The same is true for glasses. Online shops offer huge selection, a better way to browse (by style or size, which is better than relying on some salesperson's recommendations), and unbeatable prices. It's a winning formula: A representative for Zenni Optical told me that the company is now selling more than 7,000 pairs of glasses a week.
Be warned, though, that buying eyeglasses on the Web takes patience. The whole process is a bit of a time-suck: First, you've got to ask your doctor for your prescription. (Be firm.) Then, you need to figure out what size frames look and feel good on your face. (Measure an old pair you're comfortable with.) Next, you need to find your "pupillary distance"—the length, in millimeters, between the center of your pupils. (Ask your doctor to measure it, or do it yourself.) Finally, you've got to navigate online shops that tend to be poorly designed and full of copy errors and poor English.
If you're willing to soldier through all of this, the payoff is grand. When the glasses arrive, you're elated that you pulled it off, that you've got something so expensive for next to nothing. It's a familiar Internet sensation, reminiscent of the first time you placed a classified ad for free or downloaded an obscure song on Napster—the thrill of pulling something over on an entrenched cartel. Do I sound a bit evangelical? That's the other effect: When you've just bought glasses for $50, you yearn to tell everyone you know.
That's what happened to Ira Mitchell, a software engineer in the Twin Cities who was so surprised and thrilled at the deals he found for glasses online that he started a blog to popularize the industry. Glassy Eyes has grown into a community-review and how-to site for the online glasses business—if you're thinking about buying specs on the Web, start there. Mitchell told me that during the past couple of years, he's purchased 16 pairs of glasses online. He doesn't need that many, he says, but when they're so cheap, why not? He now buys frames to fit his mood or the current fashion. "For the first time, I can afford prescription sunglasses," Mitchell says.
Mitchell sometimes gets angry letters from optometrists who tell him that he's harming people's eyes. The big worry is that people will get a pair of glasses fitted with the wrong prescription and will wear them for a long time without realizing it. But that risk seems exaggerated; Mitchell says that only one of his purchases resulted in bad lenses, and he noticed it immediately. (Just to be safe, I took my $50 glasses to an optometrist's office for an inspection. The lenses matched my prescription.) Mitchell argues that Web shops might be helping to improve people's eye health by pushing us to get our eyes checked more often. For me, at least, that rings true. When I was paying a few hundred dollars per pair, I'd wait two or even three years before getting new specs, often way longer than was safe. Thanks to the Web, I've no longer got a reason to stumble around blindly.