May 1, 2008 8:52 PM   Subscribe

Why are eyeglasses so expensive?

I'm astigmatic, so I need bifocals / progressive lenses, which are more expensive. But eyeglasses seem needlessly expensive. I suppose it's the combination of fashion (nobody wants to look ugly) with necessity (as with other health care).

In my area, it's reached a point where frame mending services are doing a good business and a charity collects used eyeglasses and matches the prescriptions with the needs of people who otherwise couldn't afford new ones.

And forget about getting sunglasses, the latest fashionista affectation. I would have to have prescription sunglasses.
posted by bad grammar to Shopping (27 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Because they are made to order. And most people will pay 500 bucks for something that will allow them to see perfectly (or close to).
posted by ruwan at 8:56 PM on May 1, 2008

This has been discussed a lot on MeFi - check your eyeglasses tag, and the glasses tag.

One oft chosen option is an online discount optician, like Zenni Optical, where glasses start at $8.00. They do sunglasses also!
posted by DarlingBri at 9:00 PM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I can't speak to your personal situation, but I know what we used to say to patients when I worked as an optometrist's assistant: Eyeglasses usually last an average of two years before you need a new prescription, so do the math: If you spent $365 on your glasses (frames and lenses) and they lasted you two years, you'd only be spending 50 cents a day to see (and seeing comfortably and accurately is THE most important thing most people need in their every day lives/careers). If they only lasted one year, that would still be only $1.00 a day. Plus, glasses are the first thing people notice about you if you wear them, so it's important to have a frame that fits your face and flatters you.

That said, I often balked at how much we changed for frames (the "designer" frames especially). Our bargain frames were just as flattering as the designer styles and our bargain lenses were just as accurate, and as durable, as the high-end ones.
posted by amyms at 9:07 PM on May 1, 2008

From Mental Floss:
Eyeglass frames are typically marked up anywhere from 600 to 1000 percent. Most frames are manufactured in China, then sent to Italy or Germany for minor tweaking and finishing touches so that Armani or Gucci can slap a “Made in the EU” label on them. To remain competitive, storefront opticians only make 15 to 20 percent on each sale, but costs are high. Unlike shoes or clothes, not everyone needs glasses. The average person buys glasses only when his prescription changes, which may mean a gap of several years. And a person rarely buys more than two pairs of glasses at a time.

The average non-chain optical store rakes in $500,000 in sales per year, but out of that comes rent and utilities, insurance, and staffing costs. The salary of an on-site optometrist alone could run as high as $100,000 annually. If the shop makes glasses while you wait, whatever is left ends up paying for their very expensive in-store lab equipment. Large chain stores get more customer traffic, so they’re able to offer slightly lower prices.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:15 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have you considered buying them online? Have you seen the legendary Mathowie glasses article?
posted by theiconoclast31 at 9:16 PM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

My stepdad's an optician. From what I gather, it's a combination of the made-to-order effect that ruwan talks about as well as the large number of middle-men that are involved in the operation. Lenses are the most expensive given the labour: they have to be precut by a supplier who passes it to the optician who cuts them again to fit the frames. Cost also varies according to the material of the lens (eg. glass, polycarbonate, hi index - ultrathin) and coatings (scratch resistance, antiglare etc). Really high quality lenses often come from manufacturers such as Nikon who will back their lenses with warranties.

Frames, particularly designer frames, are also ordered from a supplier with their own markup costs, further aggravated by the fact that some brands are provided by one supplier only. My stepdad has actually taken to traveling to China every year and personally purchasing entire lots of frames just to cut out the middleman and offer a lower price to customers.
posted by kitkatcathy at 9:18 PM on May 1, 2008

I'm currently wearing a new pair of glasses from the Zenni Optical site linked above. They cost ten dollars, and seem to work just as well as my old Lenscrafters ones did.

This comment (from the post where I first ran across Zenni) may shed some light on the matter. It seems that prescription glasses in America may be a bit of a monopoly.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:20 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you spent $365 on your glasses (frames and lenses) and they lasted you two years, you'd only be spending 50 cents a day to see

And if I spent $10,000 a year on oxygen rental from the government, I'd only be spending $27 a day to breathe. That doesn't mean I want to pay $27/day to breathe.

