Sunday, May 16, 2010

Buying Eyeglasses

Opticians are one of the few professions left where pricing is very abstract and consumers are not informed of prices ahead of time. As a result, you can easily pay double or triple for the cost of glasses.

I recently took a trip to the Opticians. It was an eye-opener, to say the least, and yes, I'm sorry about the pun.  We went to one of these chain stores in the mall, thinking that a large chain would have a good selection of glasses at competitive prices.    Wrong!

The basic exam (with an optometrist) cost $77 with my AAA discount.  But the cost of the glasses was staggering.

The eyeglasses industry is an interesting one, and there so many aspects to this business, it is hard to know where to begin.

To begin with, it is a bipolar business - schizophrenic, if you will. There are two halves to the business, the medical and the cosmetic. On the medical side, the Optometrist (or Ophthalmologist) examines your eyes and writes a prescription for eyeglasses.   It is a pretty simple business, and costs are fairly competitive on this side of it. You can call an Optometrist and they will tell you over the phone what the cost of an eye exam is.

The Optician side of it, however, is run more like a retail business. They are selling you the glasses, which often cost far more than the eye exam itself. Moreover, trying to get pricing data on glasses is somewhat difficult. Very few places publish their prices, and the prices vary all over the map based on glasses style.

By the way, it gets confusing to the layman, what an Optometrist, Ophthalmologist, and an Optician are, and do, and legally are allowed to do.  A reader recently clarified this for me:
"An Ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who may possibly prescribe corrective lenses but has a primary focus of did eases of the eye treated both medically and surgically.  An Optometrist does not have a degree from a medical school or residency in ophthalmology but rather a degree in optometry.  The focus is on corrective optics and in some states the treatment of a few medical conditions.   An Optician prepares corrective lenses and mounts them in frames. Sometimes you find all in one high end practice with prices to match, but you are obviously paying a premium for the setting."
(Thanks to Dr. Coolidge for clarification of these terms!  We lay people tend to get them confused and/or use them interchangeably!)

Most of us may never see an Ophthalmologist, unless we have severe eye problems.   My Mother always thought that going to an Ophthalmologist was a better idea (for lens prescription) than an Optometrist, as the former (being a Doctor) was better qualified to detect medical problems with your eyes.

Opticians, on the other hand, just sell glasses.   The closest they get to your eyes is perhaps measuring where the lenses should center and how the glasses should fit.

There are three basic types of Opticians, from what I can tell:

1. The Fashion Store: If money is no object, and you just have to have the latest cutting edge eye-wear, there are places like this in most major cities that have all the latest "must have" eye-wear, at fairly high prices. On the plus side, they sell quality merchandise that is from high-end designers. And they have a staggering selection of sizes, shapes, and frame and temple sizes. You get exactly what you want, but you pay for it, of course.

2. The Chain Stores: Like Lenscrafters and Empire Vision, these stores are corporate chains. They would like you to think they are the fashion store above, and charge accordingly, but in reality, their selection is not nearly as good as the fashion stores. And their prices are no real bargains, either.

3. The Discount Stores: Wholesale Clubs and Wal-Mart have vision centers that sell glasses remarkably cheaply and also publish their prices up front. Their prices are far less than the chain and fashion stores, and oftentimes they have some of the same merchandise. If you are looking for a basic pair of RayBan sunglasses, all three types of stores will have these, but the discount stores will sell them to you, in prescription form, for as little as $150 or so, less than half the cost of the Chain Stores. Discount stores have a good selection, probably better than some Chain stores, but don't expect the fashions to be cutting edge.

The interesting thing about selecting glasses, is that we'd all like to think we are making a fashion statement with our frames, selecting the latest cutting edge styles. But in reality, we are picking from a limited lot of selections, which have been culled for us. So we are hardly making a "statement" but rather are just picking from a Chinese menu.

Years ago, we all wore aviator glasses - because that's what the stores sold. Before then, we wore John Lennon like "granny glasses" and guess what it was they Optician had in stock? Before then, it was Buddy Holly type thick framed glasses - because that was what was sold.

Recently, everyone has bought these rectangular glasses, which are wildly impractical (you end up looking around them than through them). Why? Because they are "popular" and that is what they have on the racks at the Optician.

So the idea that somehow you have more "choice" at a chain store than at a discount store is somewhat flawed. And even at the high-fashion stores, chances are, you are buying from what appears to be a wide selection of frames, but actually is a limited selection of a few styles.

My recent experience with a chain store was interesting. The business model is like that of a car dealer - keep the customer in the dark about the pricing, use odd "discounts" and rebates to encourage purchasing (based on phony "savings") and then use the hard sell to close the deal.

