The price of vision

By Mir
June 22, 2006

I have to apologize to Irony Queen for unwittingly putting a Vulcan mind meld on her this week. Whoops! Sorry! She wrote:

You’re so pretty! And so smart—your new site is fabulous! Maybe you can answer this question for me…where can I find attractive, stylish glasses (frames and lenses) for a reasonable amount of money? My insurance covers the trip to the optometrist, but not any of the acoutrements, like AN ACTUAL PAIR OF GLASSES. And I’m not a Sam’s Club/Costco member, though I’ve heard there are some deals to be had there. Oh yes, and I of course need new prescription sunglasses, too, or I’ll only be allowed to drive when it’s not sunny. And I live in California, so that’s about, oh six days of the year.

I was just buying glasses yesterday, so obviously my sphere of influence is expanding at an alarming rate. If you ate three popsicles last night, Irony Queen? That was me, too. Sorry.

They say that men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses, but that really doesn’t explain the financial rape that occurs every time one of us with vision challenges goes to the optometrist, now does it? Hmph.

Here’s the thing about vision correction: You simply cannot screw around. It’s not a good place to decide to cut corners, because it is—at a basic level—a health issue. Incorrect or poorly-fitting glasses could be problematic, and the wrong contact lenses can actually damage your eyes. So I’m not going to advocate bopping on down to Chet’s House Of Lenses and buying your eyewear off the back of the big truck in the alley, you know?

So, yes; in a perfect world, you’d find what you need at a great price, and everyone would be happy. In the real world, I think it’s important to buy your vision correction from a reputable source who will both make your purchase correctly and back it up with a warrantee and customer service. The trick is reconciling the two, and there are a few ways to do that.

Let’s talk about the big chain places, first. You’ve got Lenscrafters, Pearle Vision, and the various optical shops run by larger stores (your warehouse club optical, JC Penney, etc.). I tend to twitch just a little when I think about these places. Will you get a good price? Yes. Will you get good service? Maybe. Keep in mind that each shop is independently owned and operated, so you can’t know from one location to the next who/what you’re gonna get. There’s an argument that says that if the professionals at those sorts of shops were any good, they’d have their own practices. Now before y’all pelt me with your hard-sided glass cases, I’m not saying that’s necessarily true, I’m just putting it out there.

My personal opinion about the chain shops is based on a couple of things. First, any store that can routinely afford to offer “buy one complete pair, get one free” and similar promotions has their prices jacked up so that you’ll think you’re getting a bargain. In reality, it’s not a bargain; it’s marketing. That bugs me, some. Second, many of the available frames will be low-quality, and the selection as a whole is unlikely to be all that varied. If you want what everyone else is wearing, that’s fine. If you might like something a little edgier… maybe not. Third, you must consider how likely a big, busy chain is to get your prescription right.

Those shops make hundreds of pairs of glasses every day. Most of those glasses will be made from lenses they keep in stock, and are simple to do. If your prescription is one that you know a chain shop doesn’t stock, I would hesitate to have your glasses made there, and here is why: A “simple” prescription is easy to make up, and a “complicated” one is much more, well, complicated.

I have a severe astigmatism, and the one time I succumbed to the chain stores (because I was broke and desperate), they never did get my glasses right. With astigmatism, the rotation of the lens is critical. It’s more complicated, and the glasses-assembly-drones make far fewer of them. There’s a greater chance of error. (Also keep in mind that any special offered by these shops gets extra fees tacked on for bi- and trifocals, astigmatism, etc.)

Now. Did they keep trying to fix them for me? Yes. Were they apologetic? Of course. Did that somehow assuage my frustration, or help get me my proper glasses any sooner? Not really. I will never go to a chain store again.

(Caveat: Remember how I said they’re all independently owned and operated? I’m not indicting every franchise out there. Just saying that, in my opinion, it’s a bigger risk than an independent store where the owner’s reputation is on the line.)

So. If you have a simple prescription, and you’d like to grab the “buy 1 pair, get one free” coupon out of your Sunday paper and head to the mall, have a good time. I hope they get your glasses right and you live happily ever after!

The most prudent course of action, I believe, if you have complicated vision and/or if multiple family members wear glasses, is to find a small local shop where you trust the people. Ask around and get some recommendations. Then set off with some flowers and a box of chocolates and start courting the opticians there.

You think I’m kidding, but that’s what it amounts to: Once you form a relationship with a shop where they know you’re going to keep coming back if they treat you well, you will not only receive outstanding service, you’ll find that the prices are comparable to the chains for better-quality stuff.

