Many would be surprised other than the old timers that it was a Tata group then, Forbes Forbes Campbell & Co Ltd renamed Forbes Gokak subsequently were the pioneers in mass manufacturing of plastic spectacle lenses in Aurangabad India in the year 1987. The brand Resilens resonates with many of the prescribers even now 36 years later. With the market being complete of mineral lenses, Tata ventured into this innovative 1.5 index material being the pet project of Dr Freddie Mehta Chairman of the Group, and setting up a formidable team across India. The product was ahead of time though and profitability took a beating for the high capital investment that went in for setting up the plant which had to shut down. The GKB family through their different business entities were the other early entrants in Rx labs besides Techtran in mass casting in Hyderabad. Macro Lens and Prakash Plastics were other casters then though on a limited scale while Lawrence and Mayo were an integrated retailer with Rx lab. There were also a few handfuls of independent labs like Reflect, Delta, and Suprol to name some.
Subsequently SRF Ltd and then joined hands with Essilor International set up the marketing JV in India in 1998 and cast JV with Essilor and Sola along with SRF. The JV structure was quite unique at that time and the ownership changed over the period later, but the solid foundation was thus laid. Hoya and Zeiss also set their footprints in India around the same time.
Plastic lenses today form more than 85% of the spectacle lenses market in India with coatings and other offerings, different indices, and creating value in the marketplace. The journey has been very cherishing thanks to the support of the opticians in the country and while many new entrants have come in and companies like Lenskart have set their international footprint with the acquisition of Own Days besides their own in India and globally, the one to watch would be the profitability in the retail in India. With rentals going through the roof in Metros and Tier 1&2 cities, the challenges are there for all to see.
The retail optical stores in India today face a situation wherein in terms of the of stores to the population ratio is like anywhere in Europe and the US and hence accessibility is no more an issue as it was felt a decade back and there is a mushrooming of newer entrants where the market is overheated already. It is totally a different matter if we get into smaller towns and villages and a one-fit solution would not work in a country as diverse as India. Pure Online business as a standalone business and its profitability is a question mark as large players are also having physical stores to close the loop of customer purchase and enhance the average selling price. Single vision and mass Sunglass businesses would certainly be the ones to watch as how the purchase behavior molds with the youth of the country.
The new draft policy that is likely to be announced soon by the Govt of India promises to level the e-commerce playing field. As of now, India allows 100% foreign direct investment in the marketplace model of e-commerce wherein companies act as a technology platform connecting buyers and sellers. It is to be noted that no FDI is permitted for the inventory-based model where platforms are selling directly to the consumers, but they cannot allow third-party vendors.
With refractive errors on the increase, the addressable segment remains to be served by the business and newer opportunities waiting to be grabbed by the coming generation of the optician community. This of course would mean newer ways of doing business, adapting, and embracing technology, the act of innovating being referred to as Jugaad – a practical solution the Indian way. If I may add, independent retailers must stand together while maintaining their independent identity and capitalize on the opportunities ahead.
Mr. Ramachandran Parthasarathy