After waiting an hour for the eye exam from an Optometrist (who worked for the Optician chain and had offices in the store) we selected a number of frames for sunglasses and new regular glasses. An interesting new twist was that the optometrist recommended that we also buy reading glasses, which would have pushed us into buying three pairs of glasses apiece.

The store was dirty and disheveled. The sunglasses were all taken off the racks and placed in a box. We ended up digging through the box to find a couple of pairs that looked OK. This struck me as odd right off the bat and one reason I had stopped going to this store in the first place. Rather than choosing the exact right pair of glasses in the style and size I wanted, I was instead picking the least objectionable pair from a pile (quite literally a pile) that looked the best and fit the best.

In the past, at more high-end Opticians, I had picked exactly the style I wanted and then had the frames made in the size appropriate for my head, including the frame size (the front part) and the temple length (the side parts). Here, I was merely picking from a pile, trying to find a look I liked in a size I liked. It was like digging through the bargain bin at Marshall's.

But at least at Marshall's, you are getting some stellar deals. After waiting nearly another hour (another trick car dealers like to use - getting you to invest time in the process, so you don't give up and leave) the fitter told me the bad news. The bi-focals would cost $398, this after a 30% "discount". The sunglasses were no better, costing over $380. I didn't ask about the reading glasses. At over $400 per pair with tax, this would have come to over $1200 in glasses for all three pairs, or over $800 if I just bought the two pairs (regular and sunglasses).

I quickly did the math on this. If my partner opted to get two pairs of glasses as well, we'd be spending more than $1600 on glasses. Over $2400 if we opted for he prescription reading glasses the doctor recommended.

This seemed to me like a staggering amount of money. As Ron White noted in one of his monologues, you can buy a television for less money than a pair of glasses, and a television will decode a signal sent from a satellite in outer-freaking-space!

As Ron White points out, you can buy a television for less than the cost of a pair of glasses!

The fitter (Optician)  noticed that we were comparing notes on pricing and immediately separated us to different fitting stations. That was an interesting move, as if she could get each of us to go along with the purchase separately, it was a done deal. We would not be totaling up the bill all in one sum and figuring out that we were spending more on glasses than many people spend on a car.

I started thinking about this process though, and got that gut, "I'm being ripped off" feeling. The delays in the process, the mysteries in pricing, all of it reminded me of buying a new car.

And while I don't mind paying a lot of money for a really, really good pair of glasses, if I do that, I want a really good pair of glasses, not whatever they had that was in my size that wasn't too ugly. If I am shopping for glasses in a Marshall's style environment, then I want the Marshall's style pricing.

My Optometrist in Washington DC ran a fashion-style office. She had a great selection of glasses, and they weren't cheap.  But there I was selecting style, frame size, and temple size, not merely picking from the five options that would fit me. I purchased a set of Kazaio Kawasaki glasses from her, and while they were expensive, they fit well, were stylish, and lasted for many years (even after having multiple lenses refitted). In fact, I still have them. I would probably get new lenses made for them, but in the intervening decade, that style was unfortunately made popular by Sarah Palin, who people seem to think "discovered" Kawasaki, even though I had the same frame type (although not her dorky lens shape) back in 1995.

So if you are going to pay top dollar, get top dollar service. But if you are getting bargain basement service, why bother paying top dollar?

We talked it over and decided to leave. We paid our $77 fee for the eye exam and left. The funny thing about the eye exam was that for me, the prescription didn't change much. The optometrist noted that my new prescription was "in the ballpark" of my old one and that I really didn't need new glasses.

Some wags out there believe there is a conspiracy on the part of Optometrists to intentionally prescribe different prescriptions to force you to buy new glasses. Others believe that Optometrists intentionally prescribe glasses that are too weak or too strong on purpose, so that your eyes adjust accordingly, forcing you to become more and more out of focus and thus making you dependent on glasses for life.

Perhaps some of these theories are far-fetched. However, it is not hard to see where the temptation to write a new, different 'script might be present, if the Optometrist has a vested interested in the glasses-side of the business. In fact, in the old days, many States required that Optometrists and Ophthalmologists have separate practices from Opticians, so the temptation to cross-market would be eliminated. Today, however, the practices are often in the same building, or have a reciprocal relationship. It does create some interesting conflict-of-interest problems.

There are some small, solo practices still out there these days. I used to go to an "old School" Ophthalmologist in the State Tower Building in Syracuse.  Dr. Dolittle (a name you can't forget) wore a pinstriped vest with a pocket watch, and in his oak-paneled office would place lenses from a rack on a wire frame on your head. After a number of lenses were added, he would then determine your prescription. At that point, you had 10 pounds of lenses hanging off your nose. He also used dilating eye-drops that caused you to be blind for half a day. While his equipment was old-fashioned, his service was excellent and his professionalism was beyond reproach. And he didn't sell eyeglasses, either.

