Glasses and Eye Exams Online
For me, it started with a complaint about money. I had just shelled out a few hundred dollars for a pair of eyeglasses, even though I had health insurance coverage. My brother-in-law cut me off in the middle of my tirade about how the insurance didn’t do squat, informing me that he just bought his durable and reasonably attractive glasses for less than $30, complete, without any insurance to help him at all.
“Zenni Optical,” he said. “Check them out.”
He was referring to an online retailer that sells eyeglasses over the internet to anyone with a prescription—even an old prescription. There are a handful of competitors, too—glassesUSA.com, eyebuydirect.com, and others—but Zenni is the giant in the field. Right now, the company is running a $9.95 special for glasses, and you can go still lower, with the cheapest inventory listed at $6.95 complete with basic lenses.1
You can also spend lots more, but never a fortune. My first order came to $43.95 for a high-fashion rimless pair with polycarbonate single-vision lenses and anti-glare coating. Zenni has over 6000 frame styles in stock, so you’re sure to find something you like. The amazing thing is that you can try the frames on by submitting a facial photo of yourself. The photo shows up on your screen, and when you click the photo of the glasses that you’d like to try, they get transposed to your photo. That means that you see what you look like without having an impatient sales person hovering over you the entire time, so if you want to try on 578 pairs, you can do so. Once you choose your frames, you write in your prescription, again, even if it’s 10 years old, and wait a few weeks for delivery. And when the glasses arrive, you’ll probably be pleased enough. These aren’t toy eyeglasses. They’re typically durable, fashionable, and serviceable.
While shopping for glasses this way is convenient and cheap, not everyone thinks it’s a great development. Yes, the company does ship out over 7000 pairs on a typical day, so obviously it has a huge fan club, but some in the medical community are appalled. For instance, Daniel D. Pierce, O. D., a spokesman for the American Optical Society, says, “Without visiting an eye doctor, patients run the risk of purchasing eyeglasses online with an improper fit or receiving the wrong prescription altogether. Ultimately, patients can expend more time dealing with order mistakes and making returns than had they simply visited their local optometrist in the first place… A peer-reviewed study revealed that nearly half of all glasses ordered online had either prescription errors or failed to meet minimum safety standards. Personally, I find that very scary."2
The study he refers to, of course, was run by the American Optical Society itself. The findings included the fact that “Of 200 glasses ordered online, only 154 pairs were received.” Somehow, that finding seems so very unlikely that it makes the other results—e.g., that half of the glasses had incorrect prescriptions or safety issues—seem suspect. Companies like Zenni would not long survive if they weren’t shipping out a quarter of their orders, and the internet would be bursting with complaints. While there are plenty of consumers griping online that their Zenni frames didn’t last the way they should have or that customer service wasn’t up to snuff, an equal number seem downright giddy over the bargain they got, and the reports of glasses not arriving simply don’t exist. Consumers on the website consumeraffairs.com give Zenni a four-star rating out of five stars in 279 reviews, which is pretty good, considering. 3
However, yet again.
On the other hand, some of the concerns voiced by professionals might well have merit, particularly for those consumers who have seriously impaired vision. If the fit of the glasses isn’t exact, it can throw off the visual field for people who wear progressive lenses or bifocals, or for those with Mr. Magoo nearsightedness or extreme farsightedness.4 There’s a measurement called “pupillary distance” that needs to be accurate, and for some people certain types of glasses might make it difficult to achieve the right distance, something an online purchase wouldn’t necessarily identify. Progressives and bifocals present a bit more of a challenge as the “segment height” needs to be right, and again, this may be more difficult to achieve without the help of a professional. Ordering progressives or bifocals online is riskier than going for single vision lenses. Also, like glasses ordered from any retailer, those that are bought online always need adjustment and tweaking, and stores may refuse to adjust glasses not bought from them, again making online purchases a bit risky.
However, one more time.
On the other hand, many prescriptions do include information about pupillary distance, so the consumer simply has to transcribe information from the prescription onto the online order form. In any event, according to Neil Blumenthal, an executive with the company Warby Parker, a higher-end Zenni competitor that offers consumers the option of trying on their frames in local stores, “We’re often able to measure [pupillary distance] online more accurately than in person…and we‘ve produced algorithms that are more reliable [for determining segment height].”
The bottom line is that studies indicate online eyeglass buyers are more satisfied than those who go to regular retailers. According to Stephen Kodey, Research Director of the Vision Council, that’s because online buyers have lower expectations to begin with. They know they’re getting a bargain, he says, so they don’t expect topnotch quality or service. But reading through the comments following an article about the pros and cons of online glasses in The Wall Street Journal, it seems purchasers of online glasses are satisfied, period, and not just because they weren’t expecting much.
“We're very pleased with our glasses and the savings were tremendous - $49 for mine, including lenses and $139 for my wife! And, we used the try at home option so if we didn't like them we could ship them back. Very happy customers!” says Edmund Phelen.
“The lenses are perfect - after almost a year there are NO scratches on them, whereas my last store-bought pair at LensCrafters are so badly marked up I can't even use them as backup (this despite the "anti-scratch" upcharge),” says reader Kathy Tipton.
Other comments follow the same line of thought. The customers write that the expense is a fraction of the store price, and the quality is comparable. Right now, online buyers constitute only about four percent of the eyeglass-buying public, but given that consumers pay an average of $196 for one pair and that many online customers seem satisfied, that $6.95 special at Zenni’s may begin to convert lots of customers to internet ordering in the future.5
Now all of that said, there is one argument for actually going to a dedicated store such as LensCrafters to get your glasses—one that online retailers can’t yet match. Getting your eyes checked in person usually involves at least the minimum testing for eye problems such as glaucoma, diabetes, macular degeneration, and cataracts. And catching these conditions early can save your sight. So, if you do decide to get your glasses online, you will still need to schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist periodically.
- 1. www.zennioptical.com
- 2. “Let the Buyer Beware: A Closer Look at Ordering Glasses Online.” 7 August 2014. American Optometric Association. 22 October 2016. http://www.aoa.org/newsroom/let-the-buyer-beware-a-closer-look-at-ordering-eyeglasses-online?sso=y
- 3. https://www.consumeraffairs.com/health/zenni-optical.html
- 4. Linden, Dana Wechsler. “The Pros and Cons of Buying Glasses Online.” 20 October 2015. Wall Street Journal. 22 October 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-pros-and-cons-of-buying-glasses-online-1445351350
- 5. “How Much Do Eyeglasses Cost?” Cost Helper. 22 October 2016. http://health.costhelper.com/eyeglasses.html