A few months ago, I visited the optometrist for an eye exam, and, as usual, the doctor found that I'd grown still-more nearsighted and needed a new pair of glasses. The optometrist handed me off to a stylish saleswoman, who picked out several high-priced frames that she swore looked fantastic on me. Though it was apparent that her tastes dovetailed with those of Dieter from "Sprockets," I had to take her word for it; one of the complexities of buying eyeglasses is that you're literally choosing blindly, and in those fragile moments you come to rely greatly on the kindness of others.
When I'd picked a pair, the saleswoman began the hard sell: If I cared about my appearance, she warned, I'd pay for thin, high-index lenses made out of the latest NASA-approved polymers. And did I ever drive at night? If so, I really ought to consider getting an anti-reflective coating. By the time she'd run through all the options, I was looking at spending close to $600. This is how it goes when you buy glasses. I'd made the mistake of visiting a swank designer place, but even at the ubiquitous one-hour chain shops, shopping for eyewear is like buying a used car. The prices are kept deliberately obscure; the options are various and extravagant; and by the time you're done with the whole process, you feel drained and fleeced.
This time, I wasn't going to fall for it. I'd been reading about a surprising new online business—prescription eyeglass shops that claim to offer well-made glasses at extremely low prices. Of course, I was skeptical; though I buy tons of stuff online (the UPS guy and I are great friends), glasses seemed too personal to choose based on a picture alone. But with a potential $600 bill staring me in the face, I decided to give it a shot—and I've emerged a believer. Within a couple of weeks, I'd purchased one pair of glasses for $100 and another for $50. The $50 pair, which I got from an outfit called Goggles4U.com, is a real miracle: They look just as good as any glasses I've seen at my optometrist's office, and they sport the thinnest, highest-index lenses on the market, complete with every optional coating—all for one-twelfth the price of the glasses I'd been offered in the fancy eyewear store.
Why are eyeglasses so cheap online? It's the classic Internet story of low overhead. Nearly every pair of glasses sold in this country is manufactured in China at a very low price—a few dollars for the lenses, a few dollars for the frames. When you buy eyeglasses at an optometrist's office, you're paying mainly for rent, labor, marketing, designer licensing fees, and a huge markup. Online retailers cut out all these costs by contracting directly with frame and lens manufacturers overseas. When you place an order, lenses that fit your prescription are cut and molded into your frame, then shipped directly to you. The price competition between online retailers keeps markups low, too. Indeed, unlike offline shops, the online eyeglass stores keep lowering their prices; one Web site, 19dollareyeglasses.com, changed its name to the more generic Zenni Optical because it began selling glasses for much less than $19. Its lowest-priced pair now goes for $8.
Optometry is one of those quintessentially physical, service-oriented industries that once seemed naturally immune to Web commerce. Sure, you'd buy books, airline tickets, and computers online, but buying something that you've got to hold, feel, and try out first—cars, clothes, furniture—has always seemed strange. But the rise of online eyeglass shops points to a larger trend. As we get increasingly comfortable with the Internet, we're turning to the Web for riskier purchases. The online shoe business, for instance, has lately been booming. The Web's advantages here are clear. Online shoe shops offer much greater selection than your local retailer, and they let you search through their merchandise more precisely—I'd like those wing tips in size 8, black, with an extra-wide front. To ease the pain of making a mistake, Web shoe stores like Zappos have extremely lenient return policies. For many, these benefits outweigh the disadvantage of not being able to try on what you're buying.
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.