Glasses online

A couple of weeks ago I bought eyeglasses online for the first time. Maybe I’m late to the party, but it had been a few years since I last needed new glasses – my prescription hardly ever changes – and I can’t remember if online was an option at the time. For anyone who hasn’t done this, and who might be wary about ordering such an important and highly personalized item online, this is my experience.

I have two pairs of glasses: regular distance glasses and reading glasses. I’m constantly switching back and forth between the two. I use my reading glasses when I’m working on my computer. Whenever I look up from the screen to talk to someone I’ll quickly switch to my regular glasses and then switch back when I look down again. I suppose my friends and colleagues have gotten used to this over the years.

A couple of weeks ago I was in a meeting and accidentally knocked my reading glasses off the conference room table onto the floor. Even though the floor was carpeted, the bridge snapped in two. Since I spend a good chunk of the day staring at computer screens, I needed to get new ones quickly.

My local optometrist said it would take at least a week, possibly longer to make my new glasses. I wasn’t overjoyed about waiting that long, but I didn’t have much choice. My prescription is a little uncommon, and quite strong, so I can’t go to any of those places that promise to make your new glasses in an hour. I survived though, and in the end I got them in six days. The total cost was around $400.

While my new readers were being made, I figured I should get a backup pair too but I didn’t want to pay that much just for backup glasses. So I checked out some of the online retailers.

They seem to fall into two main groups. First, there are the discount providers, some with ridiculously cheap frames, as low as $6. I wondered where they were getting their materials from. Spent nuclear fuel rods perhaps? Then there are the higher-end providers like http://www.glasses.com and http://www.warbyparker.com who offer name-brand designer frames that cost $100-$200 and sometimes more. Glasses.com offers a 30 day guarantee; if you don’t like the way they look just send them back. Warby Parker seems to operate on a Zappos model. They’ll send you up to five frames at a time. You try them on for a few days, get opinions from friends and family, and pick the ones you want.

I ended up ordering from http://39dollarglasses.com. They actually cost me $90. That’s because I opted for a couple of “upgrades” — flexible titanium frames, high index lenses and anti-reflection coating.

Some observations:

  • Speed: It took about 10 days from clicking “submit order” for my glasses to arrive at my house by Priority Mail. It’s possible that other sites offer faster manufacturing and delivery times, I don’t know. In my experience speed isn’t the main reason to order online.
  • Price is. Like I said, I got my glasses for just $90. At that price, even if they had turned out to be complete crap it wouldn’t have mattered much.
  • But they didn’t. The quality of both the frames and the lenses is fine so far as I can tell. We’ll see how they last after a few months of regular wear and tear, but out of the box there’s nothing obviously wrong with them.
  • Selection: I’d say the selection of frames was only fair. Most of the designs were pretty conventional and the color offerings quite limited. Other sites like the ones I mentioned earlier do offer greater selection, but at a higher price.
  • Ordering: The ordering process was really straightforward. You just select your frames and then enter the details of your lens prescription. Be careful about this: it’s up to you to get it right. Next you can select options like high index lenses, coatings, tinting, etc. Finally you enter your payment details and you’re done.
  • Pupillary distance: There’s one additional piece of information you need to provide along with your prescription and that’s your pupillary distance, the distance between your pupils in millimeters. When you go to a regular bricks & mortar glasses shop, they measure this by having you look into a device that looks sort of like a boxy pair of binoculars. Can’t remember what the device is actually called. The web site gives you instructions on how to take this measurement yourself or with the help of someone else. However, I think this distance is pretty important to how the lenses are made, how the curvature is centered. I didn’t want to take any chances getting it wrong so I just popped into the optician and got them to tell me my PD from the pair I’d just ordered.
  • Fit: Most of the time the optician has to tweak your new glasses a little so they fit right. The angle of the arms might need to be adjusted, or the nose pads might need to be moved in or out so your glasses fit comfortably and sit level on your face. You have to do this yourself when you order online. I think this is actually the biggest disadvantage of online glasses because most of us don’t have a set of optician’s tools lying around. In my case, the adjustments were pretty small and I made them with some careful bending. But I wondered if I would need to take them into a regular optician and have to plead with them to adjust glasses I’d bought elsewhere.
  • Health insurance: Fortunately my health insurance plan at work has a vision care benefit that covers some of the cost of new glasses. My optician is linked into our health care provider’s computer system so they can submit the claim automatically. The online providers didn’t appear to be connected this way, so if you need to submit a claim you’ll probably have to do it manually. If you have a Health Savings Account, you might be able to use your HSA payment card instead of a credit card when ordering. You should check with your plan administrator first.

Bottom line: I’d have no hesitation about ordering glasses online again. Good quality at a great price. Next time, I might even go with one of the higher-end suppliers to get nicer frames for my primary glasses. If you order online, make sure you get an accurate papillary distance measurement, don’t expect super fast delivery and be prepared to do your own fitting when they arrive.

One final thought. Despite having worn glasses all my life, I don’t really know much about the industry that produces them. This experience made me realize there must be huge markups on glasses and lenses at the retail level. Understandable, I suppose, since they have to pay for space and staff. But this seems like another unsustainable business model that is being disrupted by the internet.

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