THE great debate about selling plano and prescription eyewear on the Internet continues, fueled now by the recent report released by The Vision Council entitled “2010 Vision Council VisionWatch Internet Influence Report.”

This study used input from 9,293 respondents aged 18 and over who answered 27 questions exploring their use of the Internet for prescription (Rx) eyeglasses, plano sunglasses, contact lenses, and over-the-counter (OTC) readers.

Results showed most respondents use the Internet to some extent as a tool when shopping for general retail merchandise. They use it to conduct general research, browse selected manufacturers, and consider specific products. Well over half reported occasionally buying something over the Internet, although one-twelfth of the respondents didn’t use the Internet in any way to assist purchasing products.

While consumers may be using the Internet for general merchandise research and purchase, that trend isn’t as prevalent for eyewear products. In fact, the study reports 24% used the Internet to some extent when buying contact lenses with only 11% for Rx eyewear, 13% for plano sunglass, and 6% for OTC readers. Remember, these are response rates for any kind of Internet usage when considering eyewear products. As for actually purchasing eyewear over the Internet, the results are much lower. About 3% of recent eyeglass buyers directly purchased eyeglasses online while 2% purchased OTC readers and 7% purchased plano sunglasses. The biggest group of purchasers was contact lens buyers with approximately 15%.

These are not huge percentages but they do reinforce the trend of buying eyewear online. As the study states and as all ECPs know, the factors that will limit eyewear being sold over the Internet are: the personal attention patients receive when buying products from ECPs, the opportunity to see and try on products, the fit of the eyewear after the sale, and the professional advice and trust they have in ECPs. These factors will be very difficult to reproduce over the Internet.

While most ECPs are taking a “wait and see” attitude, some companies are not. A recent article in The New York Times (“Defying Conventional Wisdom to Sell Glas- ses Online”) mentions Warby Parker, a New York company that sold about 20,000 pairs of eyeglasses in its first year. The company’s Web site uses facial recognition technology where users can virtually try on eyeglasses. According to the article, Warby Parker rents space in a few stores in big cities where people can try on glasses before ordering online. It’s a clever way to provide the “hands-on” buyers want.

Selling eyewear on the Internet is in its infancy. It’ll be interesting to see how this trend develops.

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