Buy Your Glasses Online – Save $$ and Be More Fashionable

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glasses online

(A version of this story originally appeared on The Huffington Post.)

Each morning you choose a pair of pants or a skirt or dress to wear, a matching shirt or blouse, a jacket or a sweater, then an appropriate pair of shoes, maybe even a hat – and the same old glasses you’ve been wearing each and every day for years.

Why don’t you consider your glasses just as fashionably changeable as your other outer garments? Primarily because spectacles are so expensive, often $500-plus. Plus, we never know when we’ll need a new prescription.

But would you buy and treat glasses as another fashion accessory if you could buy them for the same price as, say, a pack of socks?

glasses onlineYou can, if you buy your eyewear online.

Glasses bought online can be ridiculously cheaper than from your optometrist, less than $10 for a pair – yes, less than $10 – with single-vision lenses.

There are two reasons why optometrist-bought glasses seem unreasonably pricey. First, the frame business is a near monopoly. As this excellent Forbes piece from 2014 explains, an outfit called Luxottica produces around 80 percent of frames for just about every prominent eyeglass frame brand, which allows the company to control and maintain absurdly high frame prices.

Second, optometrists finance their costly medical practices – office space rental, medical equipment, personnel – by boosting frame and lens prices.

Online glasses vendors, who can produce their own frames and are not burdened by optometrists’ office expenses, can offer complete glasses for geometrically less.

glasses onlineBuying Glasses Online Drawbacks

As with clothes, there are two drawbacks to buying glasses online: look and fit.

In a store, you can try on a variety of frames and check yourself out in a mirror to your heart’s content, even ask someone else’s opinion of how you look. While many eyewear sites let you virtually preview how your prospective frames will look when perched on your proboscis, the process is aesthetically imprecise. In other words, the reality often fails to match the virtual.

Then, even if you’re satisfied with how your online-purchased glasses look in reality, the preview can’t predict how your specs will actually fit. Even using precise measurements, which we’ll get to in a second, your new virtually-bought glasses can turn out to be uncomfortably tight, annoyingly loose or simply ill-fitting, regardless of the stated measurements.

Understanding this aesthetic and fit impreciseness, all online eyewear sites include liberal, no-questions-asked, we-pay-for-shipping return policies, usually 30 days.

Also, a couple of sites have corresponding partnerships with brick-and-mortar eyeglass shops for real-world adjustments. Both Warby Parker and LensCrafters run dual physical and online stores, for instance, and glasses.com has a post-fitting/adjustment deal with LensCrafters.

How To Buy Glasses Online

First and foremost, you’ll need your prescription. If you haven’t had your eyes checked in a while I’d recommend doing so, then ask the optometrist for your prescription.

All online eyeglass shopping begins with picking out frames for either men, women or children. You can then choose from: material – plastic/acetate, metal, rimless and mixed; shape – square, rectangular, round, oval and other variations; and, color. Sunglass frames often are listed as a separate category, and some sites let you further narrow your frame search by price range or frame brand.

I haven’t run across a site that lets you delineate between standard one-way temple hinges and more flexible double-hinges, but look for this handy attribute listed in the frame description.

glasses onlineBefore you pick a frame, you need to know your eyeglass size. For filtering purposes, you can choose from a variety of choices – small, medium, large, extra-large, sometimes petite, narrow or wide, depending on the site. In addition, all frame listings include lens height, lens width, temple (the hinged stem that sits on your ears) and bridge measurements (the nose piece), all expressed in millimeters.

Your current glasses may have their size embossed inside the left temple – lens width, a square, then bridge width and temple length. If not, measuring your current glasses will give you an idea of the measurements you need.

Then there are the lenses, and this can get confusing.

First, choose your prescription type: standard prescription, bi/multi-focal and progressive (no-line bifocal). Reading glasses and contact lenses are sometimes also offered. Since bi-focal and progressive lenses require a greater lens height, some fashionably narrow frames may not work, although sites often don’t warn you in advance of this pre-requisite.

Second are the lens materials and thickness. If your prescription is minor, you can opt for standard lenses. But if you’re blind as a bat, you’ll want thinner polycarbonate lenses.