Will you be getting rock-bottom prices? Probably not. Again, this isn’t the place to make the lowest price your top priority. You want a good price on quality. There’s a difference between a good deal and a cheap deal.

The first time I visited the store we patronize now, it was to buy a pair of glasses for my daughter. She was about four, with a tiny little face, and very hard to fit. The owner spent over an hour with us and ultimately ended up special-ordering her frames. I was so impressed with how good he was with her and his professionalism, the next time I needed a pair of glasses, I went back to him and bought them there.

That’s how it starts. The next time my daughter needed glasses, money was tight, and I went to the shop with some dread. I explained that we really needed to keep the price down this time… and he sold us a discontinued frame at cost. Perfect. My next pair of glasses? 40% off a (rather expensive) frame, just because now we have a relationship, and he wants to keep my business. The next time my daughter needed glasses, I found the frame she wanted somewhere else by accident (long story), and went in and said “this is the frame we’d like, can you order it?” Again, as any good businessman would, he accommodated us and gave us the frame at nearly cost.

Yesterday when we went in there, as soon as I said “I need to look for some sunglass frames,” he led me over to the clearance section. He knows me now, he knows what I’ll pay, and because I’m bringing him two sets of crippled eyes to outfit, he’s going to work to keep my business. I still passed out from the shock of the price, but I also got a $300 frame for $100, and I know that if I have any problems whatsoever with my specs, he’ll take care of me.

I just thought of one more thing: Consider a pair of glasses that come with clip-on sunglasses. Much cheaper than a separate pair, although also easier to lose/break, so weigh the choice carefully.

A few words about online options: Places like FramesDirect or $39 Glasses have great prices, but you have to consider them as being even lower on the service totem than chain stores. You’re not getting a professional fitting, and if anything is wrong with them, you’re in for the hassle of shipping back and forth and the time wasted therein. I don’t recommend it. There isn’t anything wrong, however, with checking their prices and then asking your local optical shop if they can match them. Again, if the relationship is there, they will go out of their way to keep you.

Conversely, if you’ve already been professionally fitted for contact lenses? Go ahead and order them from 1-800-Contacts or wherever you can find them the cheapest. Just be sure to double-check the labels when they come to make sure it’s what you ordered.

Bottom line: Be savvy, but don’t skimp. A good pair of glasses should last you at least two years, and longer if your prescription is fairly stable. It’s an investment in your health. Don’t go throwing your cash away all willy-nilly, but don’t sacrifice style (you’re going to be wearing them every day!), precision, or comfort, either.

You are absolved of your confusion, IQ. Now go forth, and squint no more.


  1. I will chime in to say that I have purchased glasses at Costco, as have my parents (bifocals with astigmatism, doesn’t get more complicated than that…) and we’ve always been pleased with the service and the quality. Though I do love the advice of developing a relationship with a vendor, if you want to get cheap glasses Costco is not a bad place to go.

  2. Also, ask about discounts.

    The place we go to has a list of discounts.

    Self Employed
    Government employees


    We get a nice discount that way.

  3. Ahh, good point, Mary! I know that often there’s a “Blue Cross discount” or whatever, as well. Even if your insurance doesn’t cover vision care, be sure to ask.

  4. I have severe astigmatism and had really good luck with they have a “try it on” feature where you upload a photo and then position the eyeglasses on your face- I was really wary of this at first, but I found that usually the feature works the way it’s supposed to, and I have now bought four pairs of eyeglasses from there in the last year, including one pair of those kickass “polaroid” that change when you go out in the sun. The latest in 1970’s technology! But really, you can get a decent frame for like $120 and the most basic lenses for less than $100. Last time I got such a cheap set of frames I upgraded to the more expensive UV coated thin polymers and they are the best eyeglasses I have ever owned. The prescription is always spot on, although one pair of “diamond” studded cat eye glasses had lost a diamond when I got it… but I found it in the case and just glued it back in.
    I think they even have some deal for fitting with local retailers, but I don’t live in the US so I have never tried it out. They usually fit ok for me anyway, and I am constantly falling asleep on my glasses and then waking up and bending them back into place..

  5. I recently went back to my old eyedoctor who isn’t listed on for my eyeglass benefits/discounts. When I mentioned this, they automatically gave me a standard discount. I think I saved about $60.

  6. Hooray, an answer! Mir, your turn-around time is amazing! Would that all my customer service questions received this kind of treatment. Many thanks, I’m now off to locate an eye professional that doesn’t work at the mall!

  7. Hey! I just read an HYSTERICAL and so-clever post written by a woman taking her daughter to — oh, that was you. I loved it! I was also the only commenter who mentioned the glasses thing, so far anyway, because we are all next thing to blind in my house.

