Wal-Mart eyes expansion opportunities with its optical, vision services

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 673 views 

Tucked discretely away at one of the busiest intersections in Fayetteville more than 630 workers are turning out an average of 55,000 pair of prescription eye glasses each week at Wal-Mart’s largest optical lab in the country. That equates to 2.5 million pair of glasses a year that are ordered at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club vision centers around the country.

The local plant is operating at around 70% capacity following a recent $10 million investment in new equipment and technologies provided by Carl Zeiss and Satisloh.

Carmen Bauza, senior vice president of OTC health and wellness, baby, paper goods and chemical at Wal-Mart, said the infrastructure investment was needed to broaden the scope of the retailer’s optical services. Wal-Mart also is expanding its vision centers in at least 80 stores. The first remodel is underway in the new Walmart Supercenter at Elms Springs Road in Springdale. 

The plan includes relocating the vision centers near the pharmacy area for added convenience where that is possible.. She said the retailer is also looking to carry more frame styles and brands that will cater to the Millennial generation’s trendy fashion sense. 

“We needed to add to the plant’s capacity because we are going to sell more eyeglasses this year,” Bauza said during an open house held in the Fayetteville Optical Lab on Tuesday (May 12).

The local optical lab is the most modern Wal-Mart facility following the recent upgrades. Wal-Mart also operates two smaller labs in Crawfordsville, Ind., and Dallas, according to Scott Pickering, senior director of the Optical Lab. Pickering said upgrades this year are planned for the other facilities. The retailer also works with two partner labs on some orders. He said contact lens orders come directly from product suppliers which is the most cost-efficient solution for customers.

Uli Krass, executive for Carl Zeiss Vision North America, said labs around the world have made eye glasses much the same way for 80 years. He said recent advances in methods and materials were used by Wal-Mart to modernize the Fayetteville lab.

The Fayetteville plant is managed by Tommy Hyde, who’s been on the job for two decades. Hyde told The City Wire that the operation has little turnover and is the second largest employer in Fayetteville. It operates 24 hours a day using multiple shifts from employees working a 3-day week. 

Pickering said the average wage for the skilled jobs is above $15 per hour, and a majority of the training is done in-house. 

“There are no other optical labs in this region, so when we bring in new equipment we send our associates to the suppliers for training. That includes our maintenance staff who makes sure all the equipment is up and running. Since we are open 24 hours a day, good maintenance is crucial to our operation,” Pickering said.

This year the Fayetteville lab location celebrates 20 years of growth, from just 150 workers making an average of 1,500 pairs of glasses daily around 1995, according to Ben Israel, optometrist and early partner with Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s beginnings in vision care sales. (Israel sold his interest in 1995 following Walton’s death.) 

Wal-Mart has since continued to grow and expand its optical business working with more than 3,000 optometrists who operate eye clinics in its stores. Bauza said the retailer continues to look for new opportunities to expand this business segment in more of its stores, but finding partner optometrists is an essential element.

According to the Vision Impact Institute research, 3 out of 4 people in the U.S. have vision correction, and of those people, 71% wear glasses and 22% wear contacts, which is all the more reason for Wal-Mart to invest in this segment, according to retail analysts.

Once an eye doctor enters a patient’s prescription into the Wal-Mart system, the order is transmitted directly to one of the retailer’s optical labs. The lenses go through three separate phases inside the lab which takes about nine hours to complete. 

While a pair of glass can be made in one work-day, the routine turnaround time in the Fayetteville facility is three days – the optimal operating pace the retailer says allows it to keep prices low and quality high with existing staff.

The first phase involves taking a plastic or polycarbonate puck-like lens and affixing a plastic grip block to the back to help move through a long conveyer system. In phase one the machinery processes the backside of the lenses according to the prescription.

Wal-Mart said part of the new technology used in this plant is sustainable. Metal is replaced by plastic reusable grips. Pickering said the new technology also allows the facility to make no-line bi-focal lenses, which in the past were handled by a supplier.

When the first phase is complete, the plastic block grips are removed and the lenses are are cleaned and inspected. Phase two applies an anti-reflective coating for improved optics. The lenses move into a machine in a controlled climate clean room, which takes up to eight hours to complete. This is also where protective scratch coating is applied with a heat process.

Between phases two and three the lenses are married with the frame selected by the customer. The frame is added to the basket containing the lenses and the prescription details. In the final phase the lens is finished, cut to the shape of the frame, mounted to the frame and await final inspection. This is the most labor intensive step and where most of the employees work. 

A machine cuts the lenses to fit, and a worker cleans the lenses and mounts them into frame. They are checked again for quality and accuracy. The complete order is bagged and shipped to the appropriate store. 

The City Wire asked Pickering how far the retailer was prepared to go to provide trendy frames such as wearable tech-eye fashion. He said Wal-Mart is watching Google, but there are no plans to delve into that area. Pickering did admit that with Wal-Mart’s scale and tech muscle it’s not out of the realm of future possibility.

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