Fitting Canada’s new faces
When it comes to shopping for eyewear, how do new immigrants differ from their Canadian-raised offspring?
The fifth and current wave of immigration to Canada started after reforms were made to the country’s immigration law in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. The majority of immigrants began coming from South Asia, China, and to a lesser extent from the Philippines, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
So what do those recent immigrants look for when they go to optical stores here? And are there any differences between the ones who moved to Canada and their native-born offspring when it comes to consuming eyecare products?
“The elders just look for functional, basic eyeglasses in order to see, read. They don’t care for aesthetics, but go for generic frames,” says Garo Kassabian, who runs Optical Mart in Scarborough, Ontario. “The second generation [of recent immigrants] always wants better things and designer brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and Burberry. They want brand names and are ready to pay, even if it’s over their budget.” And what’s their favourite style? Rectangular eyeglasses, says Kassabian.
Another difference is that elders tend to change their glasses only when they are broken or really old, and try to fix them first before buying new ones. Unlike them, young ones have more mainstream Canadian taste and opt for replacing their eye glasses every 1–2 years, or take advantage of their insurance coverage when available, even if their frames are reasonably new.
While generally agreeing with Kassabian, Gary Sarantopoulos of Modern Optical points out some emerging trends within recent immigrant communities. His store is on Danforth Avenue in Toronto, part of a neighbourhood that is shifting from being a predominantly Greek area to a multi-ethnic community of professionals. “A lot of kids are bringing in their parents to help them choose their glasses, because they want them to kind of transform, to fit more into society,” he says.
From his perspective, the immigrants are eventually picking up North American trends and styles. So, like established or native-born Canadians, young immigrants are buying fewer name-brand frames, not because they don’t want them, but “because [they] don’t want the big branding of names on the temples of glasses anymore. People don’t want to be copied,” he says. At his upscale, urban boutique, Sarantopoulos is currently selling more brands like Bevel or LA Eyewear than Prada or Chanel—even though they can be more expensive—because many are finding those collections to be more interesting and not worn by so many people, he says.
Sarantopoulos is also noticing that many people in the second generation of immigrant families—people with a Canadian education and jobs—seek to reward themselves and enjoy their lives and money by getting more than one pair of glasses for different purposes, such as a second pair for sports.
In Canada, visible minorities made up just 4.7 percent of the population in 1981. By the 2006 census, that figure had more than tripled, to 16.2 percent. With current trends, Statistics Canada says visible minorities will make up one-fifth of Canada’s population within the next five years. In major cities, where new immigrants more frequently settle, the proportion will be much higher. In Toronto, for example, visible minorities already make up more than half the population.
Fred Nojd, owner of Optical Factory in Thorncliffe Park a lower-income community of apartment buildings northeast of Toronto’s core, notes that, while new immigrants mainly focus on price, they also tend to go with traditional brands they have heard of back home—names like Dolce and Gabbana, Prada or Calvin Klein. “They can be a little suspicious when you offer them a new product or a line they don’t recognize. So if you’re carrying new lines like Ørgreen or JF Rey, which they are not familiar with, and which is something they haven’t seen their friends wearing, it may take some time to educate them, to show them it’s a viable and real product.”
Another optician in Thorncliffe Park, Myra Hassaram of i2i Opticians, says the same applies as elsewhere in the city: black and other dark colored frames are the trendy look now among the offspring of recent immigrants. She says that black Ray-Ban frames are the number one bestseller in her store.
Nojd says he has observed that many new first-generation immigrants are inclined to get their prescription in Canada, but order the glasses from their native country, where they are much cheaper. He has seen some cases where, for example, a +4.00 prescription has been processed as a -4.00, forcing the individual to redo his eyeglasses. He also notes that some of the pairs shipped to Canada for such orders turn out to be bogus products and counterfeit items.
As many new immigrants are part of a massive migration from rural villages in the developing world, new arrivals are seldom flush with cash. As a result, even very modest eyewear prices can seem like a lot of money.
“It’s all a matter of education,” Nojd says. “Overseas there’s a blurring of lines. A lot of people don’t know what an optician does. They view them as mere salespeople. [Customers] need to be educated to some extent by the optician, but the professional associations need to have more advertising” targeted to those demographics, he adds.
Because of this need to educate the public, and new immigrants in particular, about opticianry and quality eyewear, several companies and optical stores are now publishing brochures and marketing materials in Chinese, Hindi and other non-official languages. Their aim is to target those populations that are becoming a major consumer force in Canada. This also helps encourage recent immigrants to seek proper healthcare and regular eye exams.
In addition to targeting communities in their native languages, some manufacturers also take into account the physical differences among immigrants. Nojd mentions ProDesign as an example. Many of the company’s plastic frames are available with or without nosepads, so that they would fit Chinese customers, who usually have smaller bridges than Europeans, for example. Chinese populations also are genetically predisposed to have higher rates of myopia and need frames suitable for minus prescriptions.
As the current immigration trend is expected to continue with an average of 250,000 new immigrants landing in Canada each year, eyecare professionals, just like businesses in every economic sector, need to closely follow the great growth opportunities Canada’s increasingly multi-ethnic landscape presents. It’s particularly important, given that their children will be among Canada’s most productive, and in some cases affluent, citizens in years to come.
(This article was published in Optical Prism magazine’s September 2011 issue.)