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Dazzling blue is the colour for 2014 success in the US optical market video

The trends and technologies that will dominate the 2014 US optical market were all on show at this year's Las Vegas International Vision Expo, with 3D Printers, high-end frames and electronic attachments all set to make an impact.

Photo: Big spectacle: Vision Expo celebrates 25 years in the frame.
Big spectacle: Vision Expo celebrates 25 years in the frame.

"The International Vision Expo is unlike any other event" – at least according to Courtney Muller, Group Vice President of Reed Exhibitions. It is perhaps a predictable sentiment from the company that co-organises the show, alongside The Vision Council, the trade body representing the US optical industry. This year, though, with the optical industry embracing new technology as never before, her words did have a degree of resonance.

Warming to her theme, Muller said: "Each year, we are challenged with sourcing and delivering the most innovative eyewear and eyecare products, technologies and comprehensive solutions for our attendees, their businesses and – ultimately – their patients. This is not a sleepy industry. The buzz from attendees around the variety of products and technologies at this year's show are a testament to that – and there's a lot more in store for 2014."

So much for the traditional show-woman's hype, but how much did the event live up to the hype? The show returned to Las Vegas with the US vision industry having experienced steady growth across the first half of 2013, at least according to the Vision Council's six monthly update on the state of the sector.

The industry generated a revenue of US$35.47 billion in the 12 months to June 2013, representing a 3.9% growth across most optical sectors when compared to the same period last year. According to the same report, consumers are also now starting to spend more on eyewear. Ophthalmic lenses grew by 6% in terms of dollar spend compared to last year, while there were increases across a range of other sectors too – ophthalmic frames (2.7%), contact lenses (5.9%), sunglasses (4%), and readers (7.3%).

Spec-tacular style

As ever, while actual optical needs remain of paramount importance, it is fashion that is driving the sector. Ophthalmic frames, for instance, have gone beyond being a prescribed visual necessity and have become a style statement in their own right. The industry has been quick to realise the new opportunities for sales and business growth this represents, having previously been reliant on the statutory one eye exam per year covered by most medical insurances policies.

According to Travis Reed, President and Chief Executive of Creative Visionary Inc, a Chicago-based specialist retail marketing agency, owning glasses just for functional reasons is a thing of the past. He said: "Having one pair of glasses is like having one pair of shoes – crazy."

According to Reed, the must-have US colour for eyewear in Spring 2014 will be a dazzling blue. He recommends that stylish spectacle-wearers opt for carry frames that complement this colour, ideally in orange or silver. For those looking to get ahead of the curve, he suggests taking a cue from the 2014 movie line-up. In recent years, a number of big screen productions, notably The Hangover and The Great Gatsby, prompted a boom in demand for the glasses worn by their protagonists.

Barbara Manhood, a sales rep for Match Eyewear, a New York-based optical manufacturer and an exhibitor at this year's event, has a slightly different take on the coming fashions. She sees a continuing demand for larger styles, retro fashions and wayfarer sunglasses, but across a range of different configurations. In terms of colours, she maintains red will continue to be hot, as well as turquoise blue and various laminate styles in the plastics sector.

Assessing the overall mood of the 2013 event, she said: "It has been a very busy show for us. People are either buying like they own the bank or they are being very careful. It seems like we are hardly writing any intermediate orders."

High fashion eye fashion

For many industry experts, it is the luxury end of the eyewear sector that is set to prosper. Regina Wagner, a practitioner at California's Poway Vision Care said sourcing high-end styles for her clients was her major reason for attending the event.

Describing the range her practice currently favours, she says: "We already carry Badgley Mischka and I'm here to look at Gucci and see if we can bring them in." According to Wagner, the business at her practice has enjoyed a definite upturn, particularly with regard to family visits and from existing clients looking to upgrade their frames. As well as her interest in signing up to new high-end brands, Wagner was also keen to identify one-off luxury items. Explaining her interest, she said: "Artisan brands are becoming more important – who wants exactly the same thing that you can get at the mall?"