    You know, I’ve been buying glasses for three of us, all of us with fairly straightforward perscriptions, for years now, and it never occurred to me, NEVER ONCE occurred to me, to try to ask for a discount based on the thousands of dollars I’ve spent in eyewear over the years. I’m mortified…

    The sunglasses thing: I opt for clip-ons. You can generally get a pair made for your prescription glasses when you buy them, for a fraction of the cost of a second pair of presciption glasses. As long as they come with an independent, sturdy case (this is IMPORTANT), you are less likely to lose them, and they will fit without fear of scratching, into purse or pocket. I love mine.

  8. Well done Mir. And I agree with most of what you have said. I will point out however that while being cautious with “chains” you muddied the issue a bit, with the “if they were any good they would have their own shop” comment.

    In some cases, like EyeDRx near me in New Jersey, the Doctor IS the owner of the “franchise location” so his reputation is on the line. He simply opted to pay the franchise fee in order to get the advertising of a large corporation as well as being able to offer better prices than if he were an “individual” business.

    I’m just sayin’

  9. love your site again! i agree with the independent owner theory. they will bend over backwards to make things right for you.

  10. We use Frames Direct for my husband pain in the butt eyes. We go to the local eye shop to find frames that fit and find out what kind of lenses he needs and then order the frames from the net. We buy the lenses from the eye place and they happily put them in the frames and do any adjustments that need to be done. They have also matched the FD price in the pass so we could do it all there. While it sounds like a lot of running around, since he has to have special lenses anyway by the time the eye place has them ready we have gotten the frames and have saved big $$$.

  11. Chris—I think that’s great, that your eye place will put the lenses in the frames you bring in. I’ll just add here that if they will price match, I’d go for that every time. Put your money where the good service is, you know? 🙂

  12. I totally agree with your advice about using a local shop. We have purchased two pairs of glasses for my 8 year-old son, since he was diagnosed with Amblyopia (lazy eye) 3 years ago. Both were bought from the shop located in the offices of our town’s eye doctor. I’d guess that we’ve been back at least 10 times to have them adjusted because he’s bent them or sat on them or made the cat wear them (don’t. ask.)…they have never charged us for adjustments. We even had them replace an arm that son broke off and they replaced it for free!

    We’ve checked some of the chain stores for price difference and it looks like we’re paying a similar price for the same product and getting way better service in the meantime.

    Great advice as usual Ms. Mir!

  13. 5 of my 7 kids wear glasses (yeah we’re known for out good eye genes!) and we’ve been using For Eyes for years. they have a terrific 2-for $99 deal which is great for kids since it’s always a good idea to have a spare pair. their kids’ plan also replaces broken frames and scratched lenses for a year…which I take advantage of quite frequently! I bought my youngest a pair of barbie frames at For Eyes for $90 (including the lenses) that were not on the 2-fer plan but the same frames alone were $140 at the opthamologist office! I like that the For Eyes price always includes the frame and the lenses. I always take the frames back to the opthamologist to have them double check the prescription and they’re always perfect. my older kids get their contacs there as well and you can order them by phone.

  14. Another vote for Costco. For years I paid a lot of money for glasses and contacts through small shops. While I appreciate the service there, I can’t afford the prices. Usually I’ll get an exam at a small, local place (to stem a bit of my guilt at shopping at a chain store) and then order glasses and contacts from Costco. The quality has been terrific.

  15. One way to save money is to keep the same frames and replace the lenses. I’ve had the same frames for several years and have had the lenses replaced 3 times due to prescription changes. I wear contacts so I only wear my glasses for watching David Letterman and falling asleep, so fashionableness (word?) is not at the top of my list, but they really don’t look dated to me. I wear them occasionally during the day and nobody laughs at me. Mine are a thin gold wire frame with no frame at the bottom of the lenses so they’re pretty timeless. This wouldn’t work if you like really trendy frames.

  16. I have had remarkably good service and quality with I had them replace lenses in my old frames and I’ve ordered new glasses from them. It’s kind of a leap of faith to order glasses without trying on the frames but if you know what sort of frame shape works best on your face it’s not as scary as you might think.

  17. Mir — You are indeed very pretty, and I love this site and your blog, but I have to chime in on behalf of the big optical chains. One of them, at least. I am an optician at one that I won’t name (but you did). Each store is not independently owned and operated, and the company strives for consistency across all stores. While you may run across a not-so-great employee from time to time, we also pride ourselves on customer service and satisfaction. I’m sure the independent shops are great, too, but don’t count out the chains. We offer plenty of discounts and don’t even wait for people to ask for them.
    I really do love this site.

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