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Pros and Cons of Online Shopping for Eyeglasses, Part 1

Hello! The Cascadia Eye blog is back, and so am I.*

Online Shop-smallWith help from our CEO, Sheri Saldivar, I have been working on this blog topic for a while now. You see, for the first time we are launching our very own e-store—featuring independent brands for both sunglasses and ophthalmic frames, and a new outlet shop (more news on that later)!

And because of this, we’ve also now done quite a lot of research on the subject of e-stores for glasses. You can learn all about eyeglasses here.

(This is part 1 of a two-part piece. Part 2 is here!)

As independent eye service professionals, our doctors and opticians view online shopping for eyewear a little bit differently than your average shopper. Now, I personally love shopping online. It’s fast, convenient, and means I don’t have to leave my house. However, some of that speed and convenience automatically goes away when it comes to prescription glasses. That’s because there are so many factors that go into functional eyewear; much more than choosing a color and style that fits you.

If you're buying sunglasses, it's less complicated.

If you’re buying sunglasses, it’s less complicated.

And our top concern will always be how well it serves your all-important vision and comfort.

Popular e-stores for glasses can range from quality that is comparable to what we offer—and at similar prices—right on down to unbelievably low prices. But even the stores that offer quality product have elements that should raise concern for doctors, opticians, and you.

What online glasses retailers are not:

1. They’re not automatically offering the same quality for less money. Contrary to what you might have been told, the price of frames you purchase online is not cheaper, matching quality for quality, than what you can get in our optical. We checked the leading markets, and found a few different price points (for frames only—we’ll talk about lenses in a second):

  • Mid range (roughly $70 – $110)—either the higher-quality independently created frames (much like our own Cascadia brand) or name-brand frames that have been discontinued
  • Low range ($7 – $20, give or take)—mostly “house-designed” frames from sites where low price is the chief selling point

Does the second price sound unbelievable? Let’s break it down a little bit. An independent optician committed some first-hand research recently and found that not all frames are created equal. The cheapest frames she ordered—those in the $6.99 range—came to her with brittle hinges and visible cracks in the plastic before she even took them out of the bag (labeled “made in China,” no less).** In this case, you do get what you pay for…which is a completely different product from anything we would willingly dispense to our patients.

And what about lenses?

This one is huge. As someone invested in your vision, I’d even venture to say it’s the most important. Setting aside the all-important issue of proper measurement, which I’ll address further down, what about lens quality? What about durability and scratch-resistance? What about anti-reflective coating?

For Cascadia Eye, our standard lens—that is, for people whose prescriptions aren’t so high that a special, lighter material like Trivex or high index is needed—is about $50-$65. (The different material we offer is listed here; just scroll toward the bottom of the page.) The standard lens comes with a scratch-resistant coating and 1-year warranty; anti-reflective coating is a separate addition—with an additional warranty—and it’s one that we stand by for hardness, smudge-resistance, and overall clarity.

Now back to that independent optician researcher I previously mentioned. None of the lenses she ordered, from leading online stores, had the kind of quality we expect. They scratched easily. The anti-reflective coating, also purchased separately, smudged instantly. Even the highest-priced products were not exempt from this.

In other words, know what you’re paying for. You can find lenses online for less than what we charge, but they are not a better value; they are not the same lenses.

2. They’re not ‘bucking the system’ on your behalf, any more than an independent optical (like Cascadia Eye). Here’s a direct quote from one of the sites:

The eyewear industry is dominated by a single company that has been able to keep prices artificially high while reaping huge profits from consumers who have no other options. […] By circumventing traditional channels, designing glasses in-house, and engaging with customers directly, we’re able to provide higher-quality, better-looking prescription eyewear at a fraction of the going price.

This company is offering itself as an alternative to “the eyewear industry.” Now, Cascadia Eye actually agrees 100% with the need to break away from the big corporations. In fact, I’ve written about that very subject myself—and about how we’re addressing it with our own personal brand, among other independent designers. So when this store seems to be implying that indie optical shops like ours (i.e. brick-and-mortar stores that are not part of an optical chain) are part of the problem—and that shopping online is the solution—I just want to raise my hand and say, “Wait a minute.”  Because Cascadia Eye is a brick-and-mortar store that is all about finding alternatives to big-name brands, and we feel like we’re succeeding for our patients.

3. They’re not necessarily providing the “same accurate measuring techniques used by opticians to get the perfect fit.” (Quoted from one of the sites). This is a complex subject, with lots of information about how opticianry works, so I’ll address it more fully in part 2 next week.

But briefly I want to address a primary point of concern for conscientious opticians and doctors: the matter of pupillary distance (PD). PD is a measurement that determines the distance between your pupils. It helps us to center the prescription in exactly the right place; an inaccurate PD can lead to just as much vision trouble as an inaccurate prescription. But because it’s not usually included in your prescription print-out (the optician ordering your glasses usually takes the measurement, not your doctor), when you order online you don’t necessarily know that number.

While online stores do encourage you to put in a PD from an optician, they also tell you how to take your own measurement. This is not a great idea.*** It is much more accurate to let a professional do it for you, rather than squinting at a mirror and using a ruler. Even worse, however, is the notion of an ‘average PD,’ which I was astonished to see on a leading site. No one has an ‘average’ PD. If you’re ever tempted to take that shortcut…don’t.

The Takeaway, part 1:

I don’t want to leave you on a discouraging note. There is actually a lot to love about online shopping for glasses, even with some of the problems that need addressing. We’re attempting to do just that with our own e-store; I talk about that in the next post! (I also address a big issue—progressive lenses—and dig a bit more into the role an optician plays in your glasses.) But for this first part, I wanted to present a little clarity from the perspective of eye care professionals like us.

Because if you are looking into an e-store for your next pair of glasses, we all want you going into it with—ahem—clear vision.


Contact Cascadia Eye

Alex BrandtIf you would like to learn more, or if you would like to schedule an appointment at Cascadia Eye, please contact us today. We are happy to answer any questions you might have!

In addition, join us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ to ask your questions about eyes, exams, and our practice. We’d love to hear from you – and there might be a blog to address your questions in the future.


*Alex Brandt is Cascadia Eye’s official blogger.

**Also interesting to note is the easy “reorder” function on these sites—as if they expect you to need to order that same frame/lens combo again soon—and a lack of warranties anywhere.

***There are two types of PD measurements. The type you do to yourself (in a mirror, as some sites direct), and/or “averages,” only give you the total distance between your two pupils (and not accurately, at that) which is a number like 60. Using a “binocular” measurement of 60, for example, when putting the lenses in your frames they would split the 60 in half and put the optical center in one eye at 30 and the other at 30. In the real world it is very rare for people to be that symmetrical. Most people’s real “monocular” (each eye) with a binocular measurement of 60 would be more like 31 in one eye and 29 in the other–or some other combination besides 30/30. If your power is high enough, even a millimeter off will result in blurred vision because of prism induced by the incorrect PD!

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