Futuristic technology

Fresh from its debut in New York in March, Vision Monday's Eye² Zone – described as a chance to "see, touch and experience, non-traditional vision-related technologies" – brought together the latest in wearable devices previously seen at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). From ski goggles with GPS and performance tracking to assistive technology for low-vision to augmented reality lenses, it was, for many attendees, a glimpse of the future.

Photo: 3D printers and celebrity salutation: growing optical influences.
3D printers and celebrity salutation: growing optical influences.

One of the many taken with the advanced possibilities emerging in the optical market was Victoria Brilz, Chief Marketing Officer of 4iiii Innovations, a Canadian sports technology company and an exhibitor in the Zone. Reflecting on the possibilities, she said: "All of the promotion for Google Glass has led people to accept the idea that eyewear can be a platform for technology and communication and that it can fit in with your lifestyle. What was once unthinkable is now becoming realisable. It's now all about the intrigue of what's possible and where the market is going."

For this year's event, the company was showcasing its Sportiiiis device, a glasses-attachable unit that provides feedback on heart rate, speed and other performance variables. The device can also sync with mobile apps to allow people to race against themselves and against others. Explaining its appeal, Brilz said: "Not everyone wants to be an athlete, but a lot of people want to do their best. Getting timely information keeps you motivated and in the game."

3D'd glasses

The future was also on show at the stand of ClearVision Optical, a New York-based optical supply company, where a 3D printer rendered a plastic frame right in front of a curious crowd. Enthused as to the possibilities opened up by this new technology, Lucas Friedfeld, Executive Vice President of the company, said: "It used to take us four, eight, 16 weeks… to get a prototype depending on how many things went wrong. Now, from design to holding a physical prototype, it can take less than a week."

One recent application came while the company was developing a prototype frame for Marc Ecko, a US fashion company. With the prototype dispatched from China proving to be one millimetre out, ClearVision was able to use its new technology to correct the measurements and "print" it out again, a process that took a little over an hour. Friedfeld said: "At that point, we weren't consumer-ready, but we could send the approved prototype to our manufacturers in China, Italy and France. Overall, this is going to make a huge difference to the industry."

As well as its prototyping applications, Friedfeld also sees a very definite role for 3D printing when it comes to custom eyewear, engravings and accessories. Succinctly summing up the possibilities, he said: "If you can think it, you can print it."

Stand out stands

As ever at a large event showcasing small items, achieving stand-out was a real challenge for many exhibitors. Overall, several particular approaches seemed to attract the most attention. Both large and small exhibitors managed to stop traffic if they featured some form of live action. An on-stand presentation by a known science personality, for instance, inspired people not just to gather around, but also to smartphone record it for posterity.

Another trusty stand-by that still proved successful was the opportunity for hands-on experimentation – facilities that allowed attendees to try out the latest equipment for themselves. A number of boutique companies selling specialty frames also benefitted from recreating the overall vibe of their brand within their space, frequently employing eye-catching objects, warm backdrops and upscale furniture.

The event proved a lucrative one for those exhibitors selling value frames, even those that didn't go the extra mile in terms of their booth decor. The key to success here – perhaps obviously – was presenting a huge section of styles. Testifying to the potency of this policy, Barry Slovinsky, President of New York-based Eight to Eighty Eyewear, said: "If you're not selling highly recognisable branded product, keep your costs down on the booth and try to get them on design. We've been writing orders all day."

Photo: Eyewear candy: 2014's new looks previewed.
Eyewear candy: 2014's new looks previewed.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, this year's International Vision Expo attracted 13,000 attendees, featured 425 exhibitors and covered 185,000 sq ft at the Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas from 2-5 October 2013.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

The HKTDC Optical Fair, takes place between 6-8 November this year. To see the highlights of last year's event, please click on the video below:

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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