Prescription eyeglasses are part medical product and part fashion accessory for the two-thirds of American adults who wear them at least occasionally. But no matter why you're buying a pair of specs, you're probably overpaying.
Americans spend $28.7 billion annually on vision products and services, according to the Vision Council of America. Eyeglass frames and lenses make up the largest portion, about $16 billion.
Many of the 147 million adult eyeglass wearers probably don't know they could be getting a better price because few shop around.
Prices vary widely. People can pay more than $1,000 for a pair of glasses, while at least one Internet provider promises a pair for $8. An identical pair of eyeglasses costs from $178 to $390, depending on the optician or optometrist, according to research in seven U.S. cities by Consumers' Checkbook, a consumer information guide.
"There is big price variation from outlet to outlet for exactly the same lenses and frames," said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers' Checkbook, found online at Checkbook.org. Moreover, service at some low-cost suppliers was rated as quite good, he said.
The single most important consumer tip for buying eyeglasses is to relax.
Inexpensive glasses pose no health risk to your eyes. Even a bad pair of glasses - lenses, specifically - won't give you an eye infection or permanently damage your eyes, although they could cause headaches until they are fixed.
So you should consider comparison shopping, as opposed to simply buying whatever your eye doctor has to sell.
In fact, a 1978 Federal Trade Commission ruling called the Ophthalmic Practices Rules says you have a right to take your prescription anywhere to buy glasses. So you're not locked in to buying from your doctor, where prices are likely to be highest.
Still, it's true that people receive the best service from their neighborhood optician or medical-center eye doctor, according to a survey of 92,000 readers of Consumer Reports magazine.
The decision about buying glasses generally comes down to where you buy them.
You should decide based on four criteria: price, service, selection and speed of delivery.
The simpler your prescription, with normal measurements and no bifocals and trifocals, the better luck you're likely to have buying from a cheaper source, said Gregory Good, professor of clinical optometry at Ohio State University. As with most products, you will want to know about warranties and return policies.
Here are categories of eyewear outlets, with tips for buying glasses. Next week, we'll talk about saving money on contact lenses.
Doctors and independents.
If you're willing to pay more for glasses in return for good service, buy from your eye doctor or an independent optical shop. They are also likely to carry brand-name frames, which is largely a personal fashion choice.
But the secret about name-brand frames is companies such as Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren don't make the frames, Consumer Reports said. They just license their names to a regular frame manufacturer.
"You can eliminate the ultrahigh-cost frame by looking for a stylish frame that doesn't have a brand name attached to it," said money-saving expert Clark Howard, an Atlanta author and radio-show host.
Buying eyewear could include a trust factor that might be higher with your doctor or a neighborhood optician.
If you're willing to pay to have glasses quickly, try a chain store, such a LensCrafters, which promises glasses in about an hour. "The advantage is you walk in and an hour later you walk out with your glasses," Howard said. "A lot of people will pay for convenience."
Be sure to receive the discounts you're eligible for. For example, a discount with AAA membership might be more valuable than using your employer vision insurance. If you're in no hurry, wait for discount specials that run during the Christmas holiday season when few people are looking to buy new eyeglasses, Howard said in his book Clark's Big Book of Bargains: Clark Howard Teaches You How to Get the Best Deals.
Be aware the person you talk to at the chain store is a salesperson whose job is not only to help you, but help you spend the most money.
If price is important, try a warehouse club. Costco Wholesale Corp. scored very high with Consumer Reports readers and Consumers' Checkbook findings. BJ's Optical, found in Eastern states, also scored well. For some warehouse clubs, you don't need a membership to buy glasses.
If price is paramount, try an Internet merchant. Howard recently bought glasses from Zenni Optical, where you can buy glasses online for $8. Howard had a few add-ons that raised the total price to $41, which is still a bargain. He wears the glasses daily. "I don't know how these people do it, but it's a steal," Howard said. "The glasses are perfect. And the feedback I've gotten from [radio] listeners is they have good customer service."
One advantage of ultra-cheap glasses is that even if everything goes badly with your transaction, you're not out a lot of money. That makes online retailers an ideal outlet for buying a backup pair of eyeglasses.
Of course, you won't have an optician to adjust the frames so they're comfortable and to ensure bifocals are aligned properly with your eyes.
Reviews of some online retailers are available at EyeglassRetailerReviews.com and GlassyEyes.blogspot.com.
You could also try a hybrid plan, where you buy frames online and take them to an optician to have lenses inserted. You'll have to judge whether the hassle is worth the savings.
No matter where you buy eyeglasses, view lens add-ons skeptically. You'll be offered a variety of lens materials and coatings, such as polycarbonate lenses or anti-reflective coating or polished edges.
For add-ons that you can test out, ask to see samples of glasses with and without the feature to determine whether it's worthwhile.
Unless you're outdoors a lot or have a light complexion, you may not need UV blocking because plastic lenses already filter the most harmful UV rays, Good said.
Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.