Buying glasses online? Prices are low, but optometrists are wary

A woman has her eyes examined by Dr. Robert Steinmetz in Chicago.
(Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

One pair of glasses was crushed.

A second pair lost their shape and kept slipping off his nose.

The next four pairs met similar ends.

In all, Lissa Levy’s 8-year-old son has broken six pairs of prescription glasses since April — going through eyewear faster than most kids wear out a pair of pants. But the Skokie, Ill., resident isn’t panicking.

That’s because she bought the glasses through online retailer Zenni Optical for about $25 a pair, frames and lenses included.

Buying kids’ glasses online “seems to make a lot more sense, especially since they’re going to grow, and they’re going to trash them, to go for the most cost-effective method,” she said.

Parents aren’t the only ones heading online to purchase prescription eyewear. Consumers are increasingly buying glasses online from retailers such as Warby Parker, Zenni and EyeBuyDirect for as little as $6 a pair. By comparison, people often shell out hundreds of dollars for prescription glasses at traditional optometrists’ offices and boutiques.

The number of glasses bought online is still relatively small, only about 4% to 10% of prescription eyeglass sales, according to varying estimates. But sales are growing as awareness increases. The number of prescription glasses sold online grew almost 600% between 2007 and 2017, according to the Vision Council, an eyewear industry group. Consumers bought nearly $600 million worth of prescription glasses online last year, according to the group.

Companies such as Zenni — based in Novato, Calif. — and Warby Parker are able to sell glasses at much lower prices than many eye doctors and boutiques partly because they sell only their own brands of eyewear.

“Most glasses in the U.S. are marked up 10 to 20 times what they cost to manufacture,” said Dave Gilboa, Warby Parker co-founder and co-chief executive. “That didn’t make sense to us.”

Glasses frames on display.
(Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune)

Chicago-area optometrists say online competitors aren’t yet putting much of a dent in their businesses. Eye doctors often get anywhere from about one-fourth to half of their revenue from eyewear sales.

But they warn that online glasses aren’t for everyone and say consumers should be wary.

Dr. Robert Steinmetz, owner of SoLo Eye Care & Eyewear Gallery in Chicago, has no problem with some patients buying their glasses online. “I have a lot of contact lens patients that wear their lenses for 16 hours a day, and if they wish to get a pair of glasses that can get them from the bathroom to the bedroom or out of the house in a fire, I think that’s fine,” Steinmetz said.

But for patients with more intense needs, eyewear bought online might not be appropriate, he said. He’s had patients who bought eyewear online visit him because the glasses needed an adjustment or didn’t properly correct their vision.

He also worries about children wearing glasses purchased online. It’s especially important for children’s glasses to be accurate because so much of the way children learn is tied to their vision, he said. Plus, kids’ lenses should be made of material that resists breakage, such as polycarbonate, for safety reasons. Not all kids’ lenses sold online are made of those stronger materials.

His concerns echo those of the American Optometric Assn., which warns that when glasses are bought online, accuracy, lens durability and fit might be questionable. Steinmetz is a member of the group.

“The safest and best way to obtain your eyewear is directly from the optical dispensary associated with your eye doctor, and if your eye doctor doesn’t have a dispensary, then I think a bricks-and-mortar location with a good reputation” is the next best option, said Samuel Pierce, association president.

Some of the nation’s largest online retailers of prescription eyewear find those concerns overblown.

“It’s certainly the case that there are websites that are selling low-quality glasses, just as it’s true that there are physical stores selling low-quality glasses,” Warby Parker’s Gilboa said. “I don’t think you can make a blanket statement that online is good or online is bad.”

Some online merchants send customers frames to try on at home before they buy a pair, or enable them to try frames on virtually by uploading pictures of themselves. The companies also differ in how they get prescription information. Some allow customers to enter their own prescription information; others require that information come directly from a doctor or require a photo of the physical prescription. Some of the companies accept vision insurance. Others don’t.

The companies also offer varying options when it comes to lenses and measurements.

All of Warby Parker’s glasses, for example, come standard with impact-resistant polycarbonate lenses. The company doesn’t allow customers to measure the distance between their pupils themselves — an important measurement for making accurate glasses. Instead, that measurement must come from an eye doctor, be taken in one of the company’s physical stores or be measured by a staffer using a photo of the customer submitted online. Though Warby Parker is known for selling glasses online, it also has more than 80 physical stores, including five in Los Angeles County.

Dr. Robert Steinmetz says it's fine for some people to buy glasses online, but he has some concerns.
(Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune)

Zenni offers shatter-resistant polycarbonate and trivex lenses at slightly higher prices than its lowest-priced glasses. The company allows people to measure the distance between their pupils themselves using a Zenni tool or submit measurements provided by their doctors. Zenni’s website can detect if someone enters a measurement that seems wrong, company spokesman Sean Pate said.

Pate acknowledges, however, that nothing beats the precision of getting that measurement taken by an eye doctor and said Zenni isn’t aiming to drive eye doctors out of business. Rather, it wants to be a complement to them.

“If you’re getting your first pair of glasses, you need to be educated on what your eye issues are and understand what types of lenses work for you best, what frames fit on your face,” Pate said.

When a person loses that first pair of glasses, wants a second pair or fancies something to match his or her wardrobe, that’s when Pate recommends they turn to Zenni.

Otherwise, the cost of eyewear can be “exorbitant if you’re trying to put your whole family in glasses,” Pate said.

But price isn’t the only thing that draws consumers to online eyewear companies. As with other forms of online shopping, there’s the convenience factor.

Shelley Housholder of Highland Park, Ill., said her husband began shopping for eyewear online after he broke his glasses late one night and didn’t have time to visit an optometrist the next day.

“They fit well, the price was good, and he didn’t have to take time off of work,” Housholder said.

He hasn’t bought glasses from an optometrist since.

In recent years, online sales have encroached on many traditional businesses, such as booksellers, department stores and clothing stores. The sale of online glasses is a threat to eye doctors, but it’s not likely to drive them out of business anytime soon, said Jack Curran, a senior industry analyst for the independent industry research firm IBISWorld.

Even Levy, whose son broke so many pairs of glasses, said she doesn’t buy her own eyewear online.

“Because I’m much less hard on them, I don’t mind spending the money and going myself to try on a whole bunch of pairs,” she said.

Schencker writes for the Chicago Tribune.