What is the Zenni Optical of things other than glasses?
February 20, 2015 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Recently discovered and fell in love with Zenni Optical, and now I'm wondering if there are other things that are "best kept secrets" that provide incredible value.

Evidently, the retail eyeglass market is one built on astronomical markups - I got three complete pairs of eyeglasses from Zenni for $25, shipped, and they're comparable in quality to the stuff at the eyeglass store up the street selling for hundreds of dollars each.

This got me thinking: Are there any other products/businesses/fields/industries/whatever in which there is a "best kept secret," a purveyor whose prices are so much lower than average that it staggers the mind? I'm guessing Zenni is one of the more extreme examples, but are there other things you can buy from a select source where it is SO much less expensive than average prices?
posted by jbickers to Shopping (36 answers total) 271 users marked this as a favorite
Dollar Shave Club.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:48 AM on February 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Prepaid cell phones/mvnos are a lot cheaper. I'm partial to ting.
posted by geegollygosh at 10:49 AM on February 20, 2015 [13 favorites]

For cables and computer electronics, Monoprice. Here's a story on how they do it.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:50 AM on February 20, 2015 [14 favorites]

Dorco sells razors and handles the cheapest. Have you heard, perhaps, of Dollar Shave Club? They get their hardware from Dorco.

This is the spot where I digress into how the truly cheap shave is found in double- or single-edge razors, i.e. wetshaving, and that would be true, but most people who shave will shave with cartridge razors, and I can begrudgingly accept that fact. Wetshaving usually means paying more for the handle and far far less for the razor blades (down to $0.00 in the case of straight razors, for which you need only pay a brief amount of stropping labor), which is the reverse of the cartridge model.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:50 AM on February 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

A lot of small electronics accessories (like a car charger for a phone) are very marked up at brick and mortar shops.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:51 AM on February 20, 2015

Well, the cat litter that is made of compressed pine pellets is the exact same thing they sell at feed stores as stall bedding, except the feed store version comes in bigger bags and is a quarter of the price of the litter version.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:51 AM on February 20, 2015 [20 favorites]

[Guinea]Piggybacking on BlahLaLa, for the price of one of those little bales of hay at the pet store for small animals you can usually get a full-on bale of hay at the feed store.

(You can also get a riding crop at the feed store for a fraction of what you would pay for one at a sex shop/kink supplier, if you're into that sort of thing.)

More stuff to buy at feed stores: Vetrap, pet antibiotics, "rustic" looking galvanized pails.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:55 AM on February 20, 2015 [9 favorites]

Home Depot (and similar big home improvement/DIY stores) are a good place to buy some of the gear needed for homebrewing: 5-gallon buckets (w/lids, usually), plumbing and valves (buy the stuff meant for potable water lines), paint filter mesh bags that work great for steeping hops. Thermometers, hygrometer (sometimes), coolers (small for jockey-boxes or big for mash tuns), copper tubing (jockey-boxes or other cooling applications), spray bottles and maybe funnels for sterilizing, etc.

Oh, and never buy your cooking vessel at a homebrew store, not for the standard sizes, anyway. Restaurant supply store for a giant stockpot.

You'll still have to go to the homebrew store for your ingredients and a few other specialty items, but to some degree, brewing is about heating and plumbing.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:05 AM on February 20, 2015 [9 favorites]

Restaurant Supply Stores are the place to get no-frills or low-frills cookware cheap; it's always a better deal than shopping at a department store or kitchen store.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:05 AM on February 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

5 Gallon buckets (usually with lids) can also be acquired from Firehouse Sub locations for a $2 donation per to their charity, although the stock amounts vary. :)
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 11:07 AM on February 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Container Section of American Science & Surplus versus The Container Store

example: these jars are 65 cents each; similar jars here are $1.49-$1.99
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:07 AM on February 20, 2015 [45 favorites]

Prepaid cell phones/mvnos are a lot cheaper. I'm partial to ting.

Came to suggest this. We went with Republic Wireless. Monthly bill used to be $150/month for two lines. Now it's $50/month for the same two lines. I kept waiting for the catch, but there isn't one. Five months in and we're never going back.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 11:09 AM on February 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

With restaurant supply stores, be careful of the ones that are targeted at home/enthusiast cooks. I've run into several that claim to be "restaurant supply" but in fact almost all of their customers are home cooks, and the prices aren't as good as you'd expect. These seem to be cropping up more now that word has gotten out about restaurant supply stores being a good place to shop cheap. The best ones I've been in are the kind where it's in a crappy industrial neighborhood, and the employees almost act annoyed that you're there.
posted by primethyme at 11:10 AM on February 20, 2015 [13 favorites]

This older thread reminded me about online pregnancy and ovulation predictor stick kits. Only used them briefly but was satisfied with their accuracies. First time I bought them they came from an online store in Canada, now they're on eBay pretty cheap.

