While Americans buy eyewear online and are pleased with the results, the latest Vision Council research shows it’s still a small percentage.

Despite a relatively high number of consumers using the internet to some extent when shopping for general retail goods, the practice is still not as prevalent for eyewear.

While Americans were most likely to use the internet when buying contact lenses, where 34.0% of recent buyers used the internet to any extent during their last contact lens purchase, that leaves about two-thirds who are not using the internet to any extent when buying their contact lenses online.

Even fewer prescription eyeglass buyers (21.2%), plano sunglass buyers (25.2%) and over-the-counter readers buyers (14.9%) used the internet for any type of assistance during their last purchase. This leaves the large majority of eyeglass, sunglass and readers buyers shopping and making their purchase in-person.

There are three primary reasons respondents to The Vision Council VisionWatch survey cited for avoiding the internet when shopping for eyewear, plus some additional, less cited reasons (see charts, “Why didn’t you use the internet when purchasing your most recent pair of eyeglasses?”). The three main reasons for preferring the brick-and-mortar experience are related to the in-person service they can receive through their relationship with their eyecare professional and the opportunity to actually try on a real pair of glasses.

Among the reasons for preferring to buy eyewear in a store rather than online, “I could not physically try on in-person” was cited by the largest number of respondents (37.6%). Then “I have a trusted relationship with my eyewear retailer” was next highest (29.1%) followed by “I enjoy buying glasses in-person” (26.1%). Rounding out the responses were “I already knew what I wanted to buy and did not need the internet” (15.6%) and “Don’t trust the web/Too much of a hassle” (13.4%).

There were certain groups of eyewear consumers (men, younger Americans, relatively affluent Americans, residents of the Northeast and people who recently bought eyewear from a conventional optical chain) that were more likely than other consumers to have used the internet when purchasing eyewear.

After increasing significantly from 2011 through 2015, the number of consumers using the internet to shop for and buy corrective eyewear continued to grow but at a slower rate in 2016 and 2017. Online usage for prescription eyeglasses and plano sunglasses contracted slightly in 2017 relative to previous years, while shopping for over-the-counter reading glasses and contact lenses increased sharply in 2017.

Most Americans are window shopping online for eyewear, conducting research for future eyewear purchases, comparing prices and comparing possible brands and possible retail locations. They are less likely to use the internet to select the exact brand and exact retail location. Finally, a small number of consumers are using the internet to review customer ratings/satisfaction relating to eyewear or eyewear retailers.

The number of consumers using the internet to directly purchase optical products increased by almost 10%. Those using the internet for customer reviews of different retailers and direct eyewear online buying activity has surged over the past five years.

It’s still a small number of people who are buying their eyewear online. Approximately 25.4% of people using the internet to assist in their last purchase of eyewear actually made the purchase directly online, mostly contact lens purchases. Specifically, only about 4.4% of all recent eyeglass buyers used the internet to directly purchase eyeglasses. Only 4.9% of recent over-the-counter readers buyers used the internet to directly purchase their readers, and 7.3% of recent plano sunglass buyers used the internet to directly purchase sunglasses. In terms of contact lens buyers, about 19.7% purchased their lenses online directly over the internet.

Although it is difficult to use this data to project up to a national total of aggregate online purchasing activity, it is likely that between 3.2 million and 3.3 million pairs of prescription eyeglasses were purchased online during the 12-month period ending September 2017. Similarly, an estimated 3.3 million to 3.5 million pairs of over-the-counter readers and approximately 7.1 million to 7.5 million pairs of plano sunglasses were directly purchased online during this same time period.

The groups that were more likely to directly purchase eyewear online were men, younger Americans, those with higher incomes and those who use the internet when shopping for general retail goods. In the past, an overwhelming majority of eyewear buyers who were likely to “defect” to the internet came from the 18- to 34-year-old group and were primarily consumers who bought from conventional chain or mass merchant retailers.

Unit sales of online eyewear increased by about 10% in 2017, on par with growth rates of online eyewear sales from 2014 and 2016. In 2017, the largest increases in online optical buying behavior occurred among adults from low-income households (up to $40,000 annually) purchasing optical products online, as well as an increase in the number of people over the age of 45 purchasing eyewear online and people who recently purchased eyewear from an independent ECP retailer.

Most of the consumers surveyed who purchased eyewear online within the past six months are satisfied with their purchase experience; 55.0% rated their recent online buying experience as “excellent,” and 39.7% rated it “good.” Only 5.3% rated their experience as “neutral,” and nobody rated their experience as “poor” or “very bad.”
This is actually comparable to (and slightly higher than) purchase satisfaction rates among eyewear buyers who purchased from a physical brick-and-mortar retailer.

The results of this report indicate that the profile of potential “optical online buyer” is continuing to evolve. In 2017, the largest increases in online eyewear future purchase intent occurred among men, Americans over the age of 55, those from the Southeast and Midwest, and among consumers who recently purchased Rx eyeglasses or made an eyewear purchase from a mass merchant retailer.

This article has been excerpted from The Vision Council’s most recent VisionWatch Internet Influence Report. The entire report is available from The Vision Council at


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