Prescription eyeglasses are part medical product and part fashion accessory for the two-thirds of American adults who wear them at least occasionally. But no matter why you're buying a pair of specs, you're probably overpaying.
Americans spend $28.7 billion annually on vision products and services, according to the Vision Council of America. Eyeglass frames and lenses make up the largest portion, about $16 billion.
Many of the 147 million adult eyeglass wearers probably don't know they could be getting a better price because few shop around. Prices vary widely. People can pay more than $1,000 for a pair of glasses, though at least one Internet provider promises a pair for $8. An identical pair of eyeglasses costs from $178 to $390, depending on the optician or optometrist, according to research in seven U.S. cities by Consumers' Checkbook, a consumer information guide.
"There is big price variation from outlet to outlet for exactly the same lenses and frames," said Robert Krughoff, president of the guide, found online at Checkbook.org. Moreover, service at some low-cost suppliers was rated quite good, he said.
So you should consider comparison shopping, as opposed to simply buying whatever your eye doctor has to sell. In fact, a 1978 Federal Trade Commission ruling called the Ophthalmic Practices Rules says you have a right to take your prescription anywhere to buy glasses. So you're not locked in to buying from your doctor, where prices are likely to be highest.
Still, it's true that most people receive the best service from their neighborhood optician or medical-center eye doctor, according to a survey of 92,000 readers of Consumer Reports magazine.
The decision about buying glasses generally comes down to where you buy them. You should decide based on four criteria: price, service, selection and speed of delivery.
The simpler your prescription, with normal measurements and no bifocals and trifocals, the better luck you're likely to have buying from a cheaper source, said Gregory Good, professor of optometry at Ohio State University.
Here are categories of eyewear outlets, with tips for buying glasses.
* Doctors and independents. If you're willing to pay more for glasses in return for good service, buy from your eye doctor or an independent optical shop. They are also likely to carry brand-name frames, which is largely a personal fashion choice.
But the secret about name-brand frames is that companies such as Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren don't make the frames, Consumer Reports said. They just license their names to a regular frame manufacturer.
* Chain stores. If you're willing to pay to have glasses quickly, try a chain store, such as LensCrafters Inc., which promises glasses in about an hour.
"The advantage is you walk in and an hour later you walk out with your glasses," said money-saving expert Clark Howard, an Atlanta author and radio-show host. "A lot of people will pay for convenience."
* Warehouse clubs. If price is important, try a warehouse club. Costco Wholesale Corp. scored very high with Consumer Reports readers and Consumers' Checkbook findings. For some warehouse clubs, you don't need a membership to buy glasses.
* Online. If price is paramount, try an Internet merchant. Howard recently bought glasses from Zenni Optical, where you can buy glasses online for $8. Howard had a few add-ons that raised the price to $41, which is still a bargain.
Reviews of online retailers are available at EyeglassRetailerRe views.com and GlassyEyes.blog spot.com.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for the Morning Call, a Tribune Co. newspaper in Allentown, Pa.