How to Scavenge Glasses: Meet Ira Mitchell, Cheap-Glasses Guru

August 24, 2009 at 9:50 am | Posted in Tips | 24 Comments

Designer-Eyeglasses-702155One of the most life-changing scavenging sites online is Glassy Eyes, devoted to the revolutionary idea of BUYING PRESCRIPTION EYEGLASSES ONLINE for half, one-fourth, or even one-tenth of what they’d cost you in a brick-and-mortar optician’s shop. I know — it sounds impossible. But more and more online eyeglasses companies are popping up all the time; Glassy Eyes keeps track of them and hosts dozens of forums where users discuss their experiences with each. Because of my severe astigmatism and strong prescription, glasses normally cost me over $300 per pair, with absolutely no frills. But thanks to Glassy Eyes, last year I bought a pair of progressive bifocals from Zenni Optical for about $50. (Zenni’s prices start at an amazing $8 for single-vision glasses. Mine were more because they’re bifocals.) They’re not perfect — a bit of distortion at the outer edges, and the middle range is a smidge too narrow — but for distance and for reading, they’re sharp and clear. As backups, they’ve been absolutely great.

Those of us with less-than-perfect vision know that eyeglasses are a scavenger’s nightmare. Maybe, just maybe, you can find the occasional pair of secondhand frames in a thrift shop or at a yard sale, but such finds are incredibly rare — largely because the Lions Club tends to get first dibs on all pairs of prescription spectacles donated to thrift shops, which the club then gives to Doctors Without Borders, which then distributes them among the needy overseas. And even if you find those once-in-a-blue-moon secondhand frames, the chances of actually liking them — of their being the right shape, size, style, and color — are slim beyond slim. Frames at brick-and-mortar opticians’ shops tend to start at around $100, which is ridiculous considering that you’re just getting a few ounces of plastic or wire with a couple of hinges attached. AND THAT’S JUST THE COST OF THE FRAMES. The markup on lenses is shocking too, according to Ira Mitchell, the guy behind Glassy Eyes.

Mitchell is a scavengers’ hero, and he was kind enough to consent to an interview.

Purchased online, “my typical pair costs between $30 and $60 with the coatings and the discounts,” Mitchell says. Over the last three years, he’s bought around forty pair — because, at that price, he can.

Q: Tell me something about the markups commonly applied at opticians’ shops. When it comes to frames and various types of lenses, what kind of profit margin are we talking about?

A: There are a number of examples that have been passed my way to further enforce my view of the fleecing we’ve received at the hands of the optical shops. Some are rather damning. Here is my favorite, by far, from an optician in Texas — I found it on an online optical board: “A pair of SV (single vision) stock poly Alize cost me $34, and carry a 2 year warranty. We sell ’em all day long for $199/pair, for a profit of $165/pair. Our capture rate for AR (anti-reflective coating) is about 90%. Also stock poly non coated, cost $6/pair and sell for $109…. Now show me the math where you can beat the $165 profit on a pair of SV (single vision) lenses. If you can, I’ll still love you in the morning.”

After I posted it, he got in touch with me directly — very angrily I should add. A creepy dude to be sure.

A retired Minneapolis optician sent me the following: ‘As a retired Minneapolis optician I can tell you first hand that we bought our lenses in bulk and most single vision lenses cost less than $2.00 a pair, Bifocals and progressives cost us as much as $6.00 a pair. Frames… name brand, up to $10.00, same quality generics cost us much less. Online is the way I buy all of my eyewear, New glasses in under two weeks!’

I originally thought that the markup was in the frames. The range in prices from what my eye doctor called ‘welfare frames’ to the designer frames was from $30 to whatever-you-want-to-pay. I figured they pay salaries and such from the cost of the designer frame with the $190 price tag. There is no appreciable functional or material difference, but the cost to the consumer is anywhere from four to ten times more.

It turns out that they’re making ridiculous margins on the frames, the lenses, and the coatings.

Q: GlassyEyes’ motto is “Shattering the eyeglasses scam.” That’s a pretty strong charge. Why do you call it a scam?

A: $400 for a pair of eyeglasses at a store, versus a remarkably similar pair online for, say, $30? These companies, apart from the few mom-and-pop joints scratching for survival in the small towns, are gobbling each other up in an effort to monopolize the market. Look at the eyeglasses chains in your city. I bet the vast majority are owned by one company. [That company is Luxottica; Mitchell provides this link.]

Stack the deck enough and you won’t have any competition to help moderate prices. The internet is again proving itself as a great equalizer.

Q: What do you say to folks who ask: Are you trying to put regular brick-and-mortar opticians out of business?

A: Only the ones who continue to rip people off and refuse to adapt to a new economy. I’ve stated early on that I think there is an economical model for a low-cost brick-and-mortar eyeglasses store. A lot of it relies on a sea change in our thinking about eyeglasses. That is starting to happen and someone will figure out a way to serve the masses, either online or off…. I expect big changes in the next couple of years.

Q: Have you been confronted/questioned/challenged by any representatives of the optical industry?

A: Constantly. … [But] as the site’s popularity grows, these confrontations are diminishing. I think they realize that there is little to argue about any longer — the toothpaste is out of the tube. They’re hoping that more people don’t do the research and that this will remain a ‘niche.’

Q: Buying anything online entails a certain amount of risk. Buying glasses anywhere entails a certain amount of risk. Given the degree of risk, how do you advise online glasses-shoppers to proceed? What should they be most aware of, cautious about, etc.?

A: I’ve lost count of the number of eyeglasses orders I’ve placed online … and I’ve only gotten two ‘bad’ pairs…. Of the previous five pairs I bought at LensCrafters, one was made with the lenses flipped, and another with Ray-Ban frames never fit right. There is a risk to ordering online, but I much prefer my 95% online success to my 60% at LensCrafters.

I have four things I preach to newcomers:

1) I mitigated my initial risk by ordering two pairs — each from a different retailer. I figured at least one would be OK. Do the same.

2) Check, double-check, and triple-check the prescription you enter online. Be very sure the numbers on that prescription card match what you’ve entered on that form.

3) Use the numbers stamped on the inside of an existing pair as a guideline on those first few pairs. All of the sites explain what these numbers mean. You can branch out from this once you’re comfortable and understand the process better.

4) Only order from reputable dealers. There are two places that I cover that are very, very good at making customers happy. When problems happen — and they do — the separation comes from the retailers that stand behind their product. I think it’s fair to pay a little bit more for that.

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