, further accelerating the rapid pace at which the ophthalmic goods industry was expanding. During the 1960s, sunglasses became fashionable accessories worn throughout the year and were no longer considered seasonal products. As the product in the ophthalmic goods industry most sensitive to fashion trends, sunglasses quickly became a lucrative product to manufacture and sell, as unit sales rose from 60 million pairs in 1960 to 175 million pairs in 1966. By the end of the decade, the sunglasses market had leapt 70 percent from the sales volume recorded in 1965 to approximately $200 million.

Conspicuously absent from the contact lens market during the 1960s were the leading manufacturers in the ophthalmic goods industry. American Optical Company and Bausch & Lomb Inc., which together controlled more than 90 percent of the conventional eyeglass market, had eschewed entrance into the contact lens market primarily because the directors of the companies perceived the competition to be too intense. Moreover, neither company felt it had developed a technological innovation in the product encouraging enough to warrant a foray into the market. In 1966, however, Bausch & Lomb acquired the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell the soft, hydrophilic lenses developed by the two Czechoslovakian scientists and, by 1972, the company started distributing soft contact lenses nationwide.

In the 1970s, the ophthalmic goods industry continued to benefit from the population growth, as the prodigious sales increases of the 1960s continued. Wholesale billings for the overall optical industry increased from $400 million in 1959 to $900 million by 1969, then doubled to nearly $2 billion by the end of the 1970s. The success of the industry attracted the attention of the FTC once again, in 1974, when it began investigating restraints on price advertising in the optical industry. In the course of its investigation, the FTC found a significant discrepancy in the price of eyewear throughout the nation, with the average price of eyewear running 25 percent higher in states where advertising was illegal and varying by as much as 300 percent within the same state. In 1978, the same year in which eyeglass coverage became mandatory under Medicaid, the FTC lifted the restrictions on advertising with the hope of saving consumers as much as $400 million annually. Consequently, competition within the ophthalmic goods industry intensified as pricing strategies became of paramount importance.

Along with this transformation of the retail side of the optical industry, ophthalmic goods manufacturers continued to experience growth, engendered in part by the expansion of the sunglasses market. In the early 1980s, sunglasses sales dropped, with unit demand slipping 15 percent in 1981 and 1982, but sales began rising as the decade progressed. Indicative of the product's dependency on fashion trends, the increase in sales was partly attributable to the popularity of several films during the early 1980s that featured well-known actors wearing sunglasses. For example, perhaps the greatest boost from the motion picture industry came when a pair of Bausch & Lomb's Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses were prominently featured in Risky Business. In 1981, 18,000 pairs of the Wayfarer sunglasses were sold; however, after the film was released in 1983, unit sales ballooned to 330,000 pairs. Retail sales in the sunglasses market rose from $361 million in 1985 to $1.5 billion by the end of the decade, reflecting a 100 percent increase from 1980.

During the 1980s, the cost of conducting business in the ophthalmic goods industry rose sharply, far outpacing the increase in sales during the decade. In 1982, the industry recorded $1.3 billion in sales and spent $41 million on capital investment. By 1990, sales had climbed to $2.3 billion, but capital investment had more than tripled to $137 million. In 1997, capital investment reached $2.4 billion against sales of $3.6 billion. The average investment required to operate an ophthalmic facility in 1989 was $282,398, a figure that totaled $414,325 by 1997. The average cost for facilities operating in the ophthalmic goods industry reached $2.7 million in 1997, up from $1.3 million in 1989.

Although the number of contact lens wearers in the United States tapered off to approximately 24 million in the four or five years prior to 1992, the dynamics within this segment of the ophthalmic goods industry changed rapidly in the early 1990s. Disposable soft contact lenses, first marketed by Johnson & Johnson in 1988, grabbed the attention of consumers during the product's first years of availability. By 1999, the number of people wearing contact lenses in the United States had grown for seven consecutive years. That year, about 30 million people in the United States wore contact lenses, creating a $2.5 billion market. The market for disposable lenses skyrocketed throughout the 1990s, with two-thirds of soft lens wearers choosing that option.

