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Engineering a Monopoly: How to Not Get Ripped off on Your Glasses

A near monopoly on eyeglass frames and lenses has driven up prices worldwide, but you can avoid overpaying if you know how.

If you've bought eyeglasses recently, you've probably experienced sticker shock. A new pair of glasses can set you back up to $1,000, but does a frame made out of plastic or metal really cost all that much?

Or, is it the lenses that make eyeglasses so expensive? Today's eyeglass lenses are made out of plastics that are lighter and more scratch-resistant than glass. They can also be treated with filters that shield your eyes from harmful ultraviolet (UV) or blue light. Most plastic eyeglass lenses are made out of Columbia Resin #39, which is a plastic polymer, polycarbonate, or Trivex which is similar to polycarbonate. 

The fact is that what makes eyeglasses so expensive across the world is that one company holds a near-monopoly on both eyeglass frames and lenses. Welcome to EssilorLuxottica.

How does EssilorLuxottica do it?

Here's what trusted medical advice site WebMD has to say about eyeglasses: "Eyeglasses today are fashion accessories, as stylish as purses and belts. In fact, you'll find familiar names — Calvin Klein and Gucci, to name just two — on your frames these days."

What if you don't consider your eyeglasses to be "fashion accessories", but merely a means to see stuff? What if you don't feel the need to see the names "Calvin Klein" or "Gucci" plastered on your eyeglass frames, or in some cases, even emblazoned on the lenses?

Then, you may be out of luck, because EssilorLuxottica controls almost 30 percent of the global eyeglass market. This represents around a billion pairs of frames and lenses sold every year, and yes, that's a billion with a "b". According to an article in Vox, the markup on EssilorLuxottica glasses is up to 1,000 percent!

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EssilorLuxottica accomplishes this by controlling eyeglass manufacturing, distribution, and even vision insurance. The company owns the retail outlets LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Target Optical, and Sunglass Hut. EssilorLuxottica manufactures frames for brands Armani, Brooks Brothers, Burberry, Chanel, Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Tiffany, Prada, Michael Kors, Oakley, Oliver Peoples, Persol, Tory Burch, Polo Ralph Lauren, Ray-Ban, Valentino, Vogue, and Versace.

EssilorLuxottica even owns the vision insurance plan EyeMed Vision Care, and the online eyeglass store EyeBuyDirect. 

What it really costs to make a pair of glasses

Like many other things, many eyeglass frames are manufactured in China, and prices there are really low. A March 5, 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times quoted the founder of LensCrafters, E. Dean Butler, 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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Of eyeglass lenses, Butler goes on to say, "You can buy absolutely first-quality lenses for $1.25 apiece." However, in the U.S., those same frames and lenses might sell for $800. 

How it works right now

Today, there are quite a few online, direct-to-consumer companies that are selling eyeglasses manufactured by EssilorLuxottica, and other companies as well. Before we look at some of them, there are a couple of measurements you should be aware of.

Eyeglass frames are defined by the diagonal size of the lens' openings, the width of the bridge, and the length of the temples. All three of these measurements, in millimeters, are usually written in teeny, tiny text on the inside of one of the temples.

Eyeglass measurements
Eyeglass measurements Source: Pixabay/Marcia Wendorf

The lens' size of most frames ranges between 31 mm and 64 mm. The bridge size ranges between nine and 24 mm, and the temple length generally ranges between 115 mm and 155 mm.

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Pupillary distance (PD)
Pupillary distance (PD) Source: Pixabay/Marcia Wendorf

The most important measurement is something called pupillary distance (PD). It is the distance, in millimeters, between the pupils of your eyes. You can have someone hold a ruler or measuring tape up to your face and read off your PD, or else there are several online services that will do it for you.

The disruptors

Probably the most well-known of the eyeglass disruptors is New York-based Warby Parker. It was started by four students at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. On the Warby Parker website, after you answer several questions about the shape of your face, your preferred frame shape, color, and material, you can select up to five frames which will be delivered to your home for you to try on.

If you prefer visiting a brick-and-mortar store, Warby Parker has locations scattered across the U.S., some of which also offer eye exams. Warby Parker accepts some vision insurance plans, and it accepts health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs).

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GlassesUSA.com offers an unparalleled selection of frames, and its Virtual Mirror feature allows you to see yourself in your glasses before you order them. Like Warby Parker, GlassesUSA.com accepts some vision insurance plans, and also HSA and FSA dollars.

Budget favorite Zenni Optical allows you to sort their frames by gender, age, material, style, and price. The company is famous for its particularly large selection of children, pre-teen, and teen frames. With Zenni Frame Fit, you upload a picture of yourself, and you can then virtually try on frames.

Zenni also sells protective goggles and safety glasses, and you can order protective lens films, such as blue light blockers. On its website, Zenni has a large number of guides that can answer most of your eyeglass questions, such as, "what are the benefits of progressive lenses?".

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The only drawback to Zenni is that unlike many other online retailers who offer full refunds if you're not satisfied with your glasses, Zenni offers a 100 percent store credit, but only a 50 percent refund. While Zenni doesn't accept vision insurance, it does accept FSA and HSA dollars.

Liingo Eyewear allows you to scan your face with a device such as a smartphone, and use their tools to provide frame recommendations based on the size and shape of your face.

You can then use the company's virtual try-on feature, or else select up to five frames which will be sent to your home for you to try on. Liingo also offers a downloadable mobile app for your phone that allows you to use your phone's camera to scan the lenses of your current glasses to determine your prescription.

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As of this writing, the app can only read single-vision prescription lenses, where the prescription ranges from -6.00 to +3.00, with a cylinder up to -2.50. It cannot read progressive lenses or higher prescriptions.

The negative prescription number refers to the lenses for people who are nearsighted, and can't see things that are far away, while the positive prescription number refers to people who are farsighted, and can't see things that are nearby. Cylinder refers to a lens' correction for astigmatism.

What are you ready to pay?

Before you buy your next pair of eyeglasses, consider the following. In a 2013 interview with the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, a Luxottica company representative said about eyeglasses, "Everything is worth what people are ready to pay."

How much you're "ready to pay" is up to you.

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