Last time I bought a pair of glasses I splurged a bit and got a pair of rimless titanium frames. They cost me about 700 pounds all in, which seemed quite immense, but the optician had a scheme where you could divide the cost over a number of months. Which of course is a classic way of making something expensive seem much cheaper.
5 years later and I’ve changed the lenses once in the meantime, again at a fair cost for lenses and another sight test. Now these lenses were pretty scratched up and unpleasant to see through, so it was time again to get new opticals. Fancying a new style I was also looking to get new frames.
Visiting the same optician as last time I noticed they were offering half-price frames, which seemed a good deal, as they tend to be 200-300 pounds a pair. The lenses cost up to around 350 pounds with all the surface treatment options. So all in around 500 pounds for a new pair of glasses. Yikes, that’s the price of a proper jacket!
And how can it possibly be so expensive? We’re talking injection molded plastic and machine-made lenses, it’s not as if blind monks are hand crafting them in a cave in Tibet, spending years of their life to construct a single pair of ocular devices. Frames made of plastics cost almost nothing at all to make, and glueing a blingy brand name to the side of the nocost frames is hardly a value-enhancing move either. Surely we’re not that easily conned.
This made me think though… I’d noticed that the Norwegian company Kaibosh were selling their spectacles for around 90 pounds. This was for a complete pair of spectacles: lenses, their own “Designed in Bergen” frames and free shipping. How on earth could they sell their wares this reasonably? It made me wonder.
It didn’t take long to discover that there there are two stratas in the global eyewear business and that we’re the victims of a huge, global price-fixing scam. On the one hand we have the traditional brands and shops, on the other a bustling eyewear market online. What is the main difference between these two? Price. Or rather, profit margins. And hence why is it so insanely expensive to buy a new pair of glasses if you go the normal route of buying eyewear.
I was more than a little surprised to find that 80% of the worlds frames are made by a single company, the Italian company Luxxotica. And most of the rest are made by a second Italian company, Safilo. Together they produce almost all of the branded frames you’ll find in the eyewear shops, licensing brand names such as Prada, Gucci and so forth. They also own a huge proportion of the eyewear shops, so as to control the entire chain of profit. In reality, these two companies have a strangle-hold on production and retail, and can basically set whatever profit margin they desire. And as we’ll see, they’re no shrinking violets when it comes to setting their mark-ups. Quite the conspiracy really, and it makes you wonder how it can possibly be allowed, given all the regulations there supposedly are against price-fixing.
Accepted economic theory will agree that once a product technology has become mature and that production volume has reached a certain level, the cost of production per unit will go down. Or, in other words once the development costs have been covered and production has become efficient, there is maximum profit to be reaped by keeping the price of the product high.
This should definitely be the case when it comes to spectacles. A large portion of humans of all ages have problems with their eyesight and production of frames and lenses must be immense. The technology is hardly new or unknown, so apart from any incremental improvements in production or product specifications, there can’t be any massive costs to be eaten for research and development.
So what is the alternative? What I did was book a sight test at the local optician that had the shortest wait. This to ensure I had the best possible starting point, and a fresh prescription with all the necessary data to ensure my new specs would be right. Make sure you get a printout of the prescription, as this is the key to ordering specs online. With my data at hand it was a case of Googling around to see what was available.
Strangely the experience was a lot more efficient than visiting a brick and mortar optician. There is a smaller selection of frames, the methods of selection are more efficient and there is no overlap between various “brands”, so the actual number of frames to be considered is much smaller. You tend to have a number of “faces” you can try the frames on to see what they look like, or ome even let you upload your own photo so you can “try on” with more realism. It also helps to have your current glasses handy so you can measure the width and length of the stems and compare to the ones you are considering online.
It’s when you’ve selected a frame you will have the most jaw-dropping experience though. The frames I chose were 16 dollars, which seemed pleasantly reasonable. I was stunned to find that this also included basic lenses, and in fact was a complete pair of glasses. Whoa! Even when I upgraded the lenses to the best possible (i.e. surface coating and such), and included shipping, I was still at under 10% of the cost of a similar pair of specs from my local shops. Well, I obviously wouldn’t enjoy the prestige of a logo along the side, as the online frames are thankfully without lurid branding.
In total my new specs came to about 27 pounds, all inclusive. I had to wait a week for my new glasses to arrive, which is around what I’d expect to wait for my local optician to order the lenses and fit them to the frame. They arrived by signed-for post, in a protective box, full tracking all they way. No complaints at all. And they work as they should. I need to adjust the arms a bit to get the fit just right, something the local optician would normally take care of as part of their service.
So how do they do it? I obviously can’t look at their calculations, but although I ordered my glasses from a US-based website, they arrived from Hong Kong. So there is an obvious saving in labour costs there. As mentioned there is no branding on the frames, so there is no cost involved in licensing a brand name. For the most part though, I think they are actually competing with other companies and charging a price that relates to the real costs involved, rather than controlling a market and gouging their customers as far as their lack of shame or decency allow them to.
Does this mean I should buy 10+ pairs of spectacles to make up for the rather immense saving I’ve made buying online? No, not at all, but I think I will buy one more pair, plus a pair of sunglasses. Yes, they also do prescription sunglasses at similar prices. Join in, my four-eyed friends, it’s a brave new world indeed!
PS: There are a number of places you can order from online. I’ve only tried one personally and selected that pretty much at random. Let me know if you find any good ones, ok? I ordered from Zenni Optical, which appeared to be well thought of.
PPS: There are exceptions when it comes to paying for frames, as in cases where the craft and workmanship involved is actually notable. A case in favour of this are the amazing frames made by Cold & Heggem in Copenhagen. I aspire to a pair of their frames, truly.