Business, Company, Feature, Report

‘Made in Japan’ lenses a unique premium offering

Tokai Optical is a proud Japanese ophthalmic lens company with a long history, however it’s a relative newcomer to the Australian optical market. That isn’t stopping the company from making a mark on the local independent scene with its premium lens portfolio.

Several years ago, a customer came into the Melbourne boutique Henderson Optical and began discussing a high index 1.76 ophthalmic lens. Although for several years it had been touted as the world’s thinnest plastic optical material available, locally there was little known about the product and indeed its manufacturer.

The CBD practice, located in The Strand Melbourne, began making inquiries to see how it could add the lens to its premium offering for a predominantly affluent demographic.

Justin Chiang.

“After some searching online, I found the 1.76 lens was a product of a Japanese company called Tokai Optical,” store manager Annie recalls.

“After some further research we found a distributor in Queensland and started doing business with them. As an independent business that goes back to the 1950s, we have ongoing relationships with many lens labs and only use the top-end products from each. The Tokai 1.76 is such a unique product and became our go-to for super thin lenses, and the relationship has since expanded into other areas including high quality lens coatings and tinting.”

The Henderson Optical anecdote is befitting of many other business accounts Tokai Optical has opened in Australia in recent years, as it seeks to impose itself on the national lens market. It is particularly geared towards the premium category, with lens technology designed from the ground up by an in-house R&D team – the company’s most expensive department.

For most of the past decade, the Tokai brand has been represented in Australia through a distributor. But the company changed tack in 2019 and established a formal subsidiary (Tokai Optical Australia) now operated by Queensland-based Mr Justin Chiang, a trained optical dispenser with more than 20 years’ industry experience working for corporate and independent groups.

Established in 1939, privately-owned Tokai Optical is one of the oldest in the lens market. However, until the early 2000s, it was solely focused on the domestic Japanese market where today it holds 16% market share, making it the largest manufacturer in size and third biggest in Japan. Globally, this makes it a relative market latecomer, but it has rapidly increased its footprint to now operate in more than 50 countries.

Chiang acknowledges Australia’s small and mature optical market – with expanding vertically-integrated corporates – makes it more difficult for a company like Tokai to break through. But it has defied expectations to date, even with COVID, and has secured significant supplier agreements with practices in NSW and Victoria.

“We are certainly growing, and it is because we are retaining our customers,” he says. “Some customers are starting with a unique product they can’t get elsewhere. Over time they have found the feedback is very good and they will tend to use more of our lenses.”

Explaining Tokai’s positioning in the premium category, Chiang says examples include the scrapping of conventional surfacing in 2009, meaning every tier of its portfolio is produced with the freeform method as standard.

More than 20 years ago, it also made UV protection standard in all its lenses, even down to 1.5 index, which it says was many years ahead of its rivals.

As a result, Chiang says Tokai arrived in Australia looking to target independent boutiques. While this has transpired, the firm has also opened accounts with several independents in low-to-middle income demographics, some who are using the company’s standard lenses as a premium offering.

“We believe everyone should have an opportunity if they want to use Tokai lenses, so if a chain or group approach us, we will be open to doing business with them,” he explains.

“But at the same time, we do want to protect our independent optometrists. While the price between what certain stores pay can vary up to 60-70% for other products – which is quite ridiculous – we don’t compromise on the price to gain sales just as we don’t compromise on the quality to save the cost.”

Keeping it ‘in-house’

Th-Eyecare, an independent that set up in a shopping centre in the Sydney suburb of Strathfield in 2016, is another boutique offering Tokai lenses. The practice’s clientele consists mostly of high-income patients from various backgrounds.

Principal optometrist Ms Thao Hoang says she was drawn to Tokai after a conversation with an optometry friend. On a trip to Japan, shortly after opening her practice, she visited the Tokai factory and was impressed by its lab technology and personnel.

