Purchasing Glasses: Online or Offline?

I pride myself on being an informed consumer, to the point of obsession and beyond. It came time to buy a new pair of glasses, and I realized that I know nothing about them. I’ve had these things on my face every minute of every day for most of my life, and yet I had no clue what I was doing. After asking around a bit, I realize that essentially all of my friends and acquaintances were exactly the same way. Those are nearly all computer people, and depend on their glasses for daily life. How much money did you lay out for your glasses? I’m betting it wasn’t trivial, but do you know anything about them? Do you even know what brand you’re wearing?

This post is the first of a couple, dealing with overall eyeglass selection and particularly the question of whether to buy in-store or online. Later on, I’ll discuss lenses, coatings, etc. But for now, let’s just tackle the overall problem of where to get your glasses.

Online or brick and mortar store? In most cases, the person doing your eye exam rents space from or is outright affiliated with a retailer. Once your prescription’s been established, they hand it straight off to the shop, and you pick out your frames. Nice, easy, and totally ignorant. That’s not to say you’re getting a bad product, but you are probably paying a lot for the convenience. How much is a lot? The typical margin on frames varies from 100% to 1000%. Yes, that’s 10x in pure profit. Those $300 designer frames cost probably $30 to manufacture, and they’re really not precision equipment. I don’t have good numbers on lens markup, but it’s not subtle either. Cursory exploration suggests it’s at least 100%. For your money, you get free adjustments and maybe repairs from the people who sold you the glasses. Odds are you’ll walk out with a pair of comfy glasses that look pretty decent on you and assurance that if something goes wrong, you’ll have someone to yell at.

So where do you go in the brick and mortar world? Walmart and Target are, well, pretty much what you’d expect. Sort of vaguely competent but minimal at best. Big name chains like Lenscrafters are popular and prevalent in malls all over, but it’s turned out time and again that those guys over-charge and under-deliver. Shoddy lenses, shoddy coatings, even shoddy frames sometimes. Consumer Reports tells me that Costco is stand-out in quality and price, and as a matter of fact that’s where I got my glasses many times. If I were looking for a quality pair of reasonably priced glasses to try on before I buy, that’s where I would go.

That was the easy part – now for online retailers. The first challenge is even knowing what to buy. You’ll need your measurements, all of them. What size frames are good for you, your prescription, and also an obnoxious number called the pupillary distance (PD). PD is the straight line separation between your pupils when looking straight forward, and is used to place the optical centers of the lenses correctly. It’s also not officially part of your prescription, and difficult to measure reliably on your own. All opticians are equipped to take this measurement in order to sell you glasses. The only reason you could possibly need this number yourself is to order online, and that is why pretty much no optician anywhere will give you that number. It is not legally part of your prescription. Many online retailers tell you how to measure the PD by yourself. Don’t do this. I got mine by asking Costco to give me the stats on the last frames I bought from them. I’m due for a new prescription any day now, and I intend to find an optometrist (not an optician) who will give me the number properly as part of the exam. You’ll also need to know the ballpark for what frames fit you, best established by finding frames that already fit you and getting the measurements off them. Whether it’s ethical to do that by trying glasses in a store you won’t buy from, I leave for you to decide.

So where do you buy from? Pretty much everything you need to know is at GlassyEyes. I believe Zenni Optical is the largest and most popular of the online retailers, and I’ve been fairly happy with them myself. Just keep in mind that you’re getting made-to-a-price Chinese frames with Chinese lenses and Chinese coatings shipped from China, with everything that implies. Anti-reflective coatings have a substantial mark-up here, but Zenni charges $5 and corners are getting cut somewhere. Support and returns are also about as easy as you’d expect with any of these companies, which is to say dismal. If you have a bad experience, you’re not likely to find a good resolution. But for the price of a reasonably decent Costco pair, I can easily order four or five pairs from Zenni with all of the relevant coatings. The Costco will be better, though, so it’s still not clear if things stack up in your favor. At the very least, online is a great way to get backup pairs, prescription sunglasses, or costume glasses. That’s assuming you’re not in a hurry, because these things take 2-4 weeks and there are horror stories out there about things going completely awry.

So that’s the run-down. Retailers = reliable and safe but horrifically expensive. Online = enormous cash savings and super sketchy. Actually fairly typical. So which one to pick? If this is for a first time purchase, go to a retailer. Seriously. First-time wearers have absolutely no business buying online. If you have a very complex prescription or health problems with the eyes, you’re probably better off with the retailers. The online places are just too likely to screw it up, and you need someone who is equipped to CHECK the lenses you get back from the lab. (Some optometrists will do this for ordered glasses though.) If you’re poor/broke or just looking for backup pairs, online is a great way to get them. I have a couple lying around from online and they do the job. The Zenni coating is clearly trash, though, and I suspect some of these lenses from other online shops won’t be coated in 6-12 months. But at $20 per, it’s difficult to care.

If you’re looking for a primary pair though, especially if you’re not quite certain about the necessary measurements, then it gets tricky. I ordered four pairs recently to try out. One is great, one is workable, one got returned due to incredibly poor fit, and one is being donated because it looks laughably terrible on me and returning it would net me nothing after shipping. That’s a risk I took, and I’m a little irritated about the losses on the bad ones, but my new sunglasses from Zenni are really nice, and these rimless from Goggles4U are adequate too. But I don’t love them; they fit great and look nice but they’re made poorly and it’s kind of a hassle. The people over at Optiboard would gloat; that’s a forum specifically for people in the optical industry, and their attitude about online purchasing is exactly what you’d expect, turned up to 11 in some cases. (By the way guys, online optical shops may be a lot of negative things but ‘criminal’ isn’t among them.) Remember that online optical, though in its infancy, represents an existential threat to these people’s careers.

All the same, I still need a primary pair of glasses. I used a pair from Zenni as my primary for about a year but they were never quite right and the coatings just plain rubbed off. They’re scratched up badly. So I thought to myself, this one time I’m going to do it right. I’m going to visit an actual store, pay for real frames and real lenses, and have a real professional set them up just so. Pretensions being what they are, I wasn’t willing to buy ‘good’ frames unless they were Oakley, and the local Oakley distributor optician guy was really incredibly nice and incredibly helpful. I was pretty much ready to buy from him until I got the price tag: $550. Ouch. I know there’s about $200 in markup on the lenses alone there. I can get a Leica 14 element or Zeiss 7 element camera lens for not much more money, and corrective lenses are not in the same league of quality as those beauties.

Right now, I’m researching some alternatives on how to get real brand name, good quality glasses. The Internet is here, after all, and I’m all for ruthless global competition. (That’s a nod to you libertarians, as long as we don’t have VAT in the US.) One of the big problems with online is the lack of professional adjustments, but it’s not like you always have to take your glasses to the person who sold them to you. Of course a glasses store is hoping to get your business with services like free adjustments, but I don’t mind adding an extra fifteen bucks on top for fifteen minutes of that person’s time, and that’s more than I’m paid. I’m also going to find an optometrist who doesn’t have skin in the retail game and is willing to help me see better, regardless of who I pay for the glasses themselves.