The Eyewear Industry Is Robbing You Blind: Get Your Glasses Online

I still cannot figure out whether this advertisement (which played here in Madison) is racist towards Japanese Americans or not. I researched it, and it was voiced by a Latina woman who has previously done voiceovers and impersonations for films and commercials. I know that the reference is the late John Belushi‘s hilarious SNL send-up/homage of Toshiro Mifune‘s leaderless samurai, Tsubaki Sanjuro. It would be a different thing if the eyeglasses weren’t so “slanty-eyed.” It definitely skirts the fine line.

No joke. No questionable ad to suck you in. This is really for real.

I saw this article on Alternet this week and it was getting a whole lotta play and tweets. I’ve often felt the same way: why in hell do eyewear stores like LensCrafter, Davis Duehr Dean (here in Madison), PearleVision, America’s Best and Eyemart Express charge an arm and a leg to customers, especially middle-aged customers on fixed incomes or low incomes? We’re talking $300-$500, and in some cases, $700.

Easy. They have to make a profit to help pay for that showroom/shop that you patronize and pay the techs who grind the lenses and the people who sell you the designer frames that usually cost them a pittance. The eyewear industry is essentially a $64 billion dollar industry based on 500 percent markups, says Anneli Rufus, author of several books including The Scavenger’s Manifesto.

Well, you don’t have to feed into that behemoth, Luxottica, anymore. (Yes, Luxottica has a near monopoly on the eyewear business and furnishes all the designer frames that you lust over. It even owns a vision-care benefits program, EyeMed.) The real deals are online, resulting in eyeglasses that are less than $50 in many cases, including your particular prescription, be it no-line bifocals, lens that straighten your astigmatism, longer bows, prescription sunglasses–even RayBans, oblong frames, photo-ray, and so forth. And don’t believe that malarkey about these stores giving you better service or higher standards if you step into their parlors. It’s all the same.

“There is no appreciable functional or material difference” between prescription eyewear bought online and bought in brick-and-mortar stores, [Minnesota software engineer Ira] 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.

As a result, Mitchell created a blog called GlassyEyes that, since 2006, has promised its readers that it will save the world from overpriced eyeglasses. “Packed with forums, product reviews, discount deals, and tips for buying specs online, it’s the vision-impaired version of Yelp.”

Mitchell says that OLTs–optical lens technicians–aren’t necessarily rocket scientists parsing out some long, long equations. Nor is grinding lenses to certain specs high art. It’s pretty straightforward, and not particularly difficult. OLTs are also paid really low salaries by the eyewear chains: between $9 and $14 per hour, depending on experience. They’re only a step up than the salespeople, who no doubt get minimum wage. So even the employees as well as the customers are getting screwed by the industry.

My younger sister, who has now joined the ranks of the middle-aged and needs reading glasses, turned me onto a little online store a couple of months ago. Someone in her department spread the word like wildfire and now everyone is buying several pairs of glasses and putting them at home, at work, in the car. Just in case. I love it.

Reputable online sites (yes, there are fakes out there) include:

Frames Direct
39 Dollar Glasses
Eye Buy Direct
Zenni Optical
Glasses Unlimited

Even better buys, Rufus says, might be found overseas.

A final warning:

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.

Now, go forth and save.

~ by blksista on September 11, 2010.

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