Also, if you're handy enough, upgrade your backpack and jackets with sew-on reflective ribbon. I bought some and used cheap "slap bands" to make my own arm and wrist reflective bracelets.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 11:22 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Internet musical instrument dealer rondomusic.com has developed a reputation for offering decent quality house branded China-made instruments for very reasonable prices. They also offer some unusual variations not often found elsewhere for any price. The quality, prices, and even variety can rival or even surpass industry giants such as Guitar Center/musiciansfriend.com despite being a much smaller outfit.

I find these kinds of businesses like Zenni and Rondo Music probably have the advantage of very clear, well trusted connections with China-based manufacturing, and are able to successfully exploit niche markets (such as eyeglasses and musical instruments) much more efficiently than the larger players in their respective industries.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:33 AM on February 20, 2015 [12 favorites]

Well this is very specific, but if you ever need Mardi Gras supplies, they're way cheaper to get (online) at a Mardi Gras supply place in New Orleans or the Gulf Coast. Some places only sell in huge quantities but most will sell by the dozen.

Example: Oriental Trading $8.50 for 48, Mardi Gras Outlet* $3.25 for 48.

*Just a random supplier, there are dozens of them.
posted by radioamy at 11:34 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Harbor Freight for tools. Regular tools are great there, but only get their power tools if you need them to last a short time (say, less than 20 hours of continuous runtime).
posted by danceswithlight at 11:42 AM on February 20, 2015

I'm partial to ting.

Total convert with Cricket. Get an older unlocked iPhone (but not TOO old, 4S or later) and you can get unlimited talk/text and 1GB of data for $35/mo if you set up autopay. Monoprice for cables. You used to be able to buy Applecare from a few resellers on Ebay for significantly cheaper but I don't think you can anymore. I get a lot of my Mac dongles and charger cables from Ebay vendors for a fraction of the price. I also go to RetailMeNot before I purchase anything online to see if there is a coupon.
posted by jessamyn at 12:48 PM on February 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Well, the cat litter that is made of compressed pine pellets is the exact same thing they sell at feed stores as stall bedding,

It's also the same as the pine wood pellets sold in huge bags for pellet stoves. (The non-pine ones are slightly cheaper, but don't absorb odor as well. Don't buy them by mistake.) It's usually $5-8 for 40lbs of stove pellets vs. $40 for 40 lbs of Feline Pine.
posted by belladonna at 1:04 PM on February 20, 2015

I bought an Ooma VOIP box about four or five years ago, and basically have not paid for domestic and international (US-UK) calls since. You do have the initial cost (can't remember if it was 150 or 250 USD), but the quality is so much better than cell, and I just really like using a cordless handset on speakerphone. Plus the voicemail is really good, accessible with a browser, etc.
posted by carter at 1:59 PM on February 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I should clarify that I do have a cell phone as well, but in the house, I much prefer using a cordless handset.
posted by carter at 2:00 PM on February 20, 2015

Daysoft! They're the Zenni of contact lenses; highly recommended.
posted by MonsieurPsychosis at 2:32 PM on February 20, 2015 [17 favorites]

I used to recommend monoprice cables to everyone. I don't anymore. The quality control is terrible.

After a couple of years of ordering new DVI/HDMI cables every 6 months (average lifespan, sometimes shorter) one of them had an internal short and came just short of starting an electrical fire (I have a photo of the melted cable housing and char marks on the table somewhere) -- luckily it didn't kill the monitor, though it very easily could have.

I don't think the math works in their favor, even without a dead monitor.
posted by parkan at 2:40 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Popping in to reinforce the Ooma and pine cat litter suggestions. Ooma paid for itself in about 7-8 months. High quality. On the cat pellets, I'd suggest trying one of the more expensive smaller bags you'll find at the grocery store first. Not all cats will go for the consistency. I found this out the hard way--one of mine just refuses to use the stuff. So I still have one box with the normal litter.
posted by CincyBlues at 2:49 PM on February 20, 2015

Vonage is that for me for overseas phone calls. I live in the US my whole family lives either in Australia or the UK. For $30 a month I can make as many phone calls as I like for as long as I like. This works for me because my whole family have no tech literacy at all, seriously it's scary how little technology they use, even text messaging is a whole scary world to them, never the less setting up a webcam & skyping. With Vonage I can ring my mum a couple of times a week & chat for how ever long she wants & it doesn't cost me any more.
posted by wwax at 3:24 PM on February 20, 2015

Custom mouth guards for bruxism (teeth grinding). Dentists will charge hundreds of dollars (mine once quoted $350, and a friend said hers charges $700), but various labs online will send you a impression kit for your teeth, you send back the mold of your teeth, then send back the guard made from your mold, all for under $100.
posted by zsazsa at 3:38 PM on February 20, 2015 [19 favorites]

Cricket has incredibly cheap international calls, it's $15/mo for unlimited texting, landline calls and 1000 minutes of cell calls. And if you auto pay your bill with a Wells Fargo credit card you get free phone insurance. Pretty sweet.
posted by fshgrl at 5:49 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Teeth whitening kits on eBay; you can get a year's supply for about $20 for the same stuff dentists use. As always with eBay, use a top-rated seller.
posted by kinetic at 6:21 AM on February 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

NearlyFreeSpeech.NET for web hosting. It's a pre-pay / pay-for-what-you-use model. Depending on what you need for your website, you could run it for pennies per month.
posted by aheckler at 7:53 AM on February 21, 2015 [8 favorites]

A lot of made-in-China mall-grade goods can be bought online straight from China for a lot less. This works best for semi-disposable stuff: cheap and comfy underwear, memory cards, small toys, LED anything, funky-patterned leggings, charger cords, etc. Try eBay, dx.com, Dhgate, Aliexpress.

