Here’s a statistic to note next time you’re standing in a crowd: 64% of U.S. adults —more than 157 million people — wear prescription eyeglasses. And because Walmart is the nation’s largest producer of finished prescription eyewear, there’s a good chance many of those glasses came from Walmart. In fact, it’s the only product that we manufacture start-to-finish in-house.
Earlier this year, we announced an investment of $10 million to upgrade the manufacturing equipment at our Fayetteville, Arkansas, optical lab. Similar upgrades are slated to occur at facilities in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and Dallas in the next few years.
The ultimate goal, both with Walmart’s eyeglasses and with the upgrades, is to serve more customers, more quickly, with even better quality.
Looking Back to Look Ahead
When Walmart first entered the optical business in 1991, Walmart was known for its affordable prices on lenses that were similar to other big box stores and eyeglass chains. Then, in 2000, Walmart started offering premium lenses like Carl Zeiss. Customers noticed the difference—and the company’s efforts to become a leader in eyeglass quality continued from there.
“Walmart was at the forefront of putting anti-reflective and anti-scratch coating on lenses,” said Ed Greene, the recently retired CEO of The Vision Council and past president of Carl Zeiss Optical Inc., the maker of Carl Zeiss Lenses.
When Walmart first invested in anti-reflective equipment in 2001, Ed said, other large retailers didn’t have the coatings or were using no-name or store-brand products. From the beginning, Walmart took steps to offer the best products on the market — products at a level of quality that exceeds industry standards. The upgrades happening now continue the commitment.
A View of the Lab
The Walmart Optical Lab in Fayetteville, Arkansas, stands next to a highway on-ramp. The sign outside is small, and the brick building looks relatively unremarkable—a notable contrast to what happens inside.
Production at the lab runs 24 hours a day, with more than 620 associates working in rotating shifts. The record for a single day of eyeglasses production at the lab: 11,000 pairs.
A single pair of glasses starts its journey on a conveyor belt where the lenses are shaped to the appropriate thickness and curve by a generator and polisher before going through several coating processes for premium scratch resistance and anti-reflection. From there, the lenses are placed into frames by hand by “mounters.” (Quality control happens throughout; if any flaws are discovered, the process starts over.) It takes about eight hours from start to finish.
So where do the upgrades fit in?
Walmart is replacing all of its anti-reflection equipment (remember, this is the first key differentiator for the optical business) with newer machines so customers will experience even less glare. Surfacing machinery and edgers are also being replaced to enhance quality and improve capacity so the lab will be able to produce more glasses and serve more customers.
Seeing the Customer Experience
The real difference, of course, is what our customers experience — and are able to purchase — in 3,000 Vision Centers at Walmart stores and Sam’s Clubs. Along with Walmart-produced lenses, Vision Centers sell premium lenses like those from Nikon, Seiko, and Zeiss. The frame selection is large and includes designer frames like Drew Barrymore’s just-released Flower line.
What customers notice is: Walmart’s low price. Our glasses start at $38 for a complete set of eyewear and come with a one-year warranty—something that other retailers charge extra for. Given that the average cost of prescription eyeglasses in 2014 was $274.20, according to The Vision Council, shoppers can save big at Walmart. David Puchala, New York state-licensed Optician and Vision Center manager at Store 1744 in Webster, N.Y., agrees.
“The biggest reward,” David says, “is seeing the smile on mom’s face when she is quoted $200 or more for her child’s first pair of glasses somewhere else, and then comes to us and pays less than $70.”
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the September issue of Walmart World, the magazine for Walmart associates.