Thinner lenses are counter-intuitively labeled with higher numbers; for instance, 1.50 index lenses are thicker than 1.74 lenses. These numbers refer not to density but to their refraction index – “how much the lens bends the light that enters it,” according to this excellent, if overly technical, explanation from Zenni Optical.

Each vendor offers a variety of lens index choices, coatings and treatments such as UV, anti-scratch, anti-reflective and transitional – glasses that turn into sunglasses when exposed to sunlight.

Not only can these indexes, coatings and treatments be confusing – Zenni lists 31 different options ranging from $27.95 to $195 – and their costs can quickly pile up. Fortunately, many sites recommend what lenses are best based on your prescription, which you input online during the ordering process.

Once ordered, you’ll get progress updates from the site, and you’ll likely get your glasses within 2-3 weeks, complete with a hard-shell case and a wipe cloth.

Eyeglass Site Reviews

I recommend browsing several online eyeglass sites to get a sense of pricing and available frame styles. But here is a synopsis of more than a dozen online eyeglass stores; an asterisk indicates site from which I actually bought glasses.

I’ve divided these synopses into “The Best” – representing the most value-oriented considering style selection, ease of purchase and low price – and “The Rest.”

Zenni Opticalglasses online

Basics:

This is my favorite and, as far as I can tell, the least expensive online eyeglasses site. Why? Zenni makes its own frames. By cutting out the monopolistic middle man, it can offer the lowest glasses prices online, including dozens of sub-$10 and hundreds of sub-$20 choices, the prices of which include basic single-vision lenses. Zenni also offers an almost dizzying number of lenses and coatings, including the increasingly popular UV “blue blockers” lens coating option, designed to reduce irritation from staring at a smartphone, computer screen or TV for long hours.

Pros:

  • Low frame prices
  • Price includes basic single-vision lenses
  • Hundreds of sub-$20 frames
  • Virtual try-on
  • Digital screen protection option

Cons:

  • 30-day return, but only 50% refund or store exchange (unless defective)
  • A dizzying array of lens/coatings options
  • No contact lenses
  • No insurance accepted

Bottom Line:

Since it makes its own frames – and lots of them – Zenni Optical is the best site to stock up on complete pairs of fashionable glasses for less than $10 each, sub-$75 for progressive lenses, without searching for special discounts. The virtual try-on will reduce the odds you won’t like them, minimizing a possible return and getting only half your money back.

My Ranking (out of 10): 9 

39dollarglassesglasses online

The Basics:

Its name is not false advertising – the bulk of the non-branded frames on this “doctor-owned” site are just $39 and range only as high as $89. Best of all, this is the only site I found that lets you “re-lens” – fit your old frames with new lenses, at no extra cost, and you get a “no worry” 30-day return with a full refund guarantee. 

Pros:

  • Buy new lenses for your own old frames
  • Hundreds of sub-$50 frames
  • 30-day full refund no-questions-asked return, 90-day exchange/store credit
  • Virtual try-on
  • Digital screen protection option
  • Contact lenses

Cons:

  • Slightly pricier multi-focal and coatings options
  • No insurance accepted

Bottom Line:

As long as you don’t need multi-focal lenses, you’ll easily be able to buy a complete set of glasses for less than $50. While its low-price frames are great, 39dollarframes’ unique re-lens option is the best reason to buy glasses here, a great way to keep your favorite frames.

My Ranking (out of 10): 8

glasses onlineEyeBuyDirect (EBD)

The Basics:

One of the better bargain eyeglasses sites, this site designs and manufacturers its own frames, making it easy to buy a pair of single-vision glasses for less than $20 thanks to a generous selection of $6 frames and just $6.95 for standard anti-scratch/anti-reflective lenses. Even stepping-up won’t cost much – all the frames (nearly 450 styles), thinner lenses, multi-focal and coatings are reasonably priced.

