Optical Optimism: Buying on the Cheap

Small, independent opticians in the United States have seen their market share decline for many years. Competition first came from the discount optical emporiums such as Pearle Vision and LensCrafters, which seemed to sprout like weeds in shopping malls and strip centers across the continent. Later, the discount clubs and Wal-Mart got into the act. The most recent incursion into mass-marketed eyeglasses has come from China (where else?), in the form of Internet opticians. Each wave of competition has increased the available supply of glasses at increasingly competitive prices.

Until the Internet mail order players entered the market, shoppers could assume a reasonably high level of service and good quality products from both large and small opticians. This Turkey tends to trust the small guy to deliver the best of both, and to be able to take the time to make special accommodations for me. I have also used both Pearle and LensCrafters from time to time. They’re cheaper, offer comparable products, and I had no complaints, other than the “bus station” environment. A couple of years ago, I bought a pair of glasses at Costco Wholesale Club and, aside from having to wait for service for 10 minutes or so, my experience was similar. With these experiences under my belt, I decided that after my annual ophthalmologic exam, I would order some specs from the Orient.

I had first heard of the mail order optical sites through Clark Howard, “The Consumer Warrior” on the radio. His website mentioned Zenni Optical, Eye Buy Direct, and Glasses Unlimited. There are others, but I decided to try these three. They offer a similar on-line user experience, some with more bells and whistles than others, and they’re all cheap. They all bulk ship their glasses to a drop shipment point in the U.S., where they’re trans-shipped to the end user via USPS.

First, I had to get a prescription from my ophthalmologist, so I waited for my appointment to roll around before doing anything. Having read instructions on all three web sites, I was prepared to ask Dr. Jack the right questions, or so I thought. It seems that one particular specification is typically omitted from the eye doctor’s prescription and left for the optician to determine. This is called pupillary distance (PD), and it is exactly what it sounds like it is. This is where I ran into some trouble.

“I can’t give you that. You’ll have to get it from [name of the optician whose shop is adjacent to the waiting room]. It’s even against the law for me to do it.” said Dr. Jack.

Say what? A licensed ophthalmologist is proscribed from measuring pupillary distance? If you say so, Jack! I began to look forward to the fun experience I would have asking an optician—who was already beaten down by all the big competitors in the market—to spend his precious time measuring me for glasses I would procure elsewhere.

Before I describe my experience with the optician, let me get back to that business of it being against the law for the eye doctor to write down pupillary distance on a prescription. I have checked the Florida Statutes and I have found nothing except this second-degree misdemeanor: It is unlawful for any person other than an optician licensed under this part to use the title “optician” or otherwise lead the public to believe that she or he is engaged in the practice of opticianry. Nothing else is even suggestive of the writing of pupillary distance on the prescription by an ophthalmologist being an egregious sin. So, I cannot blame the opticians’ lobby in Tallahassee, as there seem to be no laws specifically directed at their protection on this pickayune point. Either I’m missing something, or Dr. Jack doesn’t want to waste his valuable time measuring PD, and is using the typically inscrutable Florida Statutes as an excuse. I am wondering whether I am indeed missing something. Anyone with specific expertise in this area is invited to comment.

As I sat in the combined waiting room, I wondered whether a flame suit would be necessary when I asked the optician for what I needed. When he became available, I found that the flame suit might have been overdoing it, but not by much.

“What can I do for you?” asked the optician.

“I’d like you to measure my pupillary distance for this prescription. Dr. Jack referred me to you.”

“Whattya, buying glasses through the Internet?”

“Exactly. I thought I would give that a try.”

“I’ll measure it but how are they going to get the near distance? I don’t measure that unless I’m making the glasses.”

This old Turkey wears progressive lenses, because he is over 40 by a long shot and can’t focus on near objects while wearing regular corrective lenses for his mild farsightedness.

“Look,” I said. “I’m just trying these guys out. I wouldn’t be bothering you except that Dr. Jack said that it would have to be done by you. Please write down what you can write down and I’ll order glasses. If they’re no good, I might see you again.”

“Oh, you’ll be back, alright!” he said huffily while inscribing the PD on my script. “Here’s your pupillary distance.”

I thanked him and left, thinking that one way or another, I sure as hell had no desire to see this guy again.

So, I ordered one pair each from Zenni, Glasses Unlimited, and Eye Buy Direct. I “guesstimated” the near PD. What the hell, it was for the sake of science!

The rectangular "computer glasses" looking at YOU
The rectangular "computer glasses" looking at YOU

The Zenni pair arrived first. These were the most expensive, by design, as they were the closest match for the pair I had bought at Costco a couple of years ago for $230, only these cost just over $100. They fit fine with only minor adjustment of the nose pads. The lenses were pretty good, but I thought that the reading portion of the progressive lens extended too high into the far vision field. The glasses I ordered from Glasses Unlimited came next. The frames fit perfectly, and the lenses were better than Zenni’s, in that the progressive reading area was where I thought it belonged. The third pair came from Eye Buy Direct. These were intended to be “computer glasses”—that is, glasses that were intended for work somewhere between “near” and “far”. (EyeBuyDirect.com has a drop-down menu item for specifying computer glasses.)  They were absolutely perfect for the intended purpose.

Later, when I was making fun of rectangular shaped glasses on Facebook, I ordered some of those abominations from Zenni and Eye Buy Direct so I could show people what a hypocrite I really was. (The Facebook group is called “Rectangular Lenses are for Lens Lemmings”.)  I was not disappointed with either. They were far vision only, which simplified the lens grinding chore. Far objects focused perfectly. Both frames were plastic and fit well on the first shot. Now, in addition to the computer glasses pictured here, I have three pairs of blasphemous rectangular-lensed glasses.

