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Looking for New Glasses? Take a Look At the Online Eyewear Market.

Ecommerce is slicing into the retail industry, cutting into the business of traditional brick-and-mortar stores. This is especially true for the eyewear market, as more people increasingly turn to purchasing glasses online.

Instead of selecting glasses at the optometrist’s office after an examination, many people are choosing to take their prescriptions to online retailers to save money—sometimes a LOT of money. Prescription glasses purchased through your optometrist often run anywhere from $200 to $500 or more, depending on the type of frame, lenses and features. An online pair may be purchased as cheaply as $29 a pair.

But do you get what you pay for? The advantages of purchasing online include having access to a wide variety of styles, saving time not having to drive to a store, and saving an average of 40%, according to Consumer Reports. Some disadvantages include not being able to try on frames (for most online retailers), not getting the right fit, difficulties in returning, wrong prescriptions, and some websites not taking vision insurance.

Consumer Reports recently tackled this new phenomenon with their overall review of eyeglass providers, both traditional and online. Here are the best places to buy eyeglasses according to Consumer Reports, with three online shops making the list:

  1. Costco Optical
  2. Independent eyeglass shop
  3. Warby Parker (online)
  4. Private doctor’s office
  5. ZenniOptical.com (online)
  6. Kaiser Permanente
  7. OptiCare Eye Health & Vision Centers
  8. EyeBuyDirect.com (online)
  9. Sam’s Club Optical
  10. Walmart Vision Center

Most eyeglass-wearers know how the in-store experience works, but what about the newer online method? Here’s what to expect:

  1. On the retailer’s website, choose the style of the frame, shape and color.
  2. Choose features, such as type of lenses—single vision, bifocal, multi-focal, etc.
  3. Choose add-ons, such as non-glare coating or photochromic lenses (count on extra charges for these).
  4. Put in your prescription information. This may require a visit to your optometrist to get your current prescription. It’s important to know that your doctor is legally required to give you a copy of your prescription after your exam, so you can get your glasses anywhere. Be sure that your prescription includes a Pupillary Distance (PD) — the horizontal distance across your face between your two pupils. Although it’s possible to figure out your PD yourself using online resources, it’s best leaving it to the experts so that your vision is corrected properly. If you don’t see your PD listed after you’ve had your eyes examined, ask for it.

Despite the number of online stores, not all are created equal. Here are a few things to consider before you buy your new glasses.

Durability—Your online retailer should offer a quality product. Are their brands known for quality? Look for features like high-quality polycarbonate lenses, no-glare and scratch-resistant treatments, and UV protection.

Vision Benefit Qualification—Can you apply your vision benefit to the purchase? This may dictate which online retailer you use; and you can get a good deal PLUS some insurance coverage.

Variety—Are there a wide variety of frames to suit your needs and style? No matter what the price, you’ll want to be happy with your new glasses so that you feel great wearing them.

Try before you buy—Is there a way to “try on” the frames, either virtually or in real time?

One company, Warby Parker, lets you order frames using their Home Try-On service, where you can select up to five frames to test out free for five days, and they will ship them to you free! Once you decide, you can order your prescription glasses online, and then you will receive a fresh new pair (not the sample frame) by mail. The five sample frames can be returned after your trial period is up using a prepaid return label.

Other retailers—such as Eyebuydirect.com—feature a style-and-fit guide where you can upload your photo and try some frames on virtually! And if you don’t like one pair on your picture, simply select another frame.

Fit—Getting a good fit for your online eyeglasses may be the biggest challenge. You may need some adjustments at a local eye care professional once you receive them. Poor fitting frames are not only uncomfortable, they may cause vision problems or headaches from not looking through the lens correctly.

Shipping and Return Policies—Is shipping free? If not, count on adding up to $10 to the cost. And before you buy, check out the return policy in the event you’re not happy with your purchase. Find out how many days you have to return the glasses, and who pays for return shipping.

Finally, a recent study by the American Optometric Association (AOA) in which 10 people ordered 200 glasses from 10 online vendors, found that nearly half of all glasses (44.8%) ordered online either contained an inaccurate prescription or didn’t meet safety standards. AOA didn’t say to NOT use an online retailer, but they recommend that an informed consumer will have the best results.

Take the time to get it right with your prescription, follow the recommendations above, and you may have a great experience—not to mention being able to see more clearly.

One Buyer’s Take

“I decided to try out Eyebuydirect.com to see what this online glasses thing was all about—for research purposes. PLUS I wanted new glasses and didn’t want to spend $300. Win-Win! It was an easy experience. I loved the fact that I could upload my picture and “try on” frames. After I decided on a pair, moving through the process was easy—I simply entered the prescription info (I had visited my optometrist just one week earlier), chose shipping and paid. Total price plus shipping? $89. When I purchased glasses five years ago, I paid a whopping $350!

One cool thing: When I completed my payment, they gave me the option of donating a pair to a less fortunate country of my choice—with no extra charge. It was a feel-good moment! Although they weren’t the cheapest online store (but not the most expensive either), I liked their corporate philosophy of giving back. My glasses arrived in a week in nice, professional packaging—including an outer mailing box, a nice sturdy cardboard box, plus a leather eyeglass case. Lots of protection. And they are awesome glasses. I can see well, and I’m happy with the frames I chose. I wouldn’t hesitate to order online from this company or others in the future.”

Resources: Consumer Reports, EyeMed, WebMD, Forbes, Clark Howard, Inc., The Kiplinger Washington Editors