This is Part 1 of a 5-part review. Jump to Part 2: Glasses.com, Part 3: Warby Parker, Part 4: DB Vision, or Part 5: Summary and Conclusion.

If you wear eyeglasses, then you know that a trip to your optician can be costly. And if you need high-index lenses (like myself), then you know that buying a pair of glasses isn't as simple as walking into an optician, choosing a fashionable frame and asking for the cheapest lenses they have. High index lenses are thinner and lighter alternatives to traditional plastic or polycarbonate lenses and are a necessity for stronger prescriptions (usually +/- 4.00). The weight and thickness of the lens is considerably reduced (by stages, with each level thinner costing more), making them ideal for people who would otherwise be sporting coke-bottle glasses. Thinned high-index lenses, equipped with necessary add-ons like antiglare and anti-scratch coatings, typically cost upwards of $300 at minimum. For my prescription, I have been quoted up to $600 for standard high-index polycarbonate and up to $900 for “digital lenses”. (I'll address digital lenses in a later part of this multipart review).

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." [1]

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". [2]

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 ...

When I began searching for glasses a few weeks ago, I started where most people start: trying on frames at one of the major Luxottica retailers. In the US at least, I have always hated this part. Shopping for glasses should be at minimum stress-free and, at best, kind of exciting. But what I have consistently faced in at small and large opticians is a great deal of pressure. Pressure to use the in-house optician. Pressure to upgrade to premium designer frames. Pressure to try on hideously ugly frames because the brainless sales assistant is hanging around trying to be a fancy style guru instead of just letting me browse (watching Project Runway doesn't make you a stylist!) Pressure to buy right then and there without shopping around. Now add on hidden fees and up-selling on the lens packages, plus severe choice restrictions because I have no insurance. And worst of all is my difficulty seeing myself try on glasses because trial frames have no prescription in them, so I have to push my face less than an inch away from a hand mirror to gauge my appearance. (I used to ask for a pair of trial contact lenses so I could try on glasses and actually *see* them, but this time around the opticians have insisted that I need to pay for a contact lens exam to wear the lenses for 10 minutes. Yet more expense.)

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

What sets the three retailers in this review apart from most of the others – indeed, the inspiration for the review in many ways – is that they each caught my attention by offering a free In-Home Try-On service (IHTO). It's so fantastic and simple that the sheer genius of it baffled my brick-and-mortar optician to no end: You choose a set of 4-5 frames (depending on the website; see below) which get delivered to your door in a few days for you to try on at your leisure. You can keep the sample frames for 5-7 days, show your friends and family, get opinions on Facebook or YouTube, etc, and then pop them back in the box and return them using a free prepaid shipping label. To be clear: this whole process is completely FREE and you can do it several times if you like. Once you have chosen the style you like the most, you simply log into your web account, select it, and purchase the brand new frame with your chosen lenses.

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.


High Index Glasses (Complete with Frame, Lens and Shipping) Cost Comparison
Warby Parker DB Vision Glasses.com
Virtual Try-OnYes No Yes
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
Live Chat Yes No Yes
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







References
1. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/hip-eyewear-warby-parkers-new-spectacles-07012011.html
2. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/17/technology/17glasses.html

Image sources (from top):
1. http://www.nikoneyes.co.nz
2.http://www.luxottica.com/en/media/news/archive/2011_07_01_Luxottica_rings_the_bell.html
3. EyeBuyDirect.com
4. SetPhasersToLol.com
5. Source unknown; let me know if this image is yours.
6. http://canttim.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/asmelhoresfotosdodia24414.jpg

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thorough post. Looking forward to part 2!

Anonymous said...

DB Glasses were ordered from a Riteaid drugstore Kiosk. Never heard anything about them but after having fun trying on their frames I was feeling brave, with my new prescription, knowing also that my last glasses were about $600 for two. I selected the frames and then entered all my info on the little computer screen and swiped my credit card. No printed receipt just confidence that I would have an e-mail confirmation waiting. Total price $150.00, no line bifocal +150-50x100 +150-75x85/+200 Anti-reflective anti-scratch. My e-mail confirmation was my one and only communication from DB without my insistence. I felt very uneasy when two weeks passed and nothing. So I called them left a message, and an e-mail. I did get a response back, first a call saying shipping soon. Then another week went by I registered on their site and sent another e-mail. They called and e-mailed back promising they would be sent out that day. Finally received the glasses, frames nice, but knew that. Lenses were quality, that impressed me and their shipping packaging was outstanding. It took 20 days from kiosk to house. They need to contact when there are delays and they need to send shipping and tracking e-mail to make their company work. They called to check back to see if I was happy with the glasses. I did notice the one nose pad was loose and could not be tighten and they offer a new pair of glasses. Free!? I assume, I got them in the mail no return shipping label or instructions. If this was their courtesy for my delay and communication problems I feel they will compete well with some tweaks. Bottom line cannot get better lenses cheaper would order again with this company.
Goodluck with your glasses-Nancy

Dr. Fran Barone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Please use whatever you want and you can spruce up the language a bit. I commented when I saw you were doing a comparison review and thought my experience would be useful.

Dr. Fran Barone said...

Thanks, Nancy :)

Dr. Fran Barone said...

Thank you, Nancy! I will be writing a review of DBVision later in this series, but I have not actually ordered any glasses from them yet. The information you shared with me on Twitter and here has been really helpful for me to provide more details about their service without actually ordering my lenses from them. I've done some home try-ons, but so far have ordered. I'm pleased that you are happy with your glasses. I also think that with some tweaks they could become major competitors for the other companies I'm reviewing. I hope you won't mind if I repeat some of what you've shared in my dedicated DB review that will appear on my blog soon. Thanks again!

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