I haven't bought new glasses in years, so I'm looking to purchase two pairs (one for a spare), and I'm doing it on a post-PhD budget. Retail prices are simply not going to cut it.
The plight of high-index lens wearers knows no bounds. Those Buy-1-Get-1-Free offers that you see at all of the major optical chains? Read the fine print, and you'll notice that they exclude prescriptions stronger than +/-4.00. If you have comprehensive vision insurance at 80-100% of the full cost of eyewear, then you're the 1% when it comes to eyewear(!), so buying discount glasses off the internet - the subject of this post - is probably not for you. But if you, like myself, are amongst the ranks of the perennially uninsured in the United States (remember, we're the greatest country in the world), then read on.
Start Here: The Eyewear Industry
For those of you who have traditionally purchased your spectacles from discount or designer brick-and-mortar retailers, it may surprise you to learn that you can save hundreds of dollars by buying your frames and/or lenses online. Yes, you'll still have to visit a traditional optometrist for your eye exam and prescription, but once armed with an official Rx, you are no longer required to be at the mercy of high markups through retail middlemen, or, better yet, Luxottica.
Wait, who are they?
A quick primer … on the $16 billion optical industry: Luxottica, based in Milan, is one of the heavyweights in question. It owns LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, and the optical shops in Target and Sears; it owns Ray-Ban, Oakley, and Oliver Peoples; it manufactures, under license, eyewear for more than 20 top brands, including Chanel, Burberry, Prada, and Stella McCartney. "They've created the illusion of choice," says Gilboa [one of the founders of Warby Parker]. And inadvertently they've created an opening for an indie anti-brand brand such as Warby Parker. […] "The optical industry is an oligopoly. A few companies are making outrageous margins and screwing you and me." 
Enter the Internet
Warby Parker, one of the companies I'll be reviewing alongside DBVision.com and Glasses.com, has become fairly well known amongst hipster chic online eyewear bargain hunters. Just check YouTube. A New York-based startup,
"the company designs its own glasses, which largely stick to a stylish chunky look, and generally sell them for $95, including prescription lenses made of polycarbonate plastic. By contrast, designer prescription glasses typically cost several hundred dollars. The company keeps prices low by ordering from manufacturers and selling directly to consumers, avoiding expenses like brand licensing fees and retail markups along the way. It does not offer bifocals, and it charges extra for thinner lenses for strong prescriptions". 
This simple online business model, following in the footsteps of Zappos.com, cuts out the middle man, keeps costs down, and allows for an enhanced consumer experience at a cheaper rate. It's more or less the same process across the online glasses marketplace, with the exception that most online glasses retailers don't design their own frames, they simply work directly with manufacturers so they can provide designer frames at a fraction of Luxottica's prices.
As with any purchase via the Internet, there are benefits and risks to weigh for the consumer. While the cost is lower, can you trust an online optician to dispense your prescription? How do you know if you'll get a quality product? What if the frames don't look and feel right? Which companies are reputable? Where do their materials come from, and are they really licensed opticians? This is my first foray into ordering glasses online, and the question of what kind of quality I will receive has certainly been on my mind. That's precisely how and why I've narrowed my purchase options down to these three companies out of dozens more.
Read on for some tips and advice to get you through the online shopping process. I'll update this and other posts over the coming days as I finalize my purchases.
Tip #1: Get ready to take your time
My most important caveat is to be aware that shopping for glasses online will almost certainly take more time than doing so with your optician. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are many more places to browse and hundreds more styles to choose from. The three companies I'm reviewing here are certainly not the only ones. A quick web search will bring up dozens of sites, many of which have very mixed reviews indeed. Take the time to weigh your options by reading reviews like this one and checking consumer report websites.
Secondly, you need to compare types of lenses, not just frames, and that can be daunting for those who have always relied on their eye care professional. Make use of live chat, email and phone connections to ask questions and get the answers that you need. How well a website's staff can respond to your queries will give you a good idea about how customer-oriented they will be if you have any complaints down the line.
Finally, you have to check and re-check site policies (each company is different) to make sure you have a fair returns policy just in case things go terribly wrong or you simply aren't happy. If a clear policy and contact information isn't stated on the website, steer clear.
Sure, the actual process of clicking and ordering online is fast, but there likely to be an inverse relationship between speed and happiness with your final purchase. Don’t be in a hurry; embrace the fact that it will probably take you several stages to find what you want and try not to get frustrated. I started to get impatient at one point when I could not decide on a frame I liked or a retailer who could do my chosen frame and lenses at a good price. But then I recalled the alternative ...
