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Column: Buying glasses online can save you a lot of money. Here’s how to do it

Buying glasses online can save you a lot of money
Online companies such as Zenni Optical and Lensabl offer attractive alternatives to brick-and-mortar opticians that sell frames and lenses at a 1,000% markup.
(TimeStopper / Getty Images)

You can save a big chunk of change buying glasses online. I’ve given it a try and I’m generally impressed with the results.

That said, there are trade-offs. Yes, it’s typically cheaper than buying from a brick-and-mortar optician, but your risk increases as you forgo in some cases being able to try on frames in advance or having a pro help you achieve the perfect fit.

“It’s pretty hard to beat a pair of rock-bottom glasses for $7 plus shipping,” said Jessica Feldman, 59, who bought two pairs of glasses from Zenni Optical, the leading online glasses store.

“One pair is pretty darn good,” the Rancho Palos Verdes resident told me. “The other one I’m not sure will last too long. It feels a little flimsy and loose.”

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But for a total bill of just $63, Feldman added, “I’m not complaining.”

I wrote recently about how the $100-billion eyewear industry is dominated by a single company — Essilor Luxottica — which gets away with 1,000% markups for designer frames and lenses because it faces precious little competition. That’s why, even with insurance, a pair of glasses can easily end up costing as much as $800.

After that column ran here and in newspapers nationwide, I received numerous emails from people singing the praises of Zenni. Like Feldman, they were either pleased with the glasses they’d purchased, or were willing to shrug off any disappointment or inconvenience because of the relatively low price.

I spoke with Bai Gan, Zenni’s chief product officer. He said the company, based in Novato, north of San Francisco, is focused on undercutting brick-and-mortar eyewear prices by as much as 75%.

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It does this by operating on a shoestring, offering only its own inexpensive frames and lenses, and doing all manufacturing in China.

That allows the company to offer finished single-vision glasses — frame and lenses — for an average $42. Glasses with progressive lenses might cost twice that amount.

“Zenni benefits from avoiding much of the overhead,” Gan said.

He acknowledged that the less-complicated your prescription, the greater the likelihood you’ll be pleased with your Zenni glasses. The more you rely on complex lenses, premium coatings and prisms, the more of a risk you’ll face that things might not work out.

If you’re dissatisfied, Gan said, Zenni will offer full credit toward another pair of glasses or refund half your cash.

In my case, Zenni couldn’t handle my regular prescription, which includes progressive lenses and prisms. So I went with a pair of single-vision distance glasses and a pair of up-close computer glasses. Each cost about $80.

When they arrived in the mail, I discovered that the frames that had looked pretty cool online appeared a bit cheaper in person. Plus, one of the pairs was bigger than what I’d usually buy. If I had been able to try it on beforehand, I’d have picked something else.

They also didn’t fit right. I had to take them to my regular optician for adjustments (which he was cool about; not all are, or will charge extra).

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The overall quality was pretty good, particularly for glasses costing about $80. I was particularly impressed by the lens quality, which I had expected to be markedly inferior.

For the price, they were perfectly acceptable, especially the single-vision distance glasses, which make watching TV a lot easier than progressives when crashed on the couch. The computer glasses will take some getting used to.

The Zenni business model is a smart one. It can be a heavy lift entering your prescription into their site — the process needs to be more intuitive.

Once the numbers are in, however, the company is counting on you making at least several impulse purchases yearly, any time you see a pair of frames on their website that strikes your fancy. For an average $42, why not?

They’re also rolling out a “virtual try on” feature that allows you to upload a photo of yourself and see an approximation of how frames might look on your face.

If you’re pickier than that, you can try Warby Parker, which will send you five different frames to try on at home. Or you may want to check out a Los Angeles company called Lensabl.

Unlike Warby and Zenni, Lensabl doesn’t sell frames. They’re all about lenses.

The idea is that the biggest risk to online glasses shopping is buying frames you don’t like. So Lensabl is content to let you shop anywhere you please — Amazon, Costco, wherever — and then send in the frames for free (they provide a shipping box) to have cut-rate lenses installed.

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Or you may want to have new lenses put into old frames. That’s what I did. I sent in old Oliver Peoples frames that I hadn’t worn in years, with outdated prescriptions, hoping to give them a new lease on life with up-to-date lenses.

“We want you to make the decision on your frames in advance,” said Andy Bilinsky, Lensabl’s chief executive. “We want you to have perfect frames. Then we help you see through those frames.”

He said the company contracts with local labs for the lens work, but still manages to undercut brick-and-mortar rivals by 30% to 70%. The average cost of a pair of Lensabl lenses is $150, but the company says some single-vision lenses can be had for half that amount.

“We pass along our savings to customers,” Bilinsky said.

Even so, costs can add up. In my case, a pair of lightweight progressive lenses with prisms and premium protective coating ran nearly $300. Lensabl doesn’t take insurance, but they say you can submit a claim on your own.

I was pleased with the results. Obviously the frames looked nice because they were my own. The lenses got my prescription right.

However, it took a little time to adjust to the new lenses. They’re not quite as high-quality as what I normally get from my optician, and you can feel the difference. That’s something to consider in terms of switching back and forth between different glasses.

To complete the experiment, I had my optician put new, top-quality lenses into old frames (yes, I’ve hoarded lots of glasses over the years).

They were perfect in every way. They also cost me $360, with insurance. Without insurance, they’d have run more than $500. Just for lenses.

The takeaway from all this is trite but true: You get what you pay for.

If you want the highest level of quality and service, and if you have a complicated prescription and at least a modest degree of vanity, you’ll still do best dealing with your local optician.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to roll the dice a bit, and if you take the time to learn about your frame and lens requirements, you can obtain decent glasses online.

Think of it like this: You probably had a learning curve in your first experiences buying clothes and shoes online. If you’re like me, you eventually figured it out, and now you regularly shop at Amazon and other sites. Glasses are like that.

I’ll probably get another pair of Zenni distance glasses for watching TV and walking the dog, but I’m not sure I’ll become a steady customer. I prefer a higher level of quality for something so central to my appearance.

Still, I’d recommend Zenni to anyone on a budget, and especially to parents with kids who keep trashing or losing their glasses.

I liked getting old frames back in rotation with Lensabl’s lenses. I could see doing that again after using up my insurance in any two-year interval.

The thing that really opened my eyes (yes, pun) was how inexpensively Zenni was able to make adequate lenses at its overseas factory.

This proves it’s possible to do such work for a relatively low cost. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lensabl also looked abroad to bring prices even lower.

Zenni and Lensabl both told me they’re projecting double-digit annual growth as Americans become increasingly comfortable with online eyewear purchases. It’s a market ripe for disruption and competition.

Anyone can see that.

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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