OP: If price is an issue buy online. You should be able to get some perfectly fine glasses for dirt cheap. The stronger your prescription, the more it will cost (assuming you want the hi-index plastics rather than wear inch-thick glasses) but even with my prescriptions glasses online with 1.67 hi-index would cost $80 compared to $500 at a store.
posted by Justinian at 9:21 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Glassy Eyes got the ball rolling on the internet prescription glasses thing. Good write ups, reviews, etc. there. I've got two pairs of glasses from online and a third pair of prescription sunglasses. The regular glasses have been fine, though no one would mistake them for high end eyewear - they are akin to what you get a one hour places with two for one deals. Still, both pairs set me back about $60 and if I don't like them I can toss them. The sunglasses are a different story - the frames cracked in several places a month after purchase. Total manufacturing defect. I could have sent them back... but... meh. I'm out $60 on those.
posted by wfrgms at 9:25 PM on May 1, 2008

Some of the glasses are worth the $$$. I am no longer young, I need bifocals. Cheap ones will work but expensive ones work much better. Regular progressives are crap, with a narrow little band down the center in which you can see. There is a whole new world of glasses, I don't know the word for them, but they grind the lenses on both sides and greatly improve upon the performance of regular progressives. I bought the Definity brand, but there are others. You can't really get these mail order either as they really need some extra measures to make them work, at least that is what I was told, but who knows, it might have been a bill of goods. Anyway, for anyone who is seeking progressives, I highly recommend these newer alternatives if you can stomach the nearly $1k price. Eye glasses insurance covers about $90 of this, which means the companies that sell these need to market themselves a little better to consumers and to the insurance companies to get better insurance coverage for these awesome, yet expensive, lenses.
posted by caddis at 9:30 PM on May 1, 2008

They're not. But there is an economic inefficiency caused by medical plans that will pay a certain amount for one pair of glasses, that causes them to appear expensive if you buy them in a store.
posted by delmoi at 9:47 PM on May 1, 2008

medical plans that will pay a certain amount for one pair of glasses

In my experience, most medical insurers don't pay anything for glasses, although most of them will cover the eye exam itself (minus a copay). It's weird. They don't mind helping you go to the eye doctor, but if the doctor finds that you need glasses, you're on your own.
posted by amyms at 10:10 PM on May 1, 2008

I used to live near Sabae, the eyeglass capital of Japan (and the world). I have seriously bad eyesight, but on a recent trip back home (to Japan) I picked up a pair of designer glasses with ultra-thin lenses for $200. I actually bought a second pair with cool transparent plastic frames (like David Letterman used to have!) with *slightly* thicker lenses for $100. Same glasses would have cost me $600 and $350 in Canada.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:07 PM on May 1, 2008

It pushes the price up even more, but you can get lenses that only darken in sunlight and are transparent indoors. (I use them). Brand names are "reactions" or "reactolite". Though I suppose if it's about fashion you might want them to be dark indoors too.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:22 PM on May 1, 2008

The lenses TheophileEscargot describes are more generically called "photochromic" lenses. I forget what it cost on my latest pair, but I absolutely love 'em; on the other hand, I'm told they're not that great in the car (because the wavelengths that trigger the color change get filtered out by the windshield, or something like that).
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:25 AM on May 2, 2008

Glasses aren't expensive. Here you go, glasses for <>.
posted by dmt at 2:22 AM on May 2, 2008

Please note: I ordered progressives from Zenni, and they screwed up the prescription. I emailed them, and they replaced the order, but with a pair that was identical in its unuseability! I emailed them again and they would not reply. Granted, they say no refunds on the website, but just sayin' because the progressives there are a tad more expensive than their other glasses, and it seems they can't do them right.
posted by fish tick at 3:53 AM on May 2, 2008

I too ordered some glasses from Zenni. THe lenses were the correct prescription, but the frames and build quality were so flimsy that they were unusable except as a backup-backup.

Why so expensive?