Pros:

  • No frames more than $70, large selection at just $9
  • Initial 15% discount + free shipping
  • Two types of digital screen protection ($19 to $108.95)
  • Two types of transition ($35.95, $99)

Cons:

  • No virtual try-on
  • No filter for progressive-eligible frames
  • No contact lenses
  • No insurance accepted

Bottom Line:

Talk about your down-to-earth, no-frills eyeglasses site. It is really hard to spend more than $150 on a pair of glasses on EyeBuyDirect, with plenty of styles to choose from. A pair of progressives (an extra $49) with a $50 frame and thin transition lenses with all the coatings available totaled just $160. Too bad EBD lacks a virtual try-on, has just a two-week return policy, and doesn’t accept insurance.

My Ranking (out of 10): 8

The Rest:

glasses onlineCalifornia Optical

The Basics:

While misnamed – it’s actually run by a Tennessee-based company called Schultz Optical and bears a likely not-accidental resemblance to Warby Parker’s – this site tells you nearly everything you need to know up front: the price listed for the frames includes basic single-vision scratch-resistant lenses with UV coating and shipping.

Pros:

  • All frames between $20 and $100, most around $50 or less
  • Listed prices include single-vision lenses; progressive on $49 extra, bi-focal $39
  • RX sports glasses section
  • Easy step-through buying process with clear explanations
  • Virtual try-on (non-rotating)

Cons:

  • Pricey thin lens options
  • Limited rimless selection
  • Can’t choose multiple lens coatings
  • Confusing two-tier return policy; 14 days for a refund, 30 days for an exchange
  • No insurance accepted

Bottom Line:

If you’ve got a simple, light prescription, California offers the easiest and cheapest options – when you see a price on the frames, that’ll be the total price of the glasses, not including tax. And there are no frames more than $100, and most are $50 or $60. But extras – thinner lenses, tinting/transition, polarization, computer screen protection – can add up, although no single option is overly expensive, and everything is clearly defined and explained.

My Ranking (out of 10): 7

glasses onlineCoastal

The Basics:

Presenting a mix of no-name and brand name frames priced between $19 and $200-plus, Coastal attempts to appeal to eyeglass buyers of all income and aesthetic stripes.Pros:

  • Price includes basic scratch-resistant and UV-protective single-vision lenses
  • 50% off first purchase when signing up for the mailing list
  • Contact lenses
  • Digital screen protection option
  • Free second pair with limited $50 frame selection

Cons:

  • No virtual try-on
  • No frame price filters
  • Not all progressive-eligible frames are progressive eligible
  • No insurance accepted

Bottom Line:

Like California Optical, the listed price includes basic lenses, and Coastal charges only $15 more for anti-glare lenses and only an extra $20 for thinner lenses, which means wearers with plain prescriptions can buy a full pair for less than $50 total – plus, you get a second lower-priced pair for free, completing a great bargain. But there’s no way to filter frames by price, which makes it difficult and frustrating to bargain hunt. And, if you wear progressives, beware. Even when I chose Progressive Eligible frames, the site kept telling me that Coastal’s “standard lens is too thick to accommodate your prescription” with no option to choose a thinner lens.

My Ranking (out of 10): 6

glasses onlineEyeConic

The Basics:

If you’re looking to buy cheap glasses online – this is not a site for you. While you choose from a wide selection of stylish name-brand frames online, prices range from a “low” of $96 (and only a couple of these) up to $260-plus. If you’re a well-heeled fashionista, happy shopping.

Pros:

  • 10% off first purchase
  • “3D” multi-angle virtual try-on (Flash required)
  • Connects with 40,000 optometrists
  • Contact lenses
  • Insurance accepted

Cons:

  • Expensive name-brand frames
  • Pricier lenses, coatings
  • Hard to find lens/coatings options
  • Not all brands listed in the filter

Bottom Line:

I’m not sure what advantage this site offers vs. buying from an optometrist or a retail store. All the name brand frames are more expensive than other sites (although the price does include basic lenses), which defeats the whole purpose of buying online. Add-ons such as thinner lenses and coatings also are pricier than on other sites. Worse, the site is not very intuitive; you have to first add the frames to your cart, then “edit” your choice to add your prescription and choose from lens coating options.

