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06/18/2021

Eyes — and ears — on the horizon: Trends driving eye and ear care

Consumers and retailers are turning their attention to a spurt of activity in the burgeoning eye and ear segments.
David Salazar
Managing Editor
David Salazar profile picture

Consumers and retailers are turning their attention to a spurt of activity in the burgeoning eye and ear segments.

In fact, a push towards self-care, as well as a continuing focus on more natural products and the rise of e-commerce and omnichannel, is helping the segments get more attention on retail shelves and drive a simmering need to innovate by a number of manufacturers.

The result, many said, is a strong uptick in interest in the category among consumers, who are eager for more quality and variation from the categories and seem willing to pay for it.

Yet it is self-care, a hot topic in the OTC space even before anyone had heard of COVID-19, that is starting to play a major role in eye and ear segments and taking relatively staid categories and adding some excitement to them.

A February report from L.E.K. Consulting, a global agency with its largest office in Boston, took a look at the top consumer health trends brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its authors, Adrienne Rivlin and Geoff Parkin, said that a major trend is a focus on self-care solutions.

L.E.K.’s report cited European research from GSK Consumer Healthcare, which found that 65% of consumers in Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom are more likely to consider their health when making day-to-day decisions, and 80% said they would pursue self-care offerings to help unburden health systems that have been stretched thin by the pandemic.

For executives at companies playing in eye and ear care, this trend comes as no surprise.

“Avoiding doctor visits through self-care was already a strong trend before the pandemic. Consumers had no other choice during the shutdown,” said Marsha Garcia, CEO of Doctor Easy, whose flagship product is the WaxRx Ear Wash System. “Even with increased access to medical care these days, as retail reopens, the trend toward self-care will remain the driving behavior of consumers.”

In fact, it is consumers who seem to be catching up to Garcia’s company. She said WaxRx was introduced as a way to offer an at-home solution for a common problem that sent people to the doctor’s office.

“Even with increased access to medical care these days, as retail reopens, the trend toward self-care will remain the driving behavior of consumers,”
Marsha Garcia, CEO of Doctor Easy, whose flagship product is the WaxRx Ear Wash System.

“Prior to the introduction of WaxRx, consumers often could not find relief from ear wax impaction with OTC treatments,” Garcia said. “This led to more than 8 million doctor visits a year. With its history of first inventing spray ear wash technology in 1997, and then supplying ear washers to medical professionals for 25 years, Doctor Easy welcomed the opportunity to meet consumer demand for professional-grade ear cleaning with its WaxRx Ear Wash System.”

The L.E.K. report noted that vitamins and dietary supplements are positioned to see particularly strong growth as prevention-focused consumers prioritize their health. This is an area where eye care suppliers have been making big inroads, in particular industry leader Bausch + Lomb.

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The Somerset, N.J.-based company’s eye care offerings go beyond drops into vitamin/minerals/supplements with its PreserVision and Ocuvite supplement lines. The PreserVision AREDS 2 line includes minigels, a multivitamin formulation
and chewables, while Ocuvite’s lineup features products targeted for eye performance, adults 50 years old and older and blue light protection, and even includes gummy products.

“Given that eyesight changes as we get older, and knowing there will be a significant part of the population over the age of 50 within the next 10 years, it’s important that we, as a global eye health company, provide a variety of innovative products that help support the eye health of aging consumers — and this includes the most current, science-based eye vitamin formulations,” Bausch + Lomb U.S. president Joe Gordon told DSN last fall.

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Beyond VMS, in its best-known offerings of eye drops, eye care is perhaps one of the leaders of the self-care boom, offering solutions to issues that often may not require a visit to a doctor. However, the eye care category made a big leap forward in enabling self-care in 2020 with the Rx-to-OTC switch of Alcon’s Pataday. With the initial switch last spring, the company brought prescription-strength olopatadine to consumers without the need to get a prescription written.

The eye allergy relief product was followed up in January 2021 with Pataday Once Daily Relief Extra Strength. At the time of the launch, Alcon executives, citing IRI data, said that 58% of Pataday buyers were new to the category.

Demand for Natural
As self-care grows its profile among consumers, so too has the imperative for products that eschew potentially harmful ingredients as shoppers get more discerning about what goes in their bodies.

“Increased concern over potential side effects and the long-term health risks associated with and advertised by some allopathic medicines has strengthened the consumer focus towards natural alternatives,” said Susan Hanson, COO of Reno, Nev.-based The Relief Products, a maker of homeopathic eye and ear care solutions. “Market research forecasts that the global market for homeopathic products could increase by as much as 18.2% by the
year 2024.”

The boom in natural demand is not dissimilar from the factors influencing the self-care revolution.

