The latest edition of the Optical Monitor (OMO), the semi-annual consumer survey commissioned to GfK by the Mido and Silmo trade fairs, involved 4,830 consumers questioned in the U.S., China, Russia and Japan in December and January. Presented on Feb. 25 at the Mido trade show in Milan, the survey clearly indicated a major increase in the share of online retailing for the consumption of optical frames and even more sunglasses. The tally comprises online purchases made on optical retail websites, the websites of fashion and department stores, official brand websites and third-party internet platforms.

Online purchases of prescription frames made inroads in all the markets last year, peaking at 16 percent in China, up from 6 percent in the previous year, followed by the U.S., up to 15 percent from 12 percent. Japan grew to 6 percent from 2 percent and Russia gained to 4 percent from 3 percent. In Europe, online sales of prescription frames advanced to 5 percent in 2017 from 3 percent in 2016, according to a previous survey.

In the past year, purchases of sunglasses online increased from 10 percent to 21 percent of total consumption in China and from 11 to 17 percent in the U.S., where e-commerce has reached a penetration rate of 26 percent for big city dwellers and people below the age of 25, according to the latest edition

In Japan, online purchases of sunglasses only rose to 11 percent from 10 percent a year earlier, but GfK warned that the research base was limited in the country. The ratio declined to 7 percent from 12 percent in Russia. In comparison, online purchase of sunglasses in the five main European countries - Germany, France, the U.K., Italy and Spain - represented 16 percent of the market last year against 11 percent in 2016, according to data released last October at the Silmo trade fair in Paris.

Nevertheless, the physical store remains the primary touch point for 72 percent of consumers, with the percentage peaking at 84 percent in China, followed by Russia at 81 percent and the U.S. at 77 percent, with Japan trailing at 51 percent.

Consumption behaviors continue to change rapidly and significantly for the purchase of sunglasses, largely at the expense of independent opticians and optical retail chains, which managed to limit some of the erosion thanks to their websites.

Department stores remained the main retail channel in the U.S., according to the recent survey, representing 22 percent of the total market, up from 21 percent a year earlier, while the aggregate share for independent opticians and optical chains, excluding internet purchases, dropped to 10 percent from 19 percent. The share taken by sunglass specialists surged to 8 percent from 3 percent.

In China, brick-and-mortar optical retail chains remained the largest channel with 28 percent of sales, but their share fell dramatically from 35 percent in the prior year, while the independents' share dipped to 8 percent from 21 percent. Sunglass specialists rose to 21 percent of the market from 9 percent, and the brands' own websites took 10 percent of the overall market - the highest level in all countries surveyed. No data are available for 2017 on the brands' websites.

In Russia, various retail channels are vying for the top berth, but sunglass specialists were ahead of the pack in GfK's latest survey, rising to 17 percent of the market from 11 percent, followed by department stores, up to 16 percent from 14 percent. Street markets followed in Russia, up to 15 percent from 12 percent, while fashion stores increased their share to 12 percent from 9 percent. Meanwhile, optical retail chains fell to 13 percent of the market from 16 percent and independent opticians shrunk to 6 percent from 13 percent.

In Japan, the optical retail chains remained the main channel for the sale of sunglasses but their market share fell drastically to 21 percent from 52 percent, to the benefit of most other channels. Fashion stores consolidated their second position, rising to 14 percent from 11 percent, while department stores grew to 10 percent of the market from 6 percent.

In the main European countries, the market share occupied by the optical retail chains fell to 22 percent from 29 percent, according to a previous OMO survey, and the independent opticians' share decreased to 16 percent from 20 percent. The share of the department stores also fell to 9 percent from 12 percent while the position of the fashion boutiques remained steady at 10 percent. Sunglass specialists doubled their market share to 6 percent.

On aggregate, GfK estimates that 44 percent of all the sunglasses sold in the US, China, Russia and Japan are now purchased through “fashion channels” - namely department stores, fashion stores and sunglass specialists. That's where the growth is right now.

Opticians lost market share in all markets surveyed but nevertheless remained overwhelmingly the main purchase channel for optical glasses. The combined share of optical retail chains, independent opticians and optical retailers' websites still stood at 60 percent in the U.S., slipping from 65 percent a year earlier. It dropped from 80 percent to 71 percent in China, to 67 percent from 80 percent in Russia, and narrowed to 80 percent from 90 percent in Japan. It had the highest level – 86 percent – in Europe.

Another major change that stood out from the latest OMO survey was the sharp decline in the share occupied by optical discount stores in the U.S., which dropped to 1 percent from 14 percent a year earlier. Conversely, optical factory outlets enjoyed a good run, growing to 5 percent from 1 percent in the U.S., doubling to 6 percent of the market in China and rising to 3 percent from virtually non-existence in Japan.