Retail margins began to flatten somewhat in the late 1990s amid competition from mail-order providers and online lens sales. Ten percent of contact lens wearers purchased lenses through the mail, a figure that doubled for disposable lens wearers. As a result, prices were driven downward, forcing ophthalmic goods manufacturers to streamline their production processes in order to maintain solid margins. Optometrists and manufacturers joined together against mail-order outlets and, to a lesser degree, other discount outlets. Many manufacturers, including the giants of the industry, refused to sell lenses to mail-order companies or discount outlets that did not have eye-care professionals onsite.

Manufacturers thus invested extensively to build brand equity, especially among younger customers with whom they hoped to develop lifelong relationships. These trends, furthermore, helped to spur the emerging specialty lens market, particularly among the industry's top players. One of the most notable niche markets was for colored contact lenses. Colored contact lenses, primarily blue-tinted lenses, generated sales of $200 million in 1998. Another emerging niche market was for intraocular lenses, which replace the natural lens that is removed during cataract surgery. Cataracts occur in half of all 65- to 75-year-olds in the United States; thus, the aging of the population constituted a prime factor driving future sales expectations in this market category.

Among the most notable developments in contact lens manufacturing was the development in the late 1990s of lenses that treat colorblindness. ColorMax Technologies, a California-based firm, received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 1999 to sell lenses that enable a colorblind wearer to distinguish between colors that would normally appear similar. The technology functions by altering the wavelength of colors as they meet the eye. These lenses were to be customized for the particular patient's form of color blindness. Whereas similar technologies were already in existence, they failed to account for variations in the type or severity of customers' afflictions.

The industry was challenged in the late 1990s by the sharp increase in the number of customers foregoing corrective lenses altogether in favor of laser eye surgery. However, some of the larger firms such as Bausch & Lomb were able to capitalize on this growing market by diversifying and incorporating surgery into their business.

This competitive atmosphere of the ophthalmic goods industry was marked in 1999 by a false-advertising complaint to the FDA lodged by Johnson & Johnson against its chief competitor Bausch & Lomb. The controversy began when Bausch & Lomb ran an advertisement, which the FDA described as "false and misleading," that claimed its Pure Vision contact lenses were superior to Johnson & Johnson's AcuVue brand. The ad claimed that Pure Vision lenses caused the eye to swell only 4.1 percent, compared with AcuVue's 9.1 percent, due to the greater level of oxygen infiltration afforded by Pure Vision lenses. It went on to boast that consumers preferred Pure Vision to AcuVue at a rate of 69 percent. Johnson & Johnson cried foul, claiming that such declarations were not clinically substantiated. A warning letter from the FDA citing lack of adequate proof for such claims forced Bausch & Lomb to retract the advertisement.

In 1998, sales of sunglasses equaled $1.9 billion. In addition to heightened emphasis on designer sunglasses as fashion, sunglasses sales were aided by consumer concern about the protection of their eyes from ultraviolet rays on a year-round basis. Indeed, one of the most promising trends in this sector involved polarized lenses designed specifically to protect the eye from ultraviolet rays. Another innovation was bendable plastic frames for sports-related sunglasses.

Cosmetic contacts became increasingly popular among teenagers, even those who did not require vision correction. Contact lens sales were up 20 percent in 2002, with many manufacturers marketing wild new colors and patterns in contacts specifically for the youth market. There were risks associated with the new trend, however, if such lenses were purchased from unlicensed vendors or not fitted by a doctor. Despite being uncorrective eyewear, such contacts could cause eye problems if not correctly fitted and used.

Soft, disposable contact lenses, including those that correct astigmatism, such as Bausch & Lomb's SofLens66 Toric lenses, continued to be popular. The category-leading lenses were two-week replacements for patients with astigmatism. Continuous-wear lenses, such as Bausch & Lomb's PureVision, also generated strong sales in the early 2000s. Continuous wear lenses were designed for long-term uninterrupted wear. Novartis' CIBA Vision unit marketed a similar product called Focus Night & Day, a 30-day disposable contact lens launched in the United States in 2002, which the company had sold overseas since 1999. In direct competition with PureVision, the launch sparked lawsuits on both sides over patents and other issues. These new extended-wear lenses allowed about 60 percent more oxygen to enter the eye, providing more comfort and optical health.