“External factors including COVID-19, combined with a new generation of consumers that possess greater knowledge and understanding of their health-and-wellness needs, have created high demand for natural OTC products, including homeopathics,” Hanson said.

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TRP’s products span both eye and ear care, and include such condition-specific
offerings as Allergy Eyes Relief Day & Night, RedEye Relief Drops, PinkEye Relief Drops and Earache Relief PM. As swimming makes a comeback this summer, the company also offers Swimmer’s Ear Complete Relief, a natural ear-drying aid. The company also makes Ring Relief, a product to help the symptoms of tinnitus, which Hanson noted can be affected or caused by COVID-19.

“Recent studies have shown that tinnitus symptoms (aka ringing in the ears) can be made worse or even triggered by COVID-19,” she said. “Tinnitus is a complex condition that can also be exacerbated by COVID-related factors including anxiety, loneliness, changes in daily routine and more.”

As ingredient demands change how manufacturers formulate their products, it also is changing how they are packaged.

“[One] trend we are seeing is growth in preservative-free products, which are mainly in single-dose format,” said Yann Pigeaire, vice president of marketing at Highlands Ranch, Colo.-based Similasan. “Although U.S. consumers still prefer bottles over single-dose vials, doctors are increasingly sensitive to preservatives, especially benzalkonium chloride (BAK). We’ve calculated that since 2013, preservative-free dry eye products, for instance, have grown 179% versus 34% for preserved products.

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To meet demand from all consumers, Pigeaire said that Similasan offers its Allergy Eye Relief and Dry Eye Relief in bottles with a gentle preservative that is free of BAK, as well as in vials that contain a preservative-free formulation.

The company also recently rolled out a Pink Eye Nighttime Gel, designed to work overnight to help relieve symptoms of pink eye — one of the conditions that drives self-care purchases in the eye care space.

Bausch + Lomb has been growing its preservative-free lineup this year. In February, it released Alaway Preservative Free, making it the first and only preservative-free antihistamine eye itch relief drop approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The product is designed to offer quick relief and last as long as 12 hours with one dose.

Merchandising Across Channels
The industry is currently at a complex juncture — growing vaccination rates are leading to a recent uptick in in-store foot traffic while, at the same time, consumers have found that shopping online delivers on their convenience needs. This makes merchandising the eye and ear care sets — already difficult given the many offerings of both allopathic and homeopathic — that much more difficult.

“Getting it right in store is only part of the equation,” Similisan’s Pigeaire said. “Consumers are now much more comfortable using pickup and delivery than ever before, so online content that is clear with symptoms and benefits is primordial.”

With brick-and-mortar, he said that merchandising eye and ear care by symptom while also separating natural-focused products blocked together seems to be the most effective “because that is a somewhat more unique target consumer,” he said. “Merchandising these ‘natural’ or homeopathic products in a dedicated ‘natural’ OTC section outside of eye/ear does not work.”

“Getting it right in store is only part of the equation. Consumers are now much more comfortable using pickup and delivery than ever before, so online content that is clear with symptoms and benefits is primordial,”
Yann Pigeaire, vice president of marketing at Similasan

Brick-and-mortar stores also offer an opportunity for cross merchandising, according to Dr. Easy’s Garcia. “I love seeing innovative cross promotions in stores, such as when grocers stock the bananas, pudding and cookie wafers in one display, prompting consumers to buy all three,” she said. “Pharmacies can mimic this strategy by placing WaxRx not only in the ear care aisle, but also near the hearing aid batteries. A simple reminder that earwax is the No. 1 killer of hearing aids can prompt consumers to purchase WaxRx along with the batteries.”

The company also recently introduced Earvana Ear Rinse for dry ear skin itch that also is recommended for use as an after-swim ear rinse. “Placing Earvana near the suntan lotion would be another idea for cross marketing of products often used in tandem,” Garcia said, noting that an e-commerce offering that includes “frequently bought together” callouts would be an effective way to cross merchandise as well.

As the online/in-store dichotomy continues to be subsumed by the rise of omnichannel, TRP’s Hanson said both will offer their own benefits for consumers. “Once clearly defined, the boundaries between traditional retail locations and e-commerce platforms continue to blur,” she said. “The differences between brands will become more apparent to the consumer in this digital space, ultimately influencing the consumer’s decision-making process. For retailers, the goal is to create a user-friendly online experience coupled with effective ways of cutting cost and delivering orders quickly, as same-day and next-day delivery are the new standard.”

The L.E.K. report offered some advice for the road ahead: “Consumer healthcare companies could educate their customers more effectively, both in disease awareness and management, as well as about their own brands. They could improve their education sessions with pharmacists and enhance their social media and other digital channels for end consumers.” 

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