Once I bought a lot of ten very cute stuffed bunnies for loot bags for $30-something off dhgate.com and then saw the same bunnies in the window of a boutique downtown here for $25 each, I stopped having much use for shopping malls.

Ioffer.com, and the darker reaches of eBay, and Googles for stuff like "buy Max Mara coat online cheap China" will fetch up a large variety of counterfeit goods. These range from chavvy vinyl purses to remarkably nice clothing in good fabrics with unique designs that are "Marni" or "Rick Owens" or whatever not because of copycat design but because -- best I can tell -- that was what label the factory happened to have around to sew into the thing that week. The connection between the garment and the designer name used for SEO is pretty tangential. I have a number of nest pieces from that sort of shopping -- a "Chloé" dress that is not a Chloé design, but which is pretty and which is entirely silk, lining included, for example. Just snip the tags out and enjoy. Vet the photos and feedback very carefully, use a credit card whose customer service dept you trust to have your back, but only once have I had to do a chargeback after buying direct and without eBay and/or PayPal to complain to.
posted by kmennie at 2:07 PM on February 21, 2015 [18 favorites]

If you like Warhammer or Warhammer 40000 or any of the games from Forgeworld, check on aliexpress.com for high quality IP-violating recasts of pretty much anything. The resin the recasters use is actually better to work with than Forgeworld's own.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 8:12 PM on February 21, 2015

Republic Wireless has saved us a huge amount of money on our cell phones, and we love the service. Buy a phone up front, then pay a tiny amount for your phone service. They've done it by creating a clever Android mod that lets you use wifi for calls and texts when it's available and only using cell towers when necessary. Bonus: our last house didn't have cell service at all, but we were still able to use our phones at home on wifi, and didn't have to pay for a landline.
posted by nosila at 7:08 AM on February 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Craig Frames for picture frames! I had finally gotten around to buying some frames for some nice posters I'd had lying around for too long, and was *shocked* at the state of the picture frame market. It seemed like you could either buy a dirt-cheap mediocre plastic frame from Wal-Mart that would warp and fall apart immediately, or get a semi-decently constructed wood+glass frame from various retail and online places for a ridiculous markup (like $75-100+). No middle ground.

But I eventually found Craig Frames through Amazon and was pleasantly surprised with their work -- they had a wide variety of sizes, in a wide variety of materials/styles, at very low prices. I ended up getting a large 2'x3' raw ash frame for $35 and a smaller 14''x22'' white-painted one for only $30. Shipping through Amazon was only $8 or so for about a week to ship (the price skyrocketed for expedited shipping, but I could wait).

The frames are solid wood, quite sturdy, with a cardboard backing secured with a dozen or so metal folding tabs; the surface is acrylic (with a removable plastic wrap) rather than glass. I've got no illusions this is some museum-grade archival system here, but for your basic prints and posters it's very nice. The larger frames come with a DIY D-ring and wire accessory you have to drill yourself, but it's not too complicated. They're also made in the USA and have great customer service, from what I've read. Highly recommended.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:46 PM on February 27, 2015 [14 favorites]

Coming in late (thank you podcast! This is a great thread!)- I like 5 Dollar Frames for picture frames. Really good quality and great customer service.
posted by dogmom at 5:50 PM on March 5, 2015 [9 favorites]

Forever 21 has a lot of decent basic clothes and generally does a sale or five every year. Their quality varies a LOT and they have a lot of hipster-y/high fashion knockoff stuff that will fit weirdly or otherwise be not worth it, but their camisoles and tights are fine and I have a variety of decent skirts from them. You can get a good variety of camisoles and cheap basic shirts for a few bucks when they do a sale, and they usually offer free shipping when they do that.

ELF makeup is often not great but the handful of decent things they make are cheap as hell. Look through makeup websites for the best drugstore brands because there are some really great products that are better than the Sephora type version if you know what to look for.

Fire Mountain Gems has the cheapest beads and a lot of other craft stuff around by orders of magnitude.
posted by NoraReed at 9:06 PM on March 5, 2015

Low-cost spay/neuter clinics are available in many cities, and usually without a means test. In fact, if you can afford to pay their (already low) price for basic services and medicine, you are likely subsidizing vet care for the truly poor.
posted by Jane Austen at 2:13 PM on March 19, 2015

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