With some 30 million pairs sold each year, nonprescription reading glasses grew an estimated threefold during the 1990s. The aging baby boom population was a large factor contributing to booming sales in this fast-growing sector. Consumers who wanted to remain stylish were driving the development of more fashionable, upscale reading glasses. Like sunglasses, rimless and semi-rimless styles were the trend. More compact reading glasses also were being made, some of which could be folded into a case no bigger than a tube of lipstick. Affordability was still a main concern, however, with lower prices allowing consumers to own several pairs.

Growth-hungry U.S. manufacturers sought markets overseas with less penetration than mature U.S. markets--in which rising consumer prosperity was reaching levels attractive to U.S. manufacturers. After edging toward the $5 billion barrier in 2003, the industry dipped somewhat in 2004 before showing growth again in 2005 and topping $5 billion in total shipments.

During 2004, the industry experienced numerous swings as consumer confidence shifted between relatively positive and very cautious, thus leading to a flat year. However, 2005 brought some of the growth the industry expected as the children of baby boomers began to reach the age of needing prescription eyewear. Although the number of contact lens wearers held steady at approximately 35 million during the early 2000s, by the mid-2000s, more than 20 million young teens were coming into the contact-wearing age each year.

Along with growing numbers of potential contact lens wearers, the industry was being helped by the increasing use of specialty, disposable, and high-end contacts, which came with a higher price tag and thus generated more revenues. Accounting for approximately one-third of the global market in the mid-2000s, specialty lenses included toric and bifocal or multifocal lenses. Toric lenses provide specific correction for people with astigmatism, which is common in about 25 percent of the American population. Bifocal and multifocal lens revenues also were increasing in revenues. Typically, a contact lens wearer would switch to glasses around the age of 40 when the need for bifocals or multifocals pushed them away from contacts. However, by the mid-2000s, both CooperVision and Bausch & Lomb had bifocal and multifocal contacts on the market, and the specialty lenses were increasing in market share.

Children represented a growing segment of the population in need of corrective lenses. Some researchers suggested that increased computer usage was resulting in a greater incidence of myopia (nearsightedness) among children and young people with no history of the condition. According to The Vision Council, one-quarter of children age 12 and younger had a vision problem in the 2000s.

As the population ages, continued sales are more or less assured, especially in the bifocal and multifocal lens sectors that target age-related presbyopia. Meanwhile, lighter and thinner ophthalmic lens technology, along with growing style consciousness, portend a healthy future for eyeglasses, even as contact lenses further penetrate the market.

Current Conditions

The economic recession of the late 2000s affected the ophthalmic industry in different ways, depending on product. Traditionally, the industry had been considered immune to economic downturns, as corrective lenses were necessary products for many, and the contact lens sector of the industry bore this out. Growth in that category continued into the late 2000s and early 2010s, driven by new products, higher levels of comfort, and new customers. Eye doctors' increasing acceptance of daily wear lenses also helped business.

However, the eyewear sector was not quite so fortunate. By the late 2000s, eyewear had become more of a fashion statement than in previous decades, so when Americans found less money in their pockets, they were less willing to dole it out to fashionable glasses or sunglasses that they could do without. According to research firm Packaged Facts, many U.S. eyewear stores reported declines in sales in 2008 and 2009, accompanied by some store and factory closings. Fashionable and brand-name eyewear was especially susceptible to the tendency of Americans to cut back on unnecessary expenditures in the late 2000s.