I went to a solo practice shop in Ithaca last year.   It was interesting in that the doctor there  (who I beleve was an Ophthalmologist, not an Optometrist) was modeling his practice on some of the big chain stores. People were hustled in and out like an assembly line. I went from room to room for different tests, seeing the actual doctor for only minutes. It was a cost-effective way to do business - for him. The overall pricing, including the glasses (again, a very limited selection) was staggering - over $400 a pair.

We still have not gotten new glasses. Our next step is to investigate B.J.'s wholesale and Wal-Mart. B.J.'s has a coupon in their flyer. Their regular glasses, including frames and lenses, are less than $150. Transition bifocals can be had for only a little more. Sunglasses are also cheap.

Wal-Mart has cheap frames and lenses as well and also offers an AARP discount. Be aware, however, that the Opticians in some Wal-Marts are merely chain stores renting space there, and not "Wal-Mart" eyeglass centers. The non-Wal-Mart Optometrists can be just as expensive as the chain stores.

The nice thing about the wholesale clubs and discount stores is that at least pricing is posted up-front before you buy. The chain stores have you go through a 2-3 hour process and then present you with a price, hoping they've worn you down enough to buy.

I will update this listing after visiting the chain stores. We plan on going to Rochester to see them, as the chain stores in larger communities tend to have better and more stylish selections of goods.

So, stay tuned!

Post Script: We went to BJ's Wholesale in Rochester, New York. They had as good if not better selection of frames, particularly for sunglasses, as the Chain store. They also looked better and fit better. I didn't feel as much as I was settling for something I didn't really like.

The bottom line? Sunglasses with polarized lenses for $130. Prescription glasses, with lightweight polycarbonate lenses, in transition bi-focal, for $140. We got four pairs of glasses for about what the chain store wanted for one pair.

A considerable savings.

 Mr. See's new glasses from BJ's wholesale have garnered praise from all corners.  Trendy Manhattenites ask which designer store they came from!  Our secret, OK?

UPDATE: A return trip to BJ's Wholesale in Florida reveals that their eyeglasses prices are no longer any sort of bargain.  The frames alone are over $140 and they wanted over $200 for lenses.   I will write a new listing looking for better bargains in eyewear, shortly.

UPDATE JUNE 2014:   BJ's has gotten more expensive and they are playing the Optician game of offering $99 glasses that end up costing $250, once you are done.    So we will start looking elsewhere.   Online is one source, and even Blue Cross offers hints on places to order glasses online.  Some online sources advertise bifocals for as little as $50 a pair, and while I am skeptical, it can't hurt to order a pair as a "spare" and if they are nice, use them.

One thing the Optician at BJ's did teach me was how to clean my glasses correctly.  Plastic lenses can scratch easily if you wipe them on a shirtsleeve or dry-wipe them with a cloth.   Spray the lenses with a lens cleaning solution and use clean fingers to wipe the solution to work loose oils and dirt.  Use a lens cleaning cloth or tissue to BLOT the solution away, wiping lightly only if needed.   Grinding your lenses dry with a shirtsleeve will scratch them.    They did replace one set of scratched lenses, free, under warranty.

Thanks to Dr. Duncan for the technical correction above, and these comments:
"As you know standard corrective lenses and frames are high profit margin items, or in old terms - rip offs. It used to anger me when older people came to my office sporting new glasses that they had paid $400-$500 for. With a little Internet sleuthing I discovered a source for rimless glasses with progressive lenses costing about $70 each if bought in sets of three. These would easily be a total of $1,500 or more here in most any setting. They are light weight, unobtrusive, and serve perfectly the purpose intended. They get panned in reviews but I think from my experience with them that the reviews are not from real customers but rather angry competitors.

Another peeve is hearing aids. Imagine a a frequency sensitivity programmable aid costing $7,000 a pair when iPhones come free with 2 year service contracts. The electronics are not particularly complex, and are just potted in plastic molded to conform to your ear. Good grief you can get a 47" LED TV at BJ's for under $700. Hearing aids are a market that is ripe for some entrepreneur to tap with a quality product at an aggressively low price. In truth the programmable frequency sensitivity is of marginal value."

Well, I don't need hearing aids just yet, but soon, and yes, they are a racket.  Why?  "Medicare Pays" I believe, so they don't need to control costs.

Again, the price of an item is not based on the cost of production, but based on what the market will bear.   People perceive eyeglasses and hearing aids as expensive, so they pay a lot for them!

UPDATE 2020:  We finally broke down and started buying glasses online.  At Eyebuydirect we bought two pairs for what the wholesale club wanted for one.  And readers are telling me there are even cheaper sites out there!  Ron White was right - there is no logical reason glasses should cost hundreds of dollars a pair, not when you can buy a friggin' television for less!