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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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Luxottica owns Ray-Ban, Oakley, Oliver Peoples, Vogue, and other brands, and makes glasses under license for over a dozen designer labels including Versace, Prada, Bulgari, DKNY, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, Donna Karan, Tiffany, and more. As if that isn't enough, Luxottica is also the parent company of a vision-care benefits program, EyeMed.

Eyewear prices in brick-and-mortar stores stay artificially high, Mitchell says, due to "the lack of real competition, inasmuch as Luxottica owns massive manufacturing, licensing, retailing and insurance interests" — albeit EyeMed is "not so much insurance as a marketing ploy to get people to buy from their stores at a discount and to force the remaining independent stores to buy Luxottica controlled frames. But, again, most people are unaware of this."

Because one company holds a near-monopoly on brick-and-mortar eyewear stores, "pricing models are somewhat static across the lot of them. They also have a knack for using the mattress sale model ... constantly running sales that seem too good to pass up when in reality they're still making enormous profits."

"Semi-Annual 50% Off Sales Event," reads a current LensCrafters ad. But the frames in question range from around $100 to around $300, and that's without lenses.

"People pay what the brick-and-mortars are asking, primarily because the vast majority don't know there are better, cheaper options," Mitchell says.

As with any purchase — in fact more than with most purchases, as this involves eyesight — it pays to research each company's delivery and return policies, Better Business Bureau status, and accessibility. Does its Web site list a phone number? If not, why not? If so, call it. Can you reach live people? Are they knowledgeable about your prescription? Does the company have its own in-house optometrists? It should. If you care about brand names, can you ascertain that the logo-bearing frames sold by any given company aren't counterfeits? Factories churn out fakes.

While many online outfits sell real and bogus designer frames, the least expensive frames available online are unapologetically nameless generics: current and classic styles, sans logo. As is true with most consumer products, they're not necessarily worse than their name-brand counterparts. After a year-plus of daily use, my $44 generics still look new. (That being said, I should have paid a few dollars more for higher-quality polycarbonate lenses and I should have sought bifocals with a wider middle-vision band, but these errors were my own, not the company's.)

"Very high-priced frames may have somewhat better materials," Mitchell says, "but from my experience, the no-names have been very well made." Having owned dozens of generic pairs, he's experienced "no more issues with them than with the name brands from LensCrafters. I think they're pretty much on par."

These days, he notes, "there are a lot more online retailers now than at the end of 2006. There aren't a whole lot more reputable ones, however. I've shopped at over a dozen, and narrowed things down to about three or four that I feel comfortable recommending to others. As this is a fully custom market, mistakes can enter the process anywhere from the initial customer entering prescription information to the production process. I've found that a few of the sites do a better job than others at fixing mistakes. Some do better at this than the traditional stores.

"Prices haven't dropped at all in the traditional brick-and-mortars, but downward price pressure from Wal-Mart will undoubtedly start to make an impact in certain parts of the country. I saw a sign in a
Wal-Mart recently for $38 glasses. The selection was tiny, but we're starting to see a price intersection."

The first online eyeglasses company was Houston-based FramesDirect. In 1992, optometrists Dhavid Cooper and Guy Hodgson closed their several Texas brick-and-mortar shops, then pondered their future.

"We knew that we wanted to sell eyewear in all fifty states 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," Hodgson says. "We had no idea how to do this." Renting a small office, they installed computers.

"When you talked about the Internet in those days, no one knew what you meant. Search engines were in their absolute infancy. We thought a 56k modem was blisteringly fast."

Cooper had won a Surgeon General’s Commendation Award in his native South Africa for creating a program providing the poor with recycled glasses for free. Hodgson specialized in treating the nearly blind. Barely fluent in email, the pair created a basic Web site, offering designer glasses at low prices because, unlike brick-and-mortar opticians, they needed to pay neither storefront rent nor employees' salaries, nor did they need to keep large quantities of merchandise in stock.

"Everyone around us thought we were completely mad: Eye doctors, giving up their lucrative practices to go into this weird thing," Hodgson laughs. But once orders started pouring in, "The whole optical industry completely shunned us. They said we were ruining them."

At eyewear conventions, he and Cooper wore their nametags backward to avoid verbal abuse. Since then, dozens of imitators have emerged, many based overseas and most able to offer even lower prices because they sell generics. Buying prescription eyewear is like buying prescription drugs: It's cheaper online. It's cheaper when it comes from outside the U.S. GlassesUnlimited, for instance, can afford to sell hundreds of different stylish frames fitted with prescription lenses for only $9.99 because its entire operation is based in Thailand.

"We don't have big margins here. That's how we are serving our clientele. That's why we're getting hundreds of orders on a daily basis, 70 percent of which come from the U.S. and Canada," GU manager Sam Davis tells me. "We have virtually no expenses. We have our own home brand and do our own production. We don't outsource anything."

Based in the U.S., FramesDirect still undercuts retail-store prices for guaranteed designer goods.

"What we sell and what the brick-and-mortar stores sell are the exact same products," Guy Hodgson says. "How can they afford to charge the prices they charge?"

 
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