My Ranking (out of 10): 5

glasses onlineFramesDirect.com

The Basics:

Described as a “premium eyewear” site and claiming the “largest selection of designer frames,” you can choose from a massive selection – more than 9,200 – and from an equally-ridiculous all-encompassing list of familiar high-end fashion brands – more than 200, with frames priced up to a penthouse-like $800. Even with this premium-bent, there are, surprisingly, more than 2,700 of frames “discounted” to less than $100, but none less than $40, not including lenses.

Pros:

  • Huge selection of frame styles priced between $40-$800
  • Detailed frame descriptions/specs
  • 50% off first order, many on-site discounts
  • Price match
  • Offers contacts
  • Insurance accepted

Cons:

  • Everything is expensive
  • No virtual try-on
  • No no-questions-asked return policy
  • Confusing “size” filter parameters

 

Bottom Line:

While there are plenty of frames to choose from on FramesDirect, what there are is pricier than on other eyewear sites, with pricier lens and coatings options. What’s worse, there’s no try-on option (virtual or otherwise) and you can only return them if the lenses are wrong or damaged, which means you have to make sure you order the exact size you need and hope you look good in them. This lack of preview plus look-and-fit guarantee is, for me, a deal-breaker.

My Ranking (out of 10): 5

glasses onlineGlasses.com

The Basics:

Glass.com lets you create a 180-degree 3D model of your face so you can virtually turn the preview image to see your bespectacled face from different angles. But the name-brand designer frames are pricey.

Pros:

  • Best representative 180-degree virtual try-on
  • Stylish frames from premium brands including Armani Exchange, Coach, Oakley, Michael Kors and Ray-Ban
  • Insurance information link on the front page

Cons:

  • Expensive frames from chichi brands including Armani Exchange, Coach, Oakley, Michael Kors and Ray-Ban (hey, one man’s ceiling…)
  • No frames less than $79
  • Virtual try-on not available for all frames

Bottom Line:

Shopping at glasses.com feels the closest to shopping at a virtual a LensCrafters or Pearl Vision, thanks to its sleek site, frames from a wide variety of well-known brands, its more realistic 180-degree virtual try-on – and it’s slightly higher pricing. But if you’re bargain-hunting – the whole reason to shop for glasses online – I’d move on.

My Ranking (out of 10): 6

glasses onlineGlassesShop

The Basics:

Splashed across nearly every page of this is “Good Housekeeping magazine rates GlassesShop.com Best Eyewear Website for Budget Buys.” While I emphatically disagree – several sites offer a wider selection of lower-priced glasses – GlassesShop does offer some specific bargains. For instance, and astoundingly, you can get your first single-vision pair – with limitations – for free, and the site is filled all manner of discount and BOGO offers, and all prices include basic single-vision lenses.

Pros:

  • First single-vision pair free/50% off first purchase
  • A plethora of on-site discount codes
  • All frames priced between $10-$70
  • Digital screen protection option
  • Virtual try-on (static full-face)

Cons:

  • The site doesn’t work on Apple Safari web browser
  • Small selection (less than 400 styles)
  • No contacts
  • No insurance accepted

Bottom Line:

Don’t use Apple’s Safari web browser to surf this site – pages don’t render right. Using another browser, and once you sift through a confusing array of on-site discounts and lens options, you can assemble a pair of single-vision glasses with thin lenses and coatings for less than $100, with multi-focals for less than $150. GlassesShop.com is not the cheapest or easiest eyewear site to use, nor is there a wide selection of frames to choose from compared to other sites – but getting the first single-vision pair for free is hard to resist.

My Ranking (out of 10): 6

 

glasses onlineGlassesUSA.com

The Basics:

As soon as you virtually enter glassesUSA.com, you’re smacked with multiple discount offers, and you’ll be bombarded with sale promotions throughout and even after your purchase. Once you maneuver past the multitude of special deals, you’ll find a wide selection of brand name and no-name frames at a wide variety of prices.

