Competition Bureau says eyewear shoppers deserve more choice online
Ontario should consider B.C. example to modernize access to internet sales, agency says
Canada's competition watchdog has set its sights on the eyewear industry, calling on provincial governments and regulators to allow consumers greater access to online sales.
The Competition Bureau says provinces like Ontario should consider the example set by British Columbia, where the government changed its rules in 2010 to allow people other than licensed professionals to dispense corrective eyewear.
"Online retailing is growing just generally in Canada and it's also growing specifically in prescription eyewear, and what we found is that the regulations are at times not quite keeping up with this new way of doing business," says Leila Wright, the bureau's associate deputy commissioner.
"It's important to take a look at these regulations and see whether there are changes that can be made to allow for this type of online competition."
Nearly $2.1 billion at stake
The recommendation appears in the Competition Advocate, a periodical published to give insight into industries the bureau feels could benefit from increased competition.
According to the bureau, Canadians spent nearly $2.1 billion on retail eyewear in 2017, with prescription eyewear sales accounting for more than 80 per cent of that figure.
"For eyeglasses, many consumers prefer to try frames on prior to making a purchase and rely more heavily on the services provided by eye care professionals, including eyeglass fitting and adjustment," the report says.
"However there have been recent advancements in online retailing that may make it easier for consumers to purchase eyeglasses over the internet."
What is 'dispensing' anyway?
Wright says a lot of the confusion centres around the definition of the word "dispensing."
In Ontario, it has been interpreted as the preparation, adaptation and delivery of prescription eyewear. And it can only be done by doctors, optometrists and opticians or their representatives.
That's in contrast to rules introduced in B.C. in 2010 that say the initial fitting of contacts to determine the lens specifications must be done by a licensed professional, but you don't have to be a doctor, optometrist or optician to dispense eyeglasses or contacts.
The new regulations also allow companies in B.C. to fill prescriptions issued by doctors or optometrists outside of the province.
"We're suggesting that [regulators] take a look at the definition of dispensing and think about what the policy objectives are with the way that the industry is currently operating," Wright says.
"Take a look at whether there is a way to craft the definition of the word 'dispensing' that allows for competition in the industry."
'Reason to enact such a change'
The provincial divide is highlighted in a court battle that pits Ontario's optometrists and opticians against Essilor Group Canada, which operates giant B.C.-based online eyewear dispensaries Clearly and Coastal.
Last January, an Ontario judge found that the province's eyewear dispensing rules apply to internet sales — even if the seller is based in B.C.
Essilor Group Canada is appealing the decision.
The judge in the case heard arguments from the company about what it claimed was an attempt to "curtail online sales, which compete with traditional retail channels and provide more choice and pricing flexibility for consumers."
But Justice Thomas Lederer said it was his job to decide if the regulatory scheme applied — not if it was competitive.
"If the direction or purpose of the regulation in Ontario is to change, it cannot be through the courts, but only through the legislature," he wrote. "There may be reason to enact such a change."
Not about 'shutting down the internet'
Ontario College of Opticians registrar Fazal Khan says regulators are not opposed to online sales, but they are mandated to make sure they're done safely.
"I think there's a misconception out there that this court case is about shutting down the internet, and it's not," he says.
"The issue at hand is ... the absence of a practitioner in the equation anywhere."
Khan says Ontario's rules are meant to ensure that people are getting eyewear from professionals and that they have recourse to complain if things go wrong.
"It's not really about shutting them down. It's about getting them to comply with the Ontario legislation."
The Competition Bureau acknowledges the health-care concerns, but says as the industry evolves, "steps should be taken to ensure that regulations keep pace so as not to inhibit legitimate forms of competition."
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