“I came back to Australia and have supported them ever since; I’ve been using their lens products for five years and they have never disappointed, even with the difficult jobs I have high confidence in their lab,” she says, explaining that Tokai accounts for 90% of her lens sales.

“I know how the lenses are designed, because I have seen the factory and machinery, but most importantly when customers begin using them they are very happy, which is important for customer retention.”

Chiang says the Tokai’s factory and R&D team set the platform for the business.

Japan-headquartered Tokai Optical was established in 1939 and aims to produce almost all of its products in its own region.

Despite a market trend towards producing lenses off-shore for cost-effectiveness, he says the company remains one of the very few who still manufacture the bulk of its products in its own region. The only exceptions are a Shanghai factory – established to avoid China’s stringent importing regulations – and a Belgium factory producing basic products to support a partnership with a national optical chain.

“Made in Japan has always meant high quality, even though it costs more for us, we want to protect and maintain the control we have over our production processes, which includes environmental and working conditions for our employees,” he says.

Because of this, Chiang says Tokai has been able to implement an effective sustainability strategy. It has been an early adopter in this space, first obtaining ISO 9001 (quality management systems) and 14001 (environmental management systems) certification in 2000. In 2005 it also became a zero-emission facility; the allowable amount of domestic discharge per person a day is 50g, but the company has achieved 9.7g a day per employee including both industrial and personal waste. This is possible through initiatives that, among others, see lens production by-products converted into charcoal as an industrial energy resource, and cafeteria cooking oil converted into biodiesel to run its generator.

Most importantly, however, Chiang said Tokai’s ‘in-house’ philosophy extends into lens development and production. It avoids outsourcing any of its processes or products, except for the raw lens material, which are provided by a handful of chemical companies globally.

The company states this is possible through its major focus on R&D, its most resource-intensive department. It employs chemical engineers who develop patented formulations they then take to the raw lens producers. This has helped it compete at the highest levels with its lens coatings and produce the famous 1.76 index lens, which are said to be up to 47% thinner than conventional lenses made from the CR-39 monomer.

“Some companies may not develop their own coating formulas, instead they go to the chemical companies and request certain elements like blue light blocking, or level of scratch resistance, that are then produced for them,” Chiang explains.

“Tokai writes every single coating formula in-house, and that’s because of our optical film division who produce coatings for industries like fibre cables, surveillance camera lenses, and a light concentrator to receive Cherenkov radiation; these require much higher grade coatings and to satisfy certain industries you need to understand light and how the chemicals interact with that.

“That’s why we were able to produce unique products like the world’s thinnest lens because we work alongside the chemical company with our own technology. Even now some may not be able to tint their high index lenses to certain colours or percentages because they have to work with what the chemical company has, but we can effectively tint to the darkest sunglass colour in all materials we have.”

According to Tokai, other examples of its chemical engineering capability include medical filters, the market’s most durable anti-reflective coatings, a new anti-bacterial coating and anti-fog properties that are built into the lens chemical structure. It was the first in the world to launch hydrophobic multicoat, and has produced a lens called Lutina, which Chiang describes as the next generation of UV protection.

“Most of the market focuses on blocking UV, but later studies have also shown that high energy violet, in the 400-420nm visible light range but close to the harmful UV level, can deteriorate the lutein in your eye, which is essential to maintaining eye health and requires vegetables with yellow pigmentation. Lutina absorbs high energy violet through it’s material and is available across all lens material,” he says.

Australian operations

Tokai Australia is based in Brisbane, but it is pursuing a national footprint, with some of its largest accounts located in NSW and Victoria.

Relative to more well-known brands, Chiang says it is price competitive, and also offers basic lens options that still possess relatively high levels of technology such as freeform production and premium anti-reflective coatings.

Prior to COVID, the turnaround time was five to eight days While its lab continues to produce and ship lenses in three days, on average, shipping through DHL amid the pandemic has pushed this turnaround times to seven to 10 days.

“Some optometrists perform their own edging, but some don’t have that capability and prefer we do it, so we also offer a fitting service in Australia,” he adds.

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