Whats the Future of Optical Retailing in the UK?

2 pairs of spectacles being purchased in Tescos opticians UK which is now Vision Express
2 pairs of designer spectacles being purchased in Tescos opticians UK which is now Vision Express

I only ever go to my local family optician in the village who has been there for years.” remarked one Hampshire lady in her 70’s. Her reason was that she trusted her optician with the eyesight and that he gave her constantly exceptional personal service over many years. Her glasses were also on the expensive end of the spectrum at around £500 per pair. Not everyone has access to private transport which is an issue especially during lockdown. Some residents choose to support their local eyesight expert and his or her small business during these challenging economic times to make sure their local facility can remain a feature of their town or village.

The long-awaited growth of online selling is becoming a reality….online selling of glasses is beginning to benefit from digital developments that allow customers to visualise how they will look in their glasses.” explained Ms Westgarth of industry analysts Mintel in the online publication Optometry Today in March of this year. (8)

Smart phones, computers and digital devices with web cameras mean that it is simple to download a program or application that can take several photos any individual and create a way to simulate in ‘3D’ how a person looks in their potential new frames. Specsavers have ‘Frame Styler’ and Vision Express have a ‘Virtual Try On’ service on their websites.

The future looks bright for the biggest opticians in the UK as the value of this industry continues to rise to over £3 billion. This success is due to continuing demand for spectacles and the vision needs of an ageing population. (Source: Mintel)

Smaller independent opticians are finding it harder to compete with the big brands as citizens look for value and the range of frames when it comes to purchasing their precious and practical accessories. Several online companies offer savings on buying contact lenses which can easily be posted in multiple packs of between 3 and 30 units. They are able to compete as they do not have all the stores overheads such as staffing, rates and an expensively equipped shop interior in a town centre location.

The market for selling spectacles online is developing with companies such as Bloobloom, Glasses Direct, Ace & Tate and Glasses2U inviting anyone with access to the internet to upload their recent prescription and pay for purchasing glasses. These individual products are then made to order and delivered straight to their home.

There is usually an option to return the new items if they don’t fit quite right. Glasses Direct send a few sample pairs in order for people to be able to try on in person and then choose their favourites in the comfort of their own private space.

At the top end of the market Cubitts and Premiere Optical make unique combinations for completely one off bespoke glasses. MoneySavingExpert’s Steve Noworttny offers a word of caution though as “If you make a mistake with entering prescription details, you aren’t necessarily guaranteed a refund or exchange.” (9)

It is worth considering the pros and cons of shopping online versus visiting a physical store. Shopping online for corrective eyewear of any sort does not offer the personal service, latest medical tests (for glaucoma for example) style advice or experienced personal impressions of how your new frames suit you. Importantly the custom design and fitting that a large opticians is able to deliver so effectively is not available online. Plus if there are any problems with a product that is bought in store then a consumer can just make an appointment to ‘pop back in’ and ask for a second opinion. It is also easy to request for some small frame adjustments to be made ad ask any questions about claning and maintaining your eyewear.

Opticians and businesses that sell both glassesand contact lenses are clearly all set to enjoy positive bottom lines as UK consumers prioritise their healthcare during the ongoing pandemic. Competition in the market place means getting a good deal on vision solutions and a high level of customer service is definitely achievable even on a smaller budget. The NHS is subsidising certain frames and prescriptions for those on low incomes.

However for many average earners and young working people, receiving a more complex lense prescription (such as needing thinned lenses and varifocals) can mean choosing very carefully when and where to invest financially in frames that they will need to last a few years or more. See our article Need New Specs? Optical Services All Open Despite 2nd Lockdown for more details of how the prices can vary across the retail industry.

It is commonplace for frames with lenses to total more than £500 per pair with several of our high street retailers. Sam Knight’s excellent article in the Guardian in 2018 explains that “even top-of-the-range frames and lenses cost, combined, no more than about £30 to produce.” Knight explain that there is a closely controlled supply chain situation in Europe with very few companies like EssilorLuxottica making a high percentage of the products that are sold by every business in the optical marketplace. This means profit margins can be at around 500% markup or more. Ana Swanson of Forbes magazine accuses the industry in America of price fixing. (4)

In the future digital menus and screens in our glasses will help make work and play easier and more fun. Google Glass “wasn’t a big hit in 2014 when it was launched” according to Dalvin Brown of USA Today. The trend for augmented reality headsets has practical applications in the medical, scientific and military world and Google announced a new range called “Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2” at a $999 price point. The headsets are inspired by classic Ray Ban style frames and also have a built in camera, computer processor and charging battery. (5)

Technology is making it more fun and convenient to buy the most suitable products and also to spot any underlying health problems in advance, to ensure a lifetime of optimised vision, for everyone living in the UK.


(1) Mintel reports steady market gowth for optics’ Kimberley Young, Optometry Today, 5 March 2020 https://www.aop.org.uk/ot/industry/high-street/2020/03/05/mintel-reports-steady-market-growth-for-optics

(2) ‘Cheap Glasses, Full cost-cutting tips’ Steve Nowottny, MoneySavingExpert, 7 June 2016 https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/family/cheap-glasses/

(3) ‘The spectacular power of Big Lens’ Sam Knight, The Guardian, 10 May 2018 ‘The spectacular power of Big Glasses Eyewear’ Sam Knight, The Guardian

(4) ‘Meet the Four-Eyed, Eight-Tentacled Monopoly That is Making Your Glasses So Expensive’ Ana Swanson, Forbes magazine, updated 1 October 2017 ‘Meet the Four-Eyed, Eight-Tentacled Monopoly That is Making Your Glasses So Expensive’ Ana Swanson, Forbes

(5) ‘Google Takes Another Stab at Google Glass’ Dalvin Brown USA Today Tech 13 November 2020 ‘Google Takes Another Stab at Google Glass’ Dalvin Brown USA Today