If you’re wondering what I’m doing with nine or 10 pairs of functional glasses, only Imelda Marcos could possibly answer that question. I can damn well accessorize for any occasion.

One comical thought arose when reading instructions on one of the websites about how to get the frame fit adjusted locally. They suggested going to a local optical shop to have it done at no charge. I can only imagine what kind of fun this would have led to with the optician I saw for the PD measurement! Nah, I’m reasonably skilled in using pliers and heating plastic, so I winged it on my own. A couple pairs needed only minor adjustments.

All three eyeglass merchants supply cases and microfiber cloths. I found Eye Buy Direct to be the sturdiest and most aesthetically pleasing and Zenni to be the cheapest looking and feeling. The EyeBuyDirect.com website is, to this user, the best of the three. I am certain that I will be dealing with EyeBuyDirect again in the future. You can find more user comments about all these vendors, along with some others, on Clark Howard’s Site.

Particularly if you have a simple prescription, it would seem that the risks of using these sites would be minimal. As I’ve mentioned, I have mild nearsightedness (OD -1.75, OS -3.25), astigmatism, and presbyopia (+3.00). People with uncomplicated farsightedness should fare even better than I did, easily scoring glasses for well under $100 a pair— possibly as low as $8. I’m thinking that the cheapness would be ideal for families with kids who always break or lose their glasses.

I haven’t had to return glasses or otherwise deal with customer service operations, so I can’t comment on that aspect of the mercantile experience. However, I’m reasonably satisfied with the rest of the experience and I would recommend that you give these cheap vendors a try.


  1. says

    As an ophthalmologist, I’ll admit I don’t know much about these sites, but selling glasses isn’t a primary source of my income. I would wonder about how they verify the age of a presciption and do they require current prescriptions. The danger here is that people may go years using the same prescription to continually replace glasses–without an exam. These sites do not check you for cataract, glaucoma, diabetes, or macular degeneration. And let’s face it, anyone who is willing to cut corners to save a buck will probably skip the eye exam to save the cost/copay. Many times, especially older folks, don’t realize how bad their vision has deteriorated as it occurred slowly over years. They think they are seeing well, but then they can’t read the eye chart to legally pass a driver’s test!

    I also don’t think these sites are going to help you on Saturday night when you accidentally scratch your eye doing yard work. Oh, then it’s okay to call the doctor–he has no family or life–he’s there because you might need him. How thoroughly Utopian. Yeah, yeah there’s that whole Hippocratic Oath thing, but Hippocrates never had to deal with insurance companies or pay taxes. We’re human beings–not websites.

    No matter what your business–sales, car mechanic, plumber, etc–how would you feel if your client went elsewhere to save a few bucks for all his/her routine business, and only called you when something was really wrong, perhaps even after hours? For my optometry colleagues, the sale of glasses/contacts is their primary source of income. And there is something to be said for supporting the local economy. Those optometrists spend that money in your community–perhaps at your place of business. Zenni isn’t going to do squat for your local economy.

    I’m a runner. I used to buy running shoes from a local running store that has since gone out of business. Sure, I could have ordered shoes on-line and saved money, but I liked having someone examine my shoes for abnormal wear and analyze my gait. It was worth a few extra bucks for personal service.

    That’s my two cents, but it’s probably worth less than that.

    • says

      Coming from an ophthalmologist, it is worth a helluva lot more than two cents. If people are indeed using these discount on-line opticians to circumvent their responsibility to their vision to see an ophthalmologist or optometrist for regular eye exams, your two cents could be worth somebody’s eyes, which is a helluva lot more than a tuppence. I suppose I never considered that possibility because it is not something I would think of doing, especially because I have lattice degeneration in one eye. So, thanks for your thoughts on the subject.

      You hit on another valid point regarding checking the prescription’s age and authenticity. All three sites I visited relied on the user to enter information accurately. If they ask for a practitioner’s name, I doubt that they ever check anything.

      On the other hand, assuming that people who play fair, like this Turkey, of course, can save a bundle. I have three pairs of glasses I purchased locally. Two, with all the bells and whistles available at my favorite optician (not the one affiliated with my ophthalmologist), cost $540 and $675, respectively. Another pair was $230 at Costco. The Internet opticians come in mostly under $100. I don’t mind supporting the local economy, but I’m not interested in doing so if it is tantamount to throwing money down the toilet. It remains to be seen whether the on-line purchases will hold up to daily use, but it is clear that the Costco glasses are easily the equivalent of the more expensive ones. I purposely specified the same lenses with the same coating and the same index just to gauge the price differential.

      Besides, buying stuff through the Internet sight unseen is fun and replete with surprises. To counter your running shoe experience, I have my own hiking boot experience. The pair I bought locally at the premium price outfitter who measures toes, has the customer walk up and down an incline board, etc., etc., did not fit as well as a pair I ordered sight unseen through the Internet.

      Of course, I’m crazy and I’m liable to try anything. Back in 2002, I bought a ’99 Jeep Grand Cherokee through eBay from a guy in Canada. All I had to go by was the description on eBay. I flew up there and drove the damn thing back. It has served as my hiking and Geocaching vehicle ever since. I could have been badly burned on that deal, but I got lucky. It’s all about the adventure and the discovery, Todd. Oh, yeah, U.S. Customs in Detroit was a trip and a half!

      I’m not saying that I’m going to avoid local opticians completely; however, there is something to be said for the convenience of doing business on-line and getting product through the mail. (I doubt that I would fly to Shanghai to pick up glasses like I flew to Canada for the car.) There’s also something to be said for the cheapness. For example, if I want a pair of glasses to wear to a masquerade party and then put them in a drawer and forget them, I wouldn’t hesitate to get them from China.

      I will, of course, continue to schedule my regular ophthalmic exam at the recommended intervals.


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