So, Web 1.0 logic tells us that shopping online will take away the consumer's sense of control, but I have found it liberating instead. Here’s why:
Tip #2: In-Home Try-On
This process was a welcome relief from my uncomfortable visits to local pushy opticians. It also helped, along with generous return policies, to allay my fears about buying online. Not all online retailers offer IHTO, and having make excellent use of this service, I won' t buy any frames from another site that doesn't allow trials first (this includes the likes of ZenniOptical and 39dollarglasses). Even with a good returns policy, you're likely to be in for disappointment – and more time wasted – if you just hazard a guess by choosing a frame by dimensions only. Although dimensions are important, a good quality frame is about its look, feel and durability. IHTO is the way to go.
Tip #3: Saving online isn't just about buying online
Even if you're making use of IHTO, if you're picky about frames, it is certainly worth your while to try on other options at brick-and-mortar retailers near your home. It doesn't cost anything to browse (if you can deal with the pushy staff mentioned above) and it can give you an idea of sizes and shapes that suit your face. Then you can use those dimensions and styles to shop online. Maybe you'll determine that you don't like plastics or that rimless look strange or that Gucci frames just don't fit your face. That will save you valuable time in your online search. If you fall in love with a designer frame, just make a mental note or snap a cell phone pic of the item number and you might find it for much cheaper online. Many sites in addition to those reviewed here will let you buy authentic designer frames at a fraction of the price. Even if you choose to get your lenses at your optician, this can provide valuable savings.
Some websites, like Warby Parker or DBVision.com have their own glasses collections that are not made up of designer frames. But that doesn't mean that they won't have retail or try-on locations in your area. Others, like Glasses.com, will sell designer frames that you'll see at other glasses retailers like the big names mentioned above. That's how I knew which ones to order for my first IHTO and they ended up being my favorites once I tried them on in the comfort of my home.
Finally, a good (offline) optician will appreciate that you will be comparing their prices and service quality to the Internet. They can certainly stay competitive by upping their game. Maybe try to get them to match your frame price or meet you half way if you prefer to buy from a shop. Try ditching the chain stores if you prefer to support a local business and see if an independent optician nearby can work with you on lens options if you get your frame online. Always remember that you could potentially be sorely disappointed by your online purchase. For instance, I have found it difficult to get a good price on 1.74 high index lenses from a reputable online retailer with good reviews. If my online lenses turn out way too thick and heavy for comfort, I might be stuck paying more through an offline optician. Continuing to browse around and discuss your options with opticians gives you a backup plan. So don't be afraid to shop "half online" and "half offline" until you're happy. After all, you're going to wear your glasses on your face everywhere you go!
Let The Reviewing Begin
At the time of this writing, I have ordered home trials from Warby Parker, DBVision and Glasses.com and have completed an order with one of these companies so far. In my next post (or posts, depending on timing) over the coming days, I'll provide comprehensive reviews of each company.
Here is a review summary table for quick reference.
|Warby Parker||DB Vision||Glasses.com|
|Home Try-On||Yes; 5 frames per order, 5 day period||Yes; 4 frames per order, 5 day period||Yes; 5 frames per order, 7 day period|
|Offline Storefront||Yes, several states||Yes; pharmacies, kiosks and military bases, but locations not listed on website||No, but free frame adjustments at Walmart|
|Free Shipping/Free Returns||Yes/Yes||No/Yes||Yes/Yes|
|Returns Policy and Guarantee||30-day no hassle money back; 1 year replacement on lenses if scratched||"Customer service" promise||30-day no hassle money back; 1 year defect protection on frames and lenses; 1 year 50% credit towards purchase for accidental damage|
|Frame Materials||Cellulose Acetate||Acetate or Metal||All types|
|Hinge Types||Teflon-coated, five-barrel hinges (not sprung)||Spring hinges on all frames||Varies (designer)|
|Lens Material||Polycarbonate||Standard polycarbonate or digital polycarbonate||Polycarbonate (2 high-index options)|
|Total Cost for 1.67 High Index lenses + Shipping||$125||$64.95 (standard) or $104.95 (digital)||$89 or $129 plus cost of frame (min $29, max $395 depending on designer)|
Continue to Part 2: Glasses.com ...
Eyeglasses Review Index
- How to buy glasses online (Part 1): A comparison review
- How to buy glasses online (Part 2): Glasses.com
- How to buy glasses online (Part 3): Warby Parker
- How to buy glasses online (Part 4): DB Vision
- How to buy glasses online (Part 5): Summary and Conclusion
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