People Trust Optometrists More Than Costco Or 1800CONTACTS, At Least According To Optometrist Group

As we’ve previously reported, there’s a legal war going on — with optometrists and manufacturers on one side, and discount and online retailers on the other — over how much you should have to pay for your contact lenses. Both sides of this battle have recently released surveys they hope will help win over public opinion.

Just a quick catch-up on this whole situation for latecomers.

Unlike most healthcare professionals, optometrists are allowed to sell products directly to their patients. And until online discounters and big box stores got into the market, many consumers were buying their lenses through their eye doctors.

In 2013, the largest contact lens manufacturers (Bausch & Lomb, Alcon, and Johnson & Johnson), accounting for some 80% of the market in the U.S., began establishing price floors for their products to help protect the optometrists they depend on to prescribe their lenses.

With a price floor in place, consumers end up paying the same for lenses at their doctor as they would from Costco or 1-800-CONTACTS, and that price is whatever the manufacturers say it is.

Utah — which also happens to be the state that 1-800-CONTACTS calls home — recently passed a law [PDF] intended to prohibit contact lens companies setting price floors in the state, though the manufacturers are fighting it.

And so the two sides have take the fight to the court of public opinion.

The first salvo was fired late last week in the form of survey results released by a group called “See Clearly, America.”

Questions asked in the survey included “Who would you say it is RISKIEST to purchase prescription contact lenses from?” To which only 1% responded that their “Family eye doctor” was the riskiest. More than half picked “An online retailer like 1-800 CONTACTS, Vision Direct, Coastal Contacts, or,” while 21% said “A store like Walmart or Costco” was the riskiest.

Note that the question doesn’t point out that the lenses you buy at these online and retail stores are the same as the ones you get from your family doctor; so really the only risk is from damage during shipping.

Another question asked “Who would you say is most likely to offer the most personalized eye care for you?” And not surprisingly, nearly 9 out of 10 respondents picked the family eye doctor — because that’s the eye doctor’s job. Only 4% picked either the online sellers or big box stores — because it’s just their job to sell you the lenses the doctor prescribed; not offer “personalized eye care.”

Similarly 89% of survey respondents said the family eye doctor cares most about your eye health. Here’s a hint: if your eye doctor cares less about your eye health than a retailer, then you should be looking for another eye doctor.

But just because your eye doctor cares a lot about your eyes doesn’t mean that price floors should be used to make sure you can’t buy the exact same lenses from someone else for less.

So who is “See Clearly, America,” aside from the rare group that inserts a comma into its name?

The press release for the survey doesn’t mention it, but See Clearly is actually a campaign, started in 2013 (the same year that the price floors began), sponsored by the American Optometric Association, a trade group representing nearly 40,000 optometrists in the U.S..

When we asked a rep for the AOA why the survey results announcement wasn’t transparent about SCA’s affiliation with the optometrists’ group, he explained that “See Clearly is a just a differently branded project designed to educate the public about important eye health issues.”

We also asked 1-800-CONTACTS for a statement regarding the See Clearly survey, but rather than provide a comment on the data, the online retailer released survey results of its own.

The 1-800-CONTACTS survey doesn’t directly counter any of the See Clearly findings. Instead, it seems intent on talking up the benefits to buying your lenses online.

According to their survey, 70% of people who buy lenses from online sellers replace their contacts as recommended most of the time, compared to only 61% of those getting lenses from their eye doctors.

Online buyers are, at least according to these results, more fastidious about replacing their contact lens cases on a regular basis (every 9 months or less), with 60% of online contacts customers swapping out their cases this frequently, compared to 51% for customers who go the traditional route.

Of course, 1-800-CONTACTS’ questions and results aren’t without ulterior motive, as the company uses them to point out that when customers don’t have to pay full-price for contacts, they can afford to get new lenses as recommended.

Price floors were effectively outlawed for nearly 100 years until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2007 case of Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc., that manufacturers could set minimum retail prices in some situations.

The court determined that retailers facing price floors could take the money they would have lost through discounts and invest it in “greater customer service” so as to gain a competitive edge. But opponents of price floors for contact lenses contend that these pricing arrangements put all the burden on retailers.

In its argument against contact lens price floors, Costco claims that eye doctors already have the patient, the prescription, and the product in one place ready to make the transaction. And since there is no incentive for the patient to shop around for a lower price, the doctors would have an edge over retailers.

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