For decades, it’s been a given that you’ll be ripped off when you buy glasses. Sure, you may be getting top-quality frames and lenses, but the markups could be as high as 1,000%.
Lately, however, a number of start-ups have arrived with new technology and business models aimed at providing consumers with high-quality specs at more affordable prices. I’ve written about a number of them.
Today I’ll shine the spotlight on two Southern California companies worthy of consideration, one of which is pioneering subscription glasses. First, though, a quick refresher.
The eyewear industry is dominated by a single behemoth, EssilorLuxottica, which is the world’s largest maker of frames and lenses.
If you wear designer glasses, you’re probably wearing frames made by the company. Its owned and licensed brands include Armani, Brooks Bros., Burberry, Chanel, Oliver Peoples, Persol, Polo Ralph Lauren and Ray-Ban.
It owns or operates LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, Sears Optical and Target Optical.
And because EssilorLuxottica also owns the insure EyeMed, it has enormous influence over independent optical shops. It touches virtually every aspect of the eyewear market.
EssilorLuxottica’s only serious competitor, vision-benefit provider VSP Global, owns Marchon Eyewear, which holds licenses for Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, Lacoste, Nautica, Nine West, Nike and other brands. VSP recently acquired Visionworks, one of the country’s biggest optical chains.
It’s taken a while, but consumers’ growing willingness to purchase glasses online has created an opportunity for firms that don’t want to dance to EssilorLuxottica’s and VSP’s tune.
An intriguing new player is Sherman Oaks-based Fitz Frames, which recognized a need for parents to be able to buy strong, affordable glasses for their kids — and to replace those glasses after they inevitably get trashed by normal kid stuff.
“We have kids,” founder Heidi Hertel told me. “We know that glasses get broken. We wanted replacements to be accessible to families, and to get away from Krazy Glue and tape.”
What makes Fitz different is its subscription model. A one-time purchase of kids’ glasses starts at $95 for frames and single-vision lenses.
But for $185, you get two pairs of glasses, plus an unlimited number of replacement frames throughout the year.
Oftentimes, subscription models — whether for movie streaming, music or razor blades — work better for companies than customers. But this may be the rare example in which consumers (read: parents) come out ahead.
New lenses are extra after the first two sets, but, depending on the nature of the mishap, you may be able to simply transfer the original lenses into new frames.
Equally cool, the company uses 3-D printing so that each pair is a custom fit.
My son gave it a try. We found it easy and intuitive to use the company’s app to map his face with his smartphone camera. When the glasses arrived a couple of weeks later, they fit perfectly.
They also seemed nice and strong. The frames are made from a nylon-based polyamide powder, which gives them sufficient durability for rough-and-tumble activities.
“My son goes through glasses like shoelaces,” said Gabriel Schlumberger, the company’s chief executive. “We wanted to address that.”
And if this sort of thing is important to you, Fitz glasses are entirely made in the USA, with all production based in Youngstown, Ohio.
Now Lensabl is offering both frames and lenses, starting at $97 for complete single-vision glasses and $197 for progressives.
“From Day One, it was our goal to build a one-stop shop,” said Andy Bilinsky, the company’s chief executive. “This moves us closer to that.”
The lenses are made locally. The acetate frames are produced in China — which shouldn’t be taken as a demerit. Many, if not most, frames now come from China, although some top brands do their darnedest to keep you from knowing.
Here’s how that works: The law says a product’s country of origin must reflect the last place a “substantial transformation” was made.
In the case of eyewear, that means even though all the components may have been produced in China — and they probably were — the pieces were screwed together in, say, Italy, so the glasses can be marked “Made in Italy.”
Points to Lensabl for not playing such games.
Bilinsky said upstart companies like his recognize that, for too long, consumers have been taken advantage of by a few eyewear conglomerates that got away with near-monopoly pricing.
“We want to be accessible,” he said. “We want to be affordable. And we want people to keep coming back.”
Next up for the company: contact lenses, coming soon.
I’ve been saying all along that just as people gradually became comfortable buying shoes online without first trying them on, they’ll become OK with buying glasses online. I have, and I’m about as picky an eyewear customer as you’ll meet.
The “virtual try-on” apps used by most online vision companies are getting better and better. Nothing will ever replace actually putting glasses on your face, but companies such as Lensabl and Fitz are quickly figuring out how to minimize people’s risk (and they make returns easy).
Just as important, they’re passing along their savings to customers, which means a pair of top-quality glasses bought online now might cost about half what they cost at a bricks-and-mortar store just a few years ago.
“We’re not looking to be in business for a couple of years,” Bilinsky said. “We’re in it for the long haul.”
That is, until Amazon decides to get into the eyewear business. But that’s another story.