A recent market report about the vision care industry contained a pleasant surprise: for the first time in what seems like ages, contact lens sales are up. The Vision Council reports that revenue increased 7.5% in 2017 vs. 2015. That took some people (or me, at least) by surprise. For years, the mood surrounding contact lenses has been a weary resignation that the market is stagnant and probably will just stay that way. Although lots of new wearers enter the category—the oft-cited number is 16% new fits annually—an equal number of existing wearers drop out every year, promptly wiping out any gains. 

Not any more. “Contact lens sales increased most among all major markets mostly due to an increase in contact lens usage among the US adult population, which saw an increase of 1.1 million new additional users,” the report noted. The contact lens population stands at 41.6 million wearers, with a value of $5 billion. Impressively, the category’s growth rate is more than double that of the overall vision correction market. In 2017, 192.4 million Americans used some form of correction, representing $40 billion. But the contact lens category outpaced the market as a whole.

Some of this growth came at the expense of an old nemesis—LASIK, down 9.2%—but also from a decline in the number of uncorrected ametropes out there, whose ranks dropped 3.1% as these procrastinators finally did something about their need for vision correction. The rest was from organic growth of the market as the US population increased.

Of course, there are still reasons to be skittish about the contact lens rebound. The Vision Council notes “39.8% of the revenue from online optical sales comes from the sales of contact lenses.” That’s not 40% of contact lens sales going online, it’s 40% of the total dollar volume of online sales of any kind. Yikes. 

Online contact lens sales grew by 8% in transactions and 10% in revenue last year, the report states, further eroding the market.  

And while ODs have battled for years against the misinformation and shady tactics of 1-800-CONTACTS, newer outlets have gotten even more brazen. Witness the tag line for online retailer Simple Contacts: “Lenses you need. Office visits you don’t.” OK, then! No need for eye health exams, or even prescription checks. Got it. 

Such is the atmosphere that greets new lens wearers as they’re forming their attitudes and habits; it’s also steadily undermining the doctor’s relationship with existing wearers. 

I’d like to be optimistic and think online sales growth can be reversed. But that’s probably naïve. “Contact lenses is the most established online optical market in the US,” the Vision Council report soberly reminds us. Better, then, to manage the process and give people the convenience they’re looking for without the risks that online retailers downplay or disregard. The AOA is fighting hard on your behalf, and perhaps some shady business dealings will go away. But ultimately it falls to you to look out for patients, both old and new. Your oath is to Hippocrates. Online retailers are inspired only by Croesus.