How Canadian optical companies and divisions are rebounding in wake of COVID shutdowns
By David Goldberg
Years from now, when analysts examine the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the eyewear industry, people will probably be amazed at how relatively unscathed it emerged.
There were dark times for sure.
Labs were shuttered, supply lines severed and jobs cut.
However, the story that will likely persist generations from now will be about the industry’s resiliency in the face of unprecedented circumstances.
Canada is home to some of the world’s greatest eyewear and lens manufacturers that never wavered through each wave of the virus. These fearless leaders adapted and worked within local health restrictions to deliver the essential gift of sight to clients and customers.
Optical Prism checked in with connections across the country to get a temperature check on the industry today and where it’s headed in a post-pandemic world.
At Plastic Plus in Toronto, Paul Faibish says his lab went from full-stop to full steam ahead just 18 months after he was asking the bank about delaying mortgage and lease payments.
“Spring of 2020 was the slowest, I can’t even describe to you how bad business was. Fast forward and this will be our most profitable fiscal year in 42 years.”
Faibish doesn’t expect the demand to go away anytime soon, citing the fact the average consumer buys a pair of glasses every 23 months and COVID-19 widened that gap to 35 or 36 months.
“It’s no question the industry is going to be short probably hundreds of thousands of pairs of glasses, but we added new equipment and we’re running the lab 18 hours a day, six days a week.”
That rampant production at Plastic Plus includes turning out the Avulux lens, which provides migraine relief for thousands of Canadians by filtering out as much as 97 percent of the most painful, headache-triggering light.
In Vancouver, chief designer at Spectacle Eyeworks, Mehran Baghaie laments the early days of the pandemic as well, but he’s excited for the future and his latest collection of stainless steel frames.
“It’s a very vintage, ‘70s-inspired collection,” says Baghaie. “ It is eccentric, vintage and loud.”
Those descriptors, in stark contrast to the early months of the pandemic for Baghaie’s relatively small operation.
“It was confusion and uncertainty. We shut down the office and responded to urgent requests only,” he says. “We started lowering our overheads and consolidation to achieve sustainability, self-sufficiency, endurance and continuance.”
Maintaining that endurance was adapting to the growing demand for online services. More than at any time in human history, we’re ordering things online from burgers and jackets to lumber and bicycles.
At Canadian Optical Supply, president Robert Hoschstadter spearheaded his company’s digital growth and ability to adapt to an increasingly virtual marketplace.
“We will continue to invest in our digital platforms,” he says. “And with the help of the B2B platform, our reps and ECPs are discovering new ways of doing business together and with their patients.”
However, everyone in the industry agrees: Nothing can replace the value of face-to-face interactions, also, that the return of trunk shows and fully interactive appointments will be welcomed by all.
That means the resumption of Vision Expo West in Vegas this fall. That’s where you’ll probably see COS with its new EOS View collection from Silhouette. The full-rim specs offer your customers the perfect mix of both trendy and classic colours and shapes.
WE WANT BRICK AND MORTAR!
As vaccines lead the charge in our return to whatever you might call “the new normal,” it’s clear that eyewear will never be exclusively an online business, Maui Jim’s marketing director Jeff Speiran has learned.
“We’ve discovered that while there is a push on the e-commerce side of many businesses and industries, bricks-and-mortar remains the dominant source of eyewear retail and will continue to be our primary focus,” he says.
Maui Jim ophthalmic will launch styles this fall that features a new material, hexetate.
“Hexetate combines the beauty and colour-richness captured in acetate in a final product that is lighter and more flexible than acetate frames similar in size,” explains Sperian.
Meanwhile, Maui Jim’s sister brand, Zeal Optics, continues to forge its entire collection from renewable plant-based materials.
For Centennial Group’s Linda Mulford-Hum, the biggest change she’s seen in the industry is with the attitude of her co-workers and colleagues.
“We all need to appreciate what we have and how easily it can be taken away. Centennial has always been there for our customers and we plan to build stronger relationships with our customers and suppliers who are rebuilding their businesses back to pre-pandemic levels.”
Part of getting your customers back into the shop is to offer those trusted heritage brands like Ben Sherman, the official outfitter of Great Britain at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.