Column: Glasses are still damn expensive

The outlook for 2022 and beyond is increasingly blurry.

By that, I mean that global sales of eyeglasses and other vision products will exceed $209 billion over the next five years, according to recent forecast market researcher at Imarc Group.