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Wow -- the Eyewear Industry Is an Incredible Ripoff, But There Are Alternatives

What makes glasses so expensive? Oblong plastic lenses? Plastic and metal frames? We're getting screwed.
 
 
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Those of us who need prescription eyewear need prescription eyewear. Are you wearing yours to read this? Imagine if you weren't. Imagine life without your glasses for a year, a week, an hour. Yet many health insurance plans, especially for the unemployed or self-employed, don't cover them.

Mine doesn't.

Last year, I went shopping for no-line progressive bifocals in small oval metal frames. Name brands mean nothing to me. Price does. My high astigmatism and need for bifocals disqualify me from those buy-one-get-one-free deals, which almost always involve only single-vision specs.

In store after store, megachains and optical boutiques alike, small oval metal frames fitted with lenses matching my prescription started at $300. One popular shop quoted me $582 for the lenses alone.

I bought a pair of no-line progressive bifocals in small oval metal frames for $44 online. I'm wearing them right now.

Perhaps because prescription glasses are where medicine meets fashion, they're among the world's most overpriced merchandise. Imperfect eyesight isn't your fault: You can't make yourself nearsighted by eating too much fudge. Yet if your health plan excludes vision care, you've spent years at the mercy of a $64 billion industry characterized by 500-percent markups.

This has begun to change over the last few years. A knowledge-is-power, power-to-the-people, Web-driven DIY wave is rocking the optical industry's very foundations. Dozens of companies now sell prescription glasses online, frames and lenses included, for as little as $7.95.

It works like this: Google "cheap glasses" to find a frame you like at a price you like at a site you like. (Among the most popular are 39DollarGlasses, ZenniOptical — where I bought mine — and Goggles4U.) Use the virtual fitting mechanism to "try it on." Type in your prescription (obtained from an actual eye doctor), pupillary distance (aka PD, derived by measuring the space between your pupils with a ruler), address and payment information. Send.

It's a virtual myopian/hyperopian/presbyopian Tea Party, led largely by Minnesota software engineer Ira Mitchell, who launched his revolutionary GlassyEyes blog (its motto is "Saving the World from Overpriced Glasses!") in 2006. Packed with forums, product reviews, discount deals, and tips for buying specs online, it's the vision-impaired version of Yelp.

"There is no appreciable functional or material difference" between prescription eyewear bought online and bought in brick-and-mortar stores, Mitchell tells me, but in stores "the cost to the consumer is anywhere from four to ten times more. It turns out that they’re making ridiculous margins on the frames, the lenses and the coatings."

Complete with antiscratch coatings and other pluses, his own glasses cost between $30 and $60 per pair online. Over the last three years, he’s bought around 40 pair — because, at that price, he can.

Mitchell was appalled when he first began researching wholesale prices for optical merchandise and realized that opticians acquire lenses for as little as $3 each. "I've easily paid twenty times that when I didn't know any better," he says.

Granted, these glass, plastic, polycarbonate or polymer blanks must be ground to fit frames and prescriptions, and this takes work, but it's not rocket science. Typically, lens grinding is done by optical laboratory technicians. According to PayScale.com, OLTs in the United States earn between $9.73 and $14.40 per hour. Most learn on the job, and have only a high-school diploma or a GED. No specific certification is required.

The fleecing, Mitchell says, is just as bad on frames.

"A consumer-level frame costs significantly less than $10 to manufacture. The rest is operations, licensing and profit. Think about that the next time you pick up an average $150 frame. These aren't markedly different or superior to the $30 glasses available from reputable online dealers — and those include lenses, probably the same ones you were just about to pay $200 for in the store."

A key to the industry-standard overpricing is the fact that a single corporation — Luxottica, the world's largest eyewear firm — owns many retail eyewear chains and many popular eyewear brands. Based in Milan, Italy, Luxottica owns and operates LensCrafters, Sears Optical, Target Optical, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, Ilori, and other chains in the United States, along with yet more chains throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, India, the Antipodes and the Middle East.

 
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