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Home > Business > Special

A contact lens for only Rs 90

Meghana Biwalkar | May 02, 2006

Gaurav Sharma, a 26-year-old management graduate, is preparing for an important presentation. Last weekend, he went shopping for an outfit that would make a statement.

Sharma's makeover isn't quite right - his dorky spectacles just don't look spiffy enough. But he isn't keen on forking out over Rs 1,000 for a pair of contact lens he may wear only once. A visit to a South Mumbai optician has given Sharma options he didn't know existed.

When he was shown five pairs of disposable contact lens for just Rs 450, Sharma snapped them up immediately. After all, this way, he was spending just Rs 90 for that special day.

Welcome to the shampoo sachetisation of the Indian contact lens market. In February 2006, healthcare major Johnson & Johnson Vision Care launched its 1-day Acuvue, which hopes to recreate the consumption boom in this market, much as the easily available and affordable sachets helped make consumer goods in India truly fast moving.

But before JJVC can do that, it needs to contend with serious competition from Bausch & Lomb and Advanced Medical Optics. Here's a bird's eye-view of the issues involved.

The eye of the storm

The market penetration of contact lens is extremely low; it's still just a Rs 60-crore (Rs 600 million) industry. Just 5 per cent in India (among those in SECs A and B of the top six metros who need vision correction), compared to Singapore (22 per cent), Hong Kong (25 per cent) and 30 per cent in the US (source: JJVC).

Also, not too many Indian customers are willing to spend on contact lens. The perception: contact lens provides cosmetic appeal, but the price-value equation does not match.

Says Indian Contact Lens Association President, Jyoti Dave, "It's a misconception that contact lens are more expensive than spectacles."

She points out that a good pair of spectacles frames costs at least Rs 1,500 - and this doesn't even include the cost of lens fittings. "The relative price for contact lens has dropped in the past decade," she adds.

Most customers still aren't convinced, though. After all, a year's stock of disposable and semi-soft lens costs between Rs 900 and Rs 8,000. "Our main competition in India is from spectacles," admits Ferdinand Sarfati, general manager, Asean and India, JJVC.

Also, there are category-related issues. Needless to say, it's far easier to wear and take care of spectacles than a flimsy, tiny piece of plastic.

Then, most potential consumers suffer from "pokeaphobia" - the fear of inserting a foreign object in your eye. But eyecare companies are keen to see it overcome as soon as possible, because it is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of the population requires vision correction.

Not that contact lens manufacturers have their eyes set on such huge numbers: their focus remains on the SEC A and B populations in the top six metros (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai).

It's a strategy that's worked so far for the industry: from 150,000 users in the mid-1990s, there are now about 800,000 contact lens users in India. And that figure is growing at 15-20 per cent a year.

Young and 'specs'less

Young, urban, affluent customers hold the key. Over the years, the age profile of contact lens users has come down. Currently, the average user tries on contact lens for the first time at around 15 years - when he enters 11th grade or junior college. Even up to three years ago, a first-time buyer of contact lens was a little over 20 years - about to start his first job.

The teenaged user needs his parents' approval (and funding) before investing in contact lens. But there's a whole new set of consumers out there that is now flush with funds and to whom appearance is critical: the BPO generation.

JJVC recently held a nine-day contact programme with various BPO organisations around the country, to promote its new disposable brand among the young employees - free trials played an important role in the reaching-out initiative. Bausch & Lomb also offers free trials through promotions held at shopping malls and college festivals.

The emphasis on youth is everywhere - JJVC is giving away movie tickets with each pack of its one-day disposable lens. Both companies claim that 70 per cent of those who opt for the free trials end up becoming regular users of contact lens.

Playing up the glamour angle is also an important marketing strategy. At the recently held Miss India pageant, JJVC sponsored the "Miss Beautiful Eyes" award - girls with glasses were conspicuous by their absence when the award was announced.

Bausch & Lomb, on the other hand, has opted for placing its product in television serials (which also helps it reach out to a wider audience, including parents of teenagers). When Jassi, the central character of popular soap Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin decided to transform herself, Cinderella-like, shedding her glasses for Bausch & Lomb's lens was a crucial part of the act.

Talking shop

Glamour may play an important role in selling contact lens, but it's surprisingly absent from the advertising, which is strictly rational. The campaign created by McCann Healthcare for 1-Day Acuvue, for instance, is targeted at occasion users.

The ads focus on "special days" like parties and marriages as a platform to encourage spectacles-wearers to temporarily switch to contact lens.

Bausch & Lomb's ads, too, emphasise the comfort factor. Its FCB-Ulka commercial shows a cricket match. "Cricket conveys action - and spectacles can be an obstacle for someone who's on the move. Besides, the sport's popularity helps us connect with customers," adds J P Singh, managing director, Bausch & Lomb.

The practical aspect of selling contact lens extends to training salespeople - more than 75 per cent of contact lens sales take place at the optician, and only 25 per cent through opthalmologists' recommendations.

"The contact lens industry is surrounded by a range of myths, from safety to pricing. So it is important to train practitioners before expanding the market base," declares Singh. Bausch & Lomb conducts live training sessions at retail outlets (the company says it has already trained over 3,500 opticians).

Training is top of the mind at JJVC, too. It now plans to set up an institute dedicated to training eye care practitioners where theme-based instruction will be provided to opticians and their sales teams.

For UV protection in contact lens, for instance, JJVC's trainers will set up UV detection instruments to measure the protection provided by the lens.

Meanwhile, there's at least one more convert to the contact lens cause. Sharma's presentation went off without a hitch, and he's convinced the switchover to contact lens helped clinch the deal.

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