As the economy headed toward recovery in the early 2010s, factors driving growth in the ophthalmic industry included the increased demand for disposable contact lenses and specialty contact lenses. For example, varifocal contact lenses were becoming more popular. Varifocals, which were an alternative to bifocal glasses or reading glasses while wearing single-vision contact lenses, were marketed to people over 45 who had trouble focusing on materials close up, a common problem in that age of the population. Also, although the value sunglasses market was just stable, the market for premium sunglasses market was growing, as people considered sunglasses a fashion accessory and manufacturers strove to meet this demand by creating a variety of designs. The fact that department stores highlighted sunglasses in their accessories departments helped, according to Marshal Cohen of The NPD Group. As he stated in Women's Health Weekly, "Even in a tough market, department stores ramped up their sunglasses assortment and put them front and center, and that really paid." Direct marketers of contact lenses that sold through the Internet, including 1-800-Contacts (the largest such company), Coastal Contacts, and Visiondirect, were also experiencing more traffic. Still, eye care practitioners continued to hold the largest share of the market in 2010.

Industry Leaders

With manufacturing or marketing operations in more than 100 countries, Bausch & Lomb, based in Rochester, New York, was the dominant company operating in the ophthalmic goods industry in 2010. An industry leader since its inception in 1853, Bausch & Lomb secured a lasting foothold in the optical field by developing the first rubber eyeglass frames, contributing significantly to the advancement of microscope and telescope technology, and creating Aviator-style Ray-Ban sunglasses. The acquisition of the rights to manufacture and sell soft contact lenses in 1966 and the subsequent FDA approval to market the lenses in 1971, coupled with the company's diversification in the early 1980s into health care and biomedical business lines, contributed most appreciably to the company's success in the 1980s and 1990s. The company reacted to tough competition in the contact lens market by cutting about 850 jobs in 1999. In the late 1990s, the firm sold its sunglasses business, including the popular Ray-Ban line, to Luxottica, and delved into refractive laser eye surgery. Bausch & Lomb was acquired by private equity firm Warburg Pincus in 2007 in a deal worth about $3.7 billion. Bausch & Lomb posted revenues of $2.5 billion in 2009.

Health care giant Johnson & Johnson, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, had a Vision Care unit that specialized in disposable contact lenses and was a leading distributor of contact lenses in the United States in the early 2010s. Brands included AcuVue, a line that includes lenses that can be worn continuously for one week, and SureVue, two-week daily wear lenses. Other products included daily wear lenses, daily wear disposable lenses, color contact lenses, bifocal lenses, and lenses that correct astigmatism.

CIBA Vision, of Duluth, Georgia, was the eye care unit of Switzerland-based Norvartis AG. The company manufactured eyeglasses, contacts, and eye care products. In early 2005, CIBA Vision sold soft contact lens lines Aquaflex and Softcon to a unit of Unilens Vision.

Another significant player in the industry was The Cooper Company Inc. of Pleasanton, California. Its subsidiary, CooperVision, made contact lenses, including those for astigmatism and presbyopia (blurred vision). With 6,600 employees, the firm had sales of more than $1.0 billion in 2009.

America and the World

In 2009, North America was the largest market for contact lenses, followed by Europe and Asia-Pacific, according to Research and Markets. However, North America was also the slowest growing market, whereas the Asia-Pacific region was experiencing rapid growth.

Italy dominated the eyewear manufacturing industry in the 2000s with a 22 percent market share at mid-decade. China was second with a 17 percent market share, followed by Australia, with 13 percent. For high-end eyewear, Italy commanded an impressive 70 percent of the market. In 2006, the United States exported $1.5 billion worth of ophthalmic goods, with Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom as the primary destinations. Imports valued at $2.97 billion came primarily from Italy, China, and Japan.

Italy's Luxottica Group was the world's largest eyewear company in the early 2010s. Luxottica marketed mid- and premium-priced eyeglass frames and sunglasses, offering more than 2,250 house brands and designer frames, including the Ray-Ban and Revo lines, in more than 120 countries. The company purchased Sunglass Hut International, with about 1,500 specialty sunglass stores and more than 100 Watch Station and Watch World stores. It also operated some 860 LensCrafters retail optical stores. Luxottica, which acquired U.S. sport sunglasses maker Oakley as well as China's Modern Sight Optics in 2007, reported revenues of $7.3 billion and employed 60,800 in 2009.

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