23 March 2017
Healthy Eyewear Sector Girds Itself to Ride Out Any Future Slump
Although confident as to current demand, many buyers and exhibitors at the HKTDC Hong Kong Optical Fair were keeping an eye on their future prospects, with several seeing the Asia-Pacific region as their safest bet in the long-term.
There was less of an emphasis on tech and more of a focus on design, innovation and e-commerce at the 24th edition of the HKTDC Hong Kong Optical Fair. Thankfully, it would seem, against the backdrop of an uncertain global economic picture, the eyewear industry continues to benefit from strong fundamentals.
This is partly because the need for corrective eyewear has risen due to lifestyle and technology changes, such as increased screen usage and higher life expectancies. At the same time, new products generated by emerging technologies and the diktats of fashion continue to keep the market ticking over.
As a sign of the rude health of the sector, the Optical Fair once again broke attendance records. In total, 15,082 buyers from 100 countries and regions participated in the event, while 785 exhibitors enrolled for the show.
One of the furthest-travelled buyers was Jose Luis, a Senior Manager at Conectopica, a Brazil-based optical distributor and wholesaler. Explaining the thinking behind his 36,000km round trip, he said: "I came here to take the temperature and shop for quality and price, for both frames and glasses. It doesn't matter whether the maker is from Hong Kong, Korea or China, I just want what's new and what works."
Though the heady days of a few years ago – when Google Glass appeared to be leading something of a technological and style revolution – have faded, augmented reality (AR) has far from disappeared from the landscape. By 2020, it is expected that sales of smart glasses will hit one billion, surpassing orders for smartphones five years later. So, while the future for AR still looks bright, thanks to the growing popularity of mixed reality (MR) and smart eyewear, the market has gained a degree of perspective.
At this particular iteration of the Optical Fair, it was more the modest innovations – sourced from such stalwarts as Swarovski – that actually stole the show. While this fifth-generation family-owned business is rightly famed for its crystals, fashion accessories and eyewear, it actually deserves equal recognition for its range of precision lenses, which are pretty much ubiquitous in the world of high-end binoculars, telescopes, rifle scopes and night-vision instruments.
As well as debuting its CL Companion Polaris binoculars, Swarovski also showcased a particularly neat accessory. The company's aluminium PA-i6 adapter allows you to connect your Apple phone directly to the binoculars, giving you the facility to shoot photos or capture video. It also acts as a protective case. According to Swarovski, this latest innovation is a valuable addition to its "digiscoping" equipment, a range specifically designed for observing and recording the natural world.
Commenting on the reception the CL had received, Jackson Chan, the company's Sales and Marketing Manager for Hong Kong, said: "We've had a lot of interest. For nature lovers, binoculars are great, but today's generation needs a bit more. If you appreciate beauty, you want to preserve it and this suits people's lifestyles, their interests and their desire to post on social media."
Another clear winner at the event was the Faceme AR Glasses system, which enables customers to "try on" a pair of virtual spectacles or sunglasses from an online catalogue and check out how they look. With online sales an increasingly important part of the sector, the potential benefits of such a system are more than apparent.
On hand to promote the system was Tommy Xia, the Founder of SSiWO Technologies, the Hong Kong and Shanghai-based company that developed the hardware and software behind Faceme's face-tracking and animation capabilities. Using a large, vertical screen as a prop, he demonstrated just how digital mirrors and AR can create a display that reflects your image wearing any one of a range of glasses.
Explaining his company's involvement, Xia said: "We are essentially engineers who design photo realistic try-on glasses using innovative technologies. This involves a combination of face-detection, eye-tracking, analysis, somatosensory interaction, 3D-imaging and digitisation, reconstruction and image adjustment. In addition to the work we have done with Faceme, we are also working on a number of interactive kiosks, screens and shop windows."
The Faceme.me crystal mirror can also analyse scanned portrait photos and generate a list of suggested products for customers. This inverts the traditional process of choosing frames as the software determines just which products are the best fit. Xia labelled this as "subversive", arguing that it allows buyers to dodge the advice of sales staff while minimising their own indecision.
As to why the company had based itself on the mainland, Xia said: "China has a policy designed to encourage new businesses, with funding, incentives, offices and technological support all on offer to creative start-ups. So, it's ideal.
"This is our first visit to this fair, though, and we have already come across a number of excellent opportunities. For us, everyone is a potential customer, whether they sell glasses or make them."
Similarly pushing the new technology envelope were a range of lenses with built-in blue-light protection, the latest offering from the Hong Kong-based Swisscoat Lens Laboratory. A supplier of high-quality optical lenses since 1990, it has now turned its attention to tackling the problem of High Energy Visible (HEV) blue light, a phenomenon said to cause eye strain, computer vision syndrome, retina damage, sleep disorders and even depression. Designed to counter all of this, the company's Stressfree coating and lens filter is said to increase contrast and diminish the blue light emitted from screens, while improving clarity.