Pros:

  • A wide variety of frames styles and pricing, both name brand and generic, at a wide variety of prices
  • Premium frames are clearly labeled
  • Unending discounts and sales
  • The order includes wallet prescription card
  • Grays out frames considered inappropriate for bi-focal or progressive lenses

Cons:

  • Limited sub-$50 selection, no sub-$20 frames
  • A new promotional email nearly every day
  • Static virtual try-on (straight-on view only)
  • Have to search for insurance information

Bottom Line:

glassesUSA.com offers among the largest variety and value in nearly every aspect of eyewear buying, but there are only a few dozen frames for less than $50, and none for less than $20 – although, with numerous available discounts, you can easily finagle a complete pair for less than $100. Just be prepared for an absolute onslaught of ads and emails both while shopping and after-purchase, sometimes multiple promotional emails a day. And the tempting discounts often only apply to a substantial minimum purchase, often disclosed only in the literal fine print. glassesUSA.com’s whole promotional approach is unnecessarily annoying and ruins an otherwise satisfying experience.

My Ranking (out of 10): 6

glasses onlineLensCrafters

The Basics:

LensCrafters, like Warby Parker, operates both virtual and real-world stores, which means you can go to a store to try on frames before buying or return/adjust purchases made online. But LensCrafters.com, like the store, is a pricey place to shop for glasses – frame prices ($70-$450) do not include lenses, which are among the most expensive I’ve come across – $139 for basic single-vision, and that’s discounted.

Pros:

  • Physical store for try-on or return
  • Established eyewear company
  • Can book an in-store optometrist appointment

Cons:

  • Expensive designer frames and lenses
  • Around half of the frames listed available in-store only
  • No virtual try-on

Bottom Line:

This site is clearly designed to get you into a physical store. If you’re looking for bargain eyewear, look elsewhere. I can only recommend shopping on LensCrafters.com if you absolutely need to either try on frames first or the comfort of knowing you can bring your purchase back to a physical store.

My Ranking (out of 10): 5

 

glasses onlinePayne Glasses

The Basics:

“We believe you can have a wardrobe of glasses that will cost less than your current pair of prescription glasses,” this site proclaims. Exactomundo. Payne apparently mass manufacturers frames, presumably for others as well as itself, so changes only $5.95-$39.95 for frames, which includes basic anti-scratch/UV/anti-reflective lenses. There’s just one problem: Payne’s selection, while varied, also is really minimal – just 67 styles for men, 122 for women, and 11 for kids – as well as minimal lens options.

Pros:

  • Low priced frames
  • Frame prices include basic lenses
  • Digital screen protection available

 

Cons:

  • No virtual try-on
  • Minimal selection of frames
  • 30-day return, but only 50% refund or store exchange (unless defective)
  • No insurance accepted

Bottom Line:

While Payne’s prices are really low – you can easily buy a pair of single-vision glasses for less than $10, progressives with digital screen protection for less than $70 – getting only half your payment back if you don’t like them for any reason is a risky deal breaker for me, especially since there’s no virtual try-on to at least get a sense of how they’ll look on you, much less fit. There are other eyewear sites with much wider selections (especially for men), just-as-low pricing, and total refund returns.

My Ranking (out of 10): 7

glasses onlineWarby Parker

The Basics:

While not the cheapest online vendor, Warby Parker avoids frame name brands and instead offers its own unique and fashionable designs. This fashionable outlet operates around 60 physical retail locations (at which service is fabulous) along with its online presence. Instead of a virtual try-on preview, you can get up to five frames sent to you for home try-on, and the company pays for shipping both ways.

Pros:

  • Free at-home try-on
  • Complete single vision glasses start at $95
  • Fashionable, inexpensive frames designed in-house
  • Retail locations for adjustments, returns
  • Simple lens selection

Cons:

  • No virtual try-on preview
  • Not all frames available for home try-on
  • No price range filter
  • Progressive lenses add $200 to price

Bottom Line:

At-home try-on ensures post-purchase satisfaction, but it adds time to the buying process and it lacks the instant gratification that virtual try-on provides. Considering its creative lens styles, I’d recommend WP for better-heeled fashionistas, and for those who also have access to a physical location to get the best of both real and virtual worlds. For the extra $200 it charges, however, I don’t recommend Warby Parker if you wear progressives.

My Ranking (out of 10): 7

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