NEW YORK -- Before you plunk down $500 for a pair of prescription eyeglasses, you might consider getting them online.
The number of folks doing just that is growing, says AOL consumer Adviser Regina Lewis, who observes that we may be a little ways off from it being the norm in the $16 billion a year industry, but it is gaining traction, to say the least. And even though such purchases make up less than one percent of that market, doing so is a natural evolution of what's for sale online -- nobody thought we'd ever buy shoes on the Internet -- you'd have to try them on first, right? Well, apparently not.
And now with eyeglasses, while some sites (39dollarglasses.com, FramesDirect.com) have actually been online selling glasses for 10-plus years, some startup companies (such as WarbyParker.com) have moved into the space with fresh ideas on making shopping for glasses online more consumer-friendly.
According to Lewis:
Buying glasses online may mostly appeal to a younger generation -- twenty-something's who have grown up online and are comfortable buying anything and everything they can with the click of a mouse, but that is also poised to change. This is a growing industry.
There are benefits to buying online instead of a store or doctor's office:
-- Sites that are doing this and doing it right are persuading people to shop for eyeglasses online with a combination of fashionable lenses, top-notch customer service and super-low prices. At large offline chains, you can easily spent $400 to $500 for frames and lenses -- these sites are doing it at a fraction of that.
-- Most are able to sell glasses at a high discount since they don't have the additional overhead constraints (such as retail rent space, behind-the-counter employees, and expensive displays) that traditional optical stores have. Those savings are passed onto the customer.
- Also, the customer experience in buying glasses online is getting better and better, so it is becoming more approachable for the average consumer. While buying a pair of eyeglasses is a very personal purchase -- a person might try on a dozen frames before settling on one they like -- some eyeglasses sites are able to give customers a similar shopping experience virtually.
WEBSITES THAT SPECIALIZE IN SELLING PRESCRIPTION EYEGLASES
This startup designs its own frames -- very chic and modern, but still at competitive price -- just $95, shipped. It's hard to beat WarbyParker.com for the shopping experience. While the company is only about one year old, it is really getting things right. The site uses facial recognition technology so shoppers can upload a photo of themselves and try on glasses virtually. There's no limit to how many frames you can model in cyberspace.
And here's the really cool part: You can share pictures by e-mail or on Facebook of yourself sporting different frames. So, before you buy, if you want to get the opinion of family and friends, you can do that instantly. For those who are still doubtful, the company will actually mail you out five loaner frames. Each complete set of eyeglasses is $95.00. And for each pair of glasses WarbyParker sells, it donates a pair to someone in need.
This is a discounter -- it's where you go if price is a big driver for you - but don't expect to see the big brand name frames here. This site is actually run by eye doctors. And you really can get a complete set of glasses for just $39. Just watch out for some of the up-sells, such as anti-reflective coating, which can make the prices start to go up pretty fast, depending on what you add. The technology on the site isn't as fancy, but it does enable you to view frames on a person with your face type, and you can print out a copy of the frames in their exact size. This gives you a very good idea how they will fit your face.
This site is for people who are after the brand name frames -- Dior, Polo, Versace, etc. You can still save a little off what you'd pay at a traditional optical store. While FramesDirect sells all the brand name frames you find in most local optical stores and national chains, there's a whole lot more selection. It has nearly 35,000 frames to choose from. The one caveat here is that, because it does sell the big name brands, the pricing is going to be only slightly less than you would pay in an offline store.
Pros and cons of buying eyeglasses online
-- Low prices: as much as 70 percent less than in traditional optical stores.
-- Convenience: Shop from home and have your glasses delivered to your door.
-- Selection: thousands of frames to choose from at the click of a mouse.
-- Can't actually try them on.
-- Possible return hassles.
-- Still may have to have your frames professionally adjusted.
What kind of guarantees or return policies do the sites offer?
The guarantees are pretty solid. 39DollarGlasses has a 30 day return policy, while WarbyParker offers a no-questions-asked, 30 day free return policy. If you're not 100 percent satisfied with your new glasses for any reason, you can call or e-mail them and they will send you a return label allowing you to return your glasses for free. And all the sites guarantee the accuracy of your prescription.
Also, if your frames need tweaked for a better fit once you receive them, most optical stores will perform an adjustment for a nominal fee. Some may even do it for free.
Where does the eye doctor come in?!
Before you order eyeglasses online, you still have to head to your eye doctor or optometrist to have your eyes checked and get a prescription. From there, you can enter it online when you place your order or e-mail it to them. The sites double-check everything on their end to make sure there are no obvious errors.
What if you still want to go the old-fashioned way and buy at an optical store … what are some of the cheapest options there?
If you insist on seeing the frames on your face and feeling them in your hands, Costco and Walmart represent your least expensive options. And if you have an old, trusted pair of frames and want to change out the lenses, many places will let you use your old frames for new glasses.
Copyright 2011 CBS. All rights reserved.