- You're paying for the time of the skilled professionals who build them.
- Designer frames are a big part of the cost.
- The various up-sells like coatings and different glass are too.
posted by gjc at 7:30 AM on May 2, 2008

I've ordered a pair of rimless glasses from Goggles4u for $36(!). Followed that up with a pair from Zenni Optical for around $55 (spent a bit more for the type of trendy fashionable frame all the kids are wearing these days). Mrs. tacodog got regular glasses and a set of shades from Zenni Optical. All four sets have been working great. I've been wearing glasses daily since the 5th grade so I'm picky and I have really bad eyesight but I've nothing but good words to say about our experience.

The only downside is you need to adjust them yourself or go to a lenscrafter's or like store for a complementary adjustment. I just did it myself. There are videos on the internets to show you how.
posted by Tacodog at 8:49 AM on May 2, 2008

I have two pair from Zenni Optical: a slightly weaker prescription for reading (I decided against bifocals), and my normal prescription tinted 80% gray. Both are fine.
posted by fings at 8:57 AM on May 2, 2008

I ordered two pairs from Zenni that I use exclusively. It's nice to not have to be worried about your glasses breaking whenever they aren't on your face or in a case.
posted by milestogo at 10:20 AM on May 2, 2008

(My dad's an optometrist, and I spent a lot of time growing up geeking out on the fun toys in his office)

I'm astigmatic, so I need bifocals / progressive lenses

This isn't quite right. Astigmatism is a ripple or irregularity in the lens surface, which is corrected by making a corresponding irregularity in the lens itself. (I'm simplifying, but that's the general idea.)

Bifocals and progressive lenses are meant for people who need varying levels of focal length correction depending on the distance of the thing they're looking at. (Usually this is people who are farsighted, and need a stronger focal correction for things up close, but much less for things far away.)

Both of those are more expensive than simple focal-length corrective lenses, because they're a lot more work both to measure accurately and to manufacture. They also make the lenses very much not interchangeable between people, since the astigmatism won't match from one person to the next.

Given that you apparently need both, yeah, your lenses are always going to be expensive, but at least you can console yourself with the fact that it's for a fair reason. (In your situation I'd be very wary about buying glasses online; you need a good lab to make the more complicated lenses; personally I wouldn't trust a large bulk operation to get it right, and you don't have much recourse if they don't.)

The frames are a whole other story. Some frames are unbelievably overpriced, no question about it, because they've got the right logo on them. (Just like some blue jeans are unbelievably overpriced.) Some aren't, though; I've got one pair of glasses with $400 frames, and another with $35 frames. The cheap ones aren't the high-tech bendy titanium, they're just plastic, and will probably break sooner than the expensive ones, but they look fine. Shop around; most offices carry the whole range. (I think the expensive ones are worth it, because I can step on them and they won't break, but that's up to you.)
posted by ook at 11:08 AM on May 2, 2008

Nth'ing the "buy your glasses online crowd". I picked up a pair that was only going to be used occasionally for 30 bucks and ended up wearing them all the time because they're so great.
posted by pete0r at 11:23 AM on May 2, 2008

Adding to my earlier answer... I just talked to my stepdad. Apparently another factor in lens price/ lens quality is the degree of distortion caused by the lens. Better lenses have less distortion but are pricier. The analogy he likes to use is regular TVs vs high definition TVs: you can see the image in both just fine but the hi def TV provides a significantly clearer image. Depending on the value you place on image clarity (and of course, your budget) you may be willing to pay more money for a better lens even if the cheaper lens 'works' fine.
posted by kitkatcathy at 1:49 PM on May 2, 2008

You're also subsidizing their medical equipment, a lot of which is only used rarely. Last time I was at the optometrist, they were talking about how they recently bought a retinal camera, and it was $50k or so (and they had no idea how to use it yet). Yikes.

Also, I assume they subsidize their own exams. They give you a free or low-cost exam, and then charge more for the glasses to make up for it.
posted by smackfu at 5:32 PM on May 2, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you, eyeglasses experts. I did shop around, and the only good deals I could find were for single vision lenses. I don't feel confident about buying on-line, unless I bought a pair of single lenses for close work.

The 50 cents a day comment makes me feel less burned.
posted by bad grammar at 6:25 PM on May 2, 2008

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