Overall, it was widely felt that, while the dawn of a highly screen-centric world has created challenges for many traditional retailers in the sector, it has also provided a number of fresh opportunities. Keen to highlight a number of these was Sun Yafei, the Founder of online luxury retailer 5Lux.com (a.k.a the Fifth Avenue Luxury Network).
Speaking at the fair's Business Opportunities in the Emerging Markets seminar, she said: "The market is changing and e-commerce is now a very important part of many people's lives. People no longer rely on brick-and-mortar stores and tend to be better informed when it comes to what they want to buy.
"It is no coincidence that, in 2015, 83% of luxury brands closed retail outlets in China. At the same time, there was a 20% increase in online sales in the optical sector. Naturally, then, it makes sense to expand in this sector.
"Despite this, I believe that in the future, any barrier between online and offline could disappear. Online is about selling, while offline is about branding and service. Ultimately, I see them working together."
Addressing a separate seminar – How the Global Optics Industry Should React to Economic Developments and the Latest Trends – Gianni Cossar, the Global Director of Optics and Eyewear Research at Gfk, said: "Online traffic is not going to slow down, so success for the optometrics sector during the coming economic downturn is going to be found as much in this area as it is in brick-and-mortar stores."
Looking at the wider economic picture, Cossar maintained that the optical industry was strong enough to withstand any adverse financial winds, with the Asia-Pacific region showing particularly strong growth in recent years. He did, however, highlight the likelihood of a continuing slowdown in both Europe and South America.
Offering his own take on the future, he said: "Optics is a resistant animal and the market is expected to perform well. Visioncare and technical products will stay strong, even if there is a slowing down on the fashion side of the industry. Generally, during any economic slowdown, it is the mid-range that suffers the most.
"In terms of other trends, while the use of plastic frames is growing, often mixed with metal, manufacturers are also gaining the confidence to express themselves through new designs, without worrying so much about the need for branding. This is particularly the case in Europe and Japan, markets that are becoming far less brand-conscious.
One company hoping to capitalise on this particular trend is Big Horn, a Hong Kong company with long roots and extensive ambitions. Part of the family-run Wing Fung company, it has manufactured frames and sunglasses on an OEM and ODM basis since 1982. As with many other Hong Kong companies, it has made the move to China, with its manufacturing facilities now operating out of Shenzhen.
In keeping with the aspirations of many other Asian companies, it is now looking to move up the value chain with hopes of transitioning into a brand. Having relied on Italian designers for many years, it has now brought design in-house. Heading up this side of the business as Creative Director is Kevin Ching, a family member and a former aviation engineer.
In a positive portent of thing to come, the company's Owl range – horned rims in colourful acrylics, with a nod to Greek mythology – was a winner at the 2015 International Design Awards. This opened the doors to Hollywood, with the brand now regularly providing eyewear for fashion shoots and movies. The company now has similarly high hopes for its new Nature collection of double-segmented, butterfly-winged frames in purple, as well as its collection of animal-inspired glasses, channelling tigers, monkeys and even ostriches.
Looking back over the events of recent years, Ching said: "When I first got an email from Hollywood about the collection, I thought it was spam or phishing and I was afraid to open the attachment. Since then, we have had to go beyond just producing good-quality decent designs. We now also have to factor in a wow factor.
"In the beginning, it was far from easy. No one knew the brand and no one was interested. Now they are. We promote the brand heavily through social media, of course, as this is the modern way of telling any story. I have also adopted the fashion-industry thinking of having a show every year. This keeps everything fresh and in the public eye."
Another company that has moved beyond its manufacturing comfort zone is Wenzhou-based Hivision Eyewear, which specialises in offering its clients a highly customised service. Outlining the evolution of the business, General Manager Tony Yuan said: "We have grown 20% every year over the past five years. Our products used to be a lot simpler, but now we work with nano coatings and a wider variety of materials, including ceramics, wood, metals and stone. We tend not to focus so much on the mass market and instead we take a more upmarket approach."
One returning visitor to the Hivision stand was Ralf Kmoch, Managing Partner of Visibilia Eye Profile, a German eyewear distributor and manufacturer. Assessing the current trends, he said: "Everything is possible and everything is allowed. Today, we see the return of the modernised retro look, as well as a lot of interesting variations in terms of materials and an awakened interest in heritage styles."
"For us, the domestic German market is very sophisticated and competitive, which presents some challenges. We primarily supply independent opticians and believe this is still the best option when it comes to buying eyewear. While the online sector is growing, it cannot replace people and customer service. To some extent, there will be parallel development, but we will continue to focus on our strengths."
The 24th edition of the HKTDC Hong Kong Optical Fair was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 9-11 November 2016.
Jules Quartly, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong