How Not to Get Ripped off on Your Next Pair of Eyeglasses

With a near monopoly driving eyeglass prices up worldwide, you can still save if you buy your glasses online.

Do you wear eyeglasses? 61 percent of U.S. adults wear glasses, contact lenses or other reading or visual aids. Prescription eyewear is a $100-billion a year industry.

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If you bought eyeglasses recently from an ophthalmologist, optometrist or optician, your wallet was probably a lot lighter. This is because one company has a virtual monopoly on eyeglass sales worldwide – Italian firm Luxottica, and their markups on glasses are as high as 1,000 percent.

Ophthalmologist, optometrist, optician

An ophthalmologist is an M.D. who has completed a 1-year internship and a 3-year residency. He or she can conduct vision exams, and provide medical and surgical eye care. An Optometrist is an O.D., has spent four years in a professional program, and can conduct eye exams and detect injuries and diseases. An optician can't conduct an eye exam, but can fill a prescription from the other two.

Luxottica

If you got your glasses from LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Sunglass Hut or Target Optical, you've been dealing with Luxottica because they own them.

If your eyeglass frame is branded Armani, Brooks Brothers, Burberry, Chanel, Coach, DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors, Oakley, Oliver Peoples, Persol, Polo Ralph Lauren, Ray-Ban, Tiffany, Valentino, Vogue or Versace, then you've bought from Luxottica.

If your optical insurer is EyeMed Vision Care, you're also dealing with Luxottica, because it owns the insurer. Vision plans, such as VSP and EyeMed, are essentially discount programs that promote the sale of eyewear manufactured by the affiliated company. While Luxottica owns EyeMed, VSP (Vision Service Plan) is affiliated with Marchon Eyewear, which controls or holds licenses for Altair, Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, Lacoste, Nautica, Nine West, and Nike.

To make matters even worse, during the fall of 2018, Luxottica merged with France's Essilor, the world's leading maker of prescription eyeglass lenses and contact lenses. Essilor makes the popular Transitions eyeglass lenses, and the new, combined company is called EssilorLuxottica.

What it really costs to make a pair of glasses

Like many other things, eyeglass frames are manufactured in China, and prices these are really low. In a March 5, 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times by David Lazarus, the founder of LensCrafters, E. Dean Butler, is quoted as saying, "You can get amazingly good frames ... for $4 to $8. For $15, you can get designer-quality frames, like what you’d get from Prada."

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If you're thinking that it must be the lenses that make eyeglasses really expensive, Butler goes on to say, "You can buy absolutely first-quality lenses for $1.25 apiece." Yet, in the U.S., the same frames and lenses might sell for $800!

How Luxottica built a monopoly

In 1995, Luxottica bought LensCrafters and their hundreds of stores nationwide. Luxottica immediately began emphasizing their own frames over those from outside suppliers. Luxottica utilized a similar tactic in 2001 when it bought Sunglass Hut. One of Sunglass Hut's suppliers was beloved California brand Oakley.

In the 1990s, you couldn't find a picture of a surfer, skier, or even a cop without seeing a pair of Oakleys covering their eyes, perched on their heads, or dangling from their necks. As soon as Luxottica bought Sunglass Hut, it insisted that Oakley reduce their wholesale prices or else Luxottica would reduce its orders, and would push its own brands instead.

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Talks didn't go well, and Oakley's stock lost more than a third of its value. When Oakley's stock dropped far enough, Luxottica swooped in and bought them. This eliminated any competition in the sunglass market since Luxottica also owned popular brand Ray-Ban, having acquired them in 1999.

The disruptors

Several startups are trying to disrupt the eyeglass market and Luxottica's stranglehold on it. New York-based Warby Parker was started by two students at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa. They saw the eyewear market as ripe for disruption, and after launching in 2010, Warby Parker is now worth over a billion dollars.

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Once you get an eye exam at either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist, Warby will make your glasses. They send you five different frames to try on at home, and Warby sources its frames from overseas, and its lenses in the U.S.

A pair of single-vision Warby Parker glasses start at $95, while progressive lenses will set you back $300. This is half of what you would pay at an optometrist or optician. Also, for every pair of glasses they sell, Warby donates a free or discounted pair to someone in need. The company recently announced that it had distributed its 5-millionth pair of glasses.

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Another disrupter is Zenni Optical, where you can buy eyeglasses for less than $50. Based in Novato, north of San Francisco, Zenni focuses on undercutting eyewear prices by as much as 75 percent. All Zenni frames and lenses are manufactured in China. Single-vision glasses average $42, and progressive lenses cost twice that amount.

Zenni is also pioneering a "virtual try on" app that lets you upload a photo of yourself, then virtually try on several frames.

Unlike Warby and Zenni, Los Angeles company Lensabl doesn’t sell frames, they only sell lenses. Lensabl encourages customers to buy their frames from Amazon, Costco, or anywhere you want, then they provide you a shipping box to send them the frame, and they make the lenses.

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Lensabl is a great way to use a frame you already have and are comfortable with. They contract with local optical labs for the lenses, with single vision lenses starting at $75. The average cost for a pair of lenses is $150, which is 30 to 70 percent less than at a brick-and-mortar optical store. Lensabl doesn’t take insurance, but you can submit a claim on your own.

Measurements you should be aware of

To take advantage of ordering eyeglasses online, you should be aware of several measurements. Look at your current eyeglass frame, usually written on one of the arms or temples, are several numbers. These are measurements in millimeters of the size of the lens diameter, the width of the bridge, and sometimes the length of the arms.

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Eyeglass measurements
Eyeglass measurements Source: Pixabay/Marcia Wendorf

The lens size of most frames ranges between 40 mm and 62 mm. The bridge size ranges between 16 and 21 mm, and temple lengths generally range between 120 mm and 150 mm.

Pupillary distance
Pupillary distance Source: Pixabay/Marcia Wendorf

The main measurement that consumers need to be aware of is the distance in millimeters between the pupils of their eyes. This is called the pupillary distance or PD.

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