Preventive focus drives eye, ear care growth

Surprisingly, consumers do not pay much attention to their eyes and ears — that is until something goes wrong. Then, they cannot find enough products to solve their issues. 

Now, manufacturers are hoping to change that, and some are launching intense marketing campaigns to help consumers maintain good eye and ear health, as well as offer relief from common issues. These companies are innovating and developing new products that solve problems that not only save consumers a trip to the doctor’s office, but drive these shoppers into stores.

According to market research company IRI, for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 6, 2019, in U.S. multi-outlet stores (grocery, drug, mass, military, and select club and dollar retailers), sales of ear care products totaled more than $122.8 million, up 5.1% compared with the same period the previous year. Much of that growth came from the ear drops/treatment subcategory, which was up 11.8% to more than $101.3 million. 

The average unit price for ear drops and treatments is $7.57. The low price and general trend towards self-care are driving consumer interest in these products, according to industry insiders. “If you go to the doctor to get your ears cleaned out, you will be paying $100 or some level of co-pay, depending on your insurance,” said Mark McGreevy, vice president of business development at Pleasant Prairie, Wis.-based Quest Products. “You can pay less than $10 on any solution in retail, and it works just as well.”

While self-care is a trend across all health categories, an emerging trend in ear care is prevention. “Ear care has always been about problem management,” McGreevy said, noting that consumers often end up at the doctor to deal with wax buildup. 

Now, consumers can use ear cleaning tools daily. Unlike the cotton-tipped swabs that people can misuse and thus damage their ears, such new products as earwax tools can help consumers make the shift from problem-solving to hygiene. Quest has introduced Clinere, a line of flexible plastic earwax cleaning tools and earwax removal kits that feature all-natural oil drops. The innovations have helped transform the ear care category into one of daily care, similar to eye care. Just like consumers buy saline solutions and other eye products repeatedly, McGreevy said opportunities exist to get people to purchase ear care products regularly. 

Consumers not only are beginning to realize they need to take care of their ears, but they are also looking for new, safe methods to do this. “While ear hygiene is important, it is against doctor’s recommendation to clean inside your ears with cotton swabs,” said Yann Pigeaire, vice president of marketing at Similasan, based in Highlands Ranch, Colo. The company recently launched Similasan SeaRinse, which uses purified seawater to cleanse the ears. Pigeaire said SeaRinse cleans deeper than a cotton swab without harming the ears, and can get rid of water trapped from swimming. 

Shifting the product focus from medical visit to retail is driving innovation in the category, said Marsha Garcia, president of Doctor Easy Medical Products in Orange Park, Fla. “Offering professional-grade products, such as WaxRx, supports the rising consumer demand for self-care, but more profoundly, could decrease the overall cost of medicine in the U.S. by reducing doctor visits for common, often chronic problems such as ear wax impaction,” she said. 

Doctor Easy’s WaxRx products target ear wax, and its recently launched Earvana Ear Rinse is specifically formulated to soothe dry, itchy ears. “New complaint-specific ear products are allowing consumers to select focused products for the most common ear complaints,” Garcia said. “This new targeted approach to ear complaints is expanding the category for retailers, while addressing consumer concerns.”

Consumer Insights 
Ear care has two audiences, industry representatives have often said. Baby boomers and older consumers who wear hearing aids suffer from ear wax buildup, so they are considered a prime target for new products. Also, millennials and Generation Z are wearing headphones and earbuds as they listen to their electronic devices, and the gadgets cause wax buildup. 

These two audiences approach ear care differently. Elyse Dickerson, co-founder and CEO of Fort Worth, Texas-based Eosera, said the biotechnology company conducted extensive research and gained consumer insights about how adults in different age groups maintain ear health. 

The study involved three cohorts of adults: 25- to 44-year-olds, 45- to 64-year olds, and those 65 years old and older. “Our assumption was the older consumer was the target market,” Dickerson said. “We found they are the smallest potential market. It’s the youngest and middle group that are actively and proactively thinking about ear care.” 

When asked whether they seek ear care for proactive routine maintenance or only when they have a problem, the oldest segment said they seek ear care only when they have a problem. The youngest group wanted products they could use on a weekly basis to keep their ears clean and healthy. “People who have earbuds are pulling them out, and they always see earwax, and they have more itching,” Dickerson said.

The company also asked what type of product consumers would seek for ear care, and how likely they would be to buy this kind of product if it were available at retailers. Products for itchy ears scored well, with 70% of the youngest group indicating intent to buy, and 50% of the middle group said they would purchase. Interest also was high in products for regular or routine maintenance, such as for cleaning ears, with 70% of the youngest group and 60% of the middle group indicating intent to buy. 

