Optician market trends

(last updated July 2019)

What has been happening in the optical sector

The optical sector saw a decade of change during the 1980s, when the market was significantly deregulated and the current NHS voucher system was introduced. Free NHS sight tests were restricted in 1989 to certain eligible groups of people, including glaucoma sufferers and those on low incomes.

In 1999 the government extended eligibility to include all people aged 60 years or more. The Scottish Government introduced free sight tests for all in 2006. New NHS funded eye care services were introduced in Wales in 2006 and 2007, and in 2008 a new contract system was introduced for opticians in England. Northern Ireland updated its own eye care services contract in 2010.

In 2005 the General Optical Council (GOC) introduced revised Rules for opticians which included the introduction of compulsory continuing education and training (CET).

In 2007 suitably trained and qualified opticians got new powers to prescribe certain medicines independently.

2012 saw the introduction of GP-led clinical commissioning groups for commissioning enhanced eye care services such as minor eye emergency treatment, and the introduction of NHS England working through Area Teams to replace Primary Care Trusts for optical services commissioning in England.

In 2014 'enhanced' eye care services in England became 'community' services and were switched over to the NHS standard contract.

In April 2015 NHS England Area Teams were integrated into the four existing Regional Teams. In the same year Primary Care Support England became responsible for payments to opticians and the maintenance of the opticians' Performer List.

The GOC's new Standards of Practice for Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians, and separate Standards for Optical Students, came into effect on 1 April 2016. These replaced the Code of Conduct for Individual Registrants, which applied to both fully qualified practitioners and students.

The late 2000s saw the government consult on proposals to reform the way that health care professionals are regulated, and a revalidation process for opticians began in January 2013 based on an enhanced continuing education and training (CET) system (all opticians must gain at least a minimum number of CET points over a three year cycle, with a minimum requirement for each year).

The last decade or so has seen some exciting developments in the field of vision correction. In particular, the introduction of daily disposable and extended-wear disposable contact lens schemes has vitalised the contact lens market. In the mid 2010s progressive lenses were the main success story. Other developments include advances in laser surgery, which is now used to treat a range of different types of visual impairment.

Recent years have seen new sources of competition for the traditional optician emerge. These include the supermarket giants, Asda and Tesco, both of which now have a number of in-store opticians outlets. Despite this, and the competition from the multiples such as Specsavers, Boots and Vision Express (which recently acquired over 200 branches of Tesco Opticians), the independents still have around 30% of the market, with customer loyalty being a key factor in retaining this.

There's also strong and growing competition from internet retailers, who make up spectacles to a current prescription at highly discounted prices. Some of these are based in low-wage countries like India. Selling spectacles and contact lenses online is quite controversial - traditional opticians say the only way to get a perfect fit is to have a face-to-face consultation. In 2016 experts warned that one in four pairs of prescription glasses bought online were unacceptable or unsafe.

Spectacle design has itself seen some major advances, not least the introduction of stylish and fashionable designer frames. Fashion now plays an important part in the optical market and has opened up new opportunities for opticians.

Like all areas of the medical profession, clinical research is constantly refining existing techniques and opening up new possibilities. As an optician it is very important that you keep up to date with the latest developments in optical medicine - it's also an essential aspect of your CET.

Although the financial crisis in the early 2010s led to some customers delaying sight tests and choosing lower priced spectacles, the sector has continued to grow, supported by an increasing, and ageing population. About two thirds of UK adults wear glasses or contact lenses (and some both). In the five years to the mid 2010s the market for ophthalmic goods and services increased by about 15%. The market splits roughly between spectacles and contact lenses at about 86% and ophthalmic services (such as sight tests) 14%.

The NHS sight test fee has been frozen from 2015/16 until 2018/19 and the uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations has led to consumers being more careful with their money while they wait to see what will happen to the economy. At the same time, competition from the multiple chains has continued to increase. As a result, although the demand for optical goods and services has remained positive, the independent sector hasn't seen significant growth.

Keeping up with developments

A good way of staying in touch with developments in the optical market and in optical medicine is to belong to a professional association. Associations for opticians include:

  • The Federation of Dispensing and Ophthalmic Opticians (FODO)
  • The Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO)
  • The Association of Optometrists

You can find out more about these organisations on their websites.

Many of the above produce regular trade journals and other helpful publications for their members. Optometry Today (OT Magazine), for example, is published monthly for members of the Association of Optometrists.

Another important means of keeping up to date with clinical developments is to attend industry conferences and exhibitions. In some cases these may count towards your CET points.

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