Companies cater to boomers' weak vision

Sunday, May 5, 2002

NEW YORK -- Richard Isoldi never had vision trouble before, so when reading became a bit difficult he postponed seeing an eye doctor for two years. The 46-year-old Houston banker now has reading glasses, but wears them as little as possible.

"Once I'm starting to drive and things are blurry, I will cross that bridge and go with contacts," Isoldi said. "I think people look better naturally than having a glass on their face."

As millions of boomers start coping with weaker eyesight, many eye care companies are marketing products aimed at helping the generation look and feel more young.

The offerings range from specialty lenses such as bifocal contacts and line-free bifocal glasses to vitamin supplements designed to keep eyes healthy.

"Boomers aren't satisfied with reading glasses," said David Harmon, president and senior editor at Market Scope, a St. Louis research firm. "Unlike their parents, the baby boomer generation is not willing to grow old. So their expectations are much higher."

More choices in glasses

Much of the companies' focus is on the 1.2 million contact lens wearers each year who will turn 40 through the next decade. Many, believing no other options existed, had switched to reading or bifocal glasses after developing presbyopia, a stiffening of the eye lens that makes it difficult to read at a short distance.

But boomer demands have helped increase choices in recent years. Specialty lenses, which include bifocal contacts, toric lenses for astigmatism and colored lenses also popular with boomers' children, are the fastest growing segment of the $2.8 billion contact lens industry, with about 10 percent to 15 percent annual growth.

That compares to 6 percent growth in the overall market, according to Suey S. Wong, an analyst at Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird and Co.

Lenses are becoming more popular as the growth of laser vision surgery has flattened, due mostly to safety concerns and the slowing economy.

Surgery options

The surgical procedures, which cost more than $1,000 per eye and involves cutting a flap in the cornea and reshaping it with laser beam, totaled 1.4 million last year. That's down from 1.5 million in 2000, after a doubling in growth each year from 1995 to 1999.

Companies are responding to the trends.

After disappointing sales of its laser-eye surgery equipment, Bausch & Lomb plans an improved bifocal contact lens for later this year in hopes of boosting revenue. It also unveiled last fall a vitamin supplement designed to help preserve vision.

"We obviously see the boomer market as an enormous growth opportunity," said Margaret Graham, spokeswoman at the Rochester, N.Y.-based company. She noted that many boomers switched to contacts after soft lenses were introduced in 1972.

"As contact lenses became more comfortable, more affordable and more convenient, boomers ... really grew that business," she said. "Now that they are approaching those middle years, when eyesight begins to deteriorate, and most people begin to go to bifocal spectacles, they're really pushing the market."

Several companie also have begun selling progressive eyeglass lenses -- sometimes called lineless trifocals.

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