It’s not just the use of earbuds that is generating interest, Dickerson said, but also such skin conditions as psoriasis and dry skin, as well as allergies, that can exacerbate itchy ears. With these insights, the company launched Ear Itch MD, Ear Itch Nighttime and Ear Clean MD.

“Ear care has been one of these overlooked categories,” Dickerson said. “Our goal as a company is to reinvigorate ear care. There is a lot of growth opportunity, and the retailers that are embracing the products are seeing great results.”

Have You Heard?
Some retailers also are embracing hearing tests, partly as a result of the passage of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017. Accessibility and affordability of hearing devices are big issues, and according to AARP, only 20% to 30% of adults who could benefit from a hearing aid ever get one. While the FDA is working on its rulemaking for the new category of OTC hearing devices, which will be available in 2020, companies are preparing. 

One company, iHEAR Medical, offers a home hearing test. Founder and CEO Adnan Shennib said sales are increasing as retailers and consumers are both becoming aware of the new option of self-testing at home. “Being the first and only FDA-cleared home hearing test kit gave us the advantage of launching early in the OTC markets last year,” he said. 

The company also makes personal sound amplification products. Shennib said that the future is very bright as more retail staff, pharmacists and consumers become aware of the new OTC hearing devices. “We are at the infancy stage of hearing products availability in retail stores,” he said. “This is potentially a huge market opportunity, in the range of $2 billion to $10 billion annually at the retail level.”

Seeing Eye-to-Eye
Eye care is a larger category, but sales are growing at a slower rate than for ear care. According to IRI, sales of eye and lens care solutions totaled more than $1.83 billion, which was up 1.9% compared with the same period the previous year. 

“Eye care is a healthy category,” said Similasan’s Pigeaire. “All segments in eye care have been growing in 2019.” That includes red eye, dry eye and sty segments. 

Some of the same factors that affect ear care sales also play a role in eye care. “The eye drops segment continues to see strong growth in the premium subsegment of artificial tears as the population ages and as people are spending more time on screens, blinking less, which results in dry eyes for more people,” said Joseph Juliano, vice president of marketing at Prestige Brands in Tarrytown, N.Y. 

Another trend that is driving growth in eye care is that people are looking to reduce redness in order to make their eyes look whiter and brighter. The company offers a variety of such products for this as Redness Relief, Maximum Redness Relief, Cooling Comfort Redness Relief and Traveler’s Eye Relief. 

“At Clear Eyes, we believe everyone has a unique story behind their eyes, and we celebrate the moments in life when we look and feel our best, when we truly shine,” Juliano said. As part of this promotion, Clear Eyes sponsors Dress for Success Worldwide, a global nonprofit that works to empower women to achieve economic independence through workforce, financial and leadership education.

Another entry in the segment comes from Bausch + Lomb, which makes Lumify redness reliever eye drops. The company said Lumify is the first over-the-counter eye drop developed with low-dose brimonidine tartrate to relieve redness of the eye due to minor eye irritations. “Consumers consider looking and feeling their best to be an important form of self-care,” said Chris Marschall, vice president and general manager of consumer health care at Bausch + Lomb. “Lumify helps promote this by reducing ocular redness to help eyes look whiter and brighter.” 

The product is so successful, Marschall said, that it has brought new households to the redness reliever category. In the past year, 73% of Lumify purchases were from households that are first-time buyers of redness relievers, and Lumify has a 54% repeat purchase rate from users. Retailers see the value that redness relief products can bring.

“We’ve been able to increase foot traffic not only in their eye care aisles, but throughout other areas of the store,” Marschall said. “Because of this new approach, retailers are seeing new purchases come from each section of the store that they haven’t seen before, and we’re also finding that to occur on their digital channels as well.” Also, retailers are expanding their vision centers and providing more vision care services.

Consumers also are looking for a preservative-free formula, and Bausch + Lomb offers Soothe Xtra Protection Preservative Free lubricant eye drops. Dry eye is one of the most common eye conditions in the United States that impacts more than 140 million Americans, Marschall said. Many of these consumers report a sensitivity to preservatives in eye drops

Another self-care trend in eye care is the move into the nutritional supplement space. Bausch + Lomb expanded its line of Ocuvite eye vitamins and has been adding products to its eye health lineup. 

“More and more consumers today have an increased focus on nutrition and look to vitamins to help fill gaps in their diet,” Marschall said. “As this market continues to grow, Bausch + Lomb is committed to providing a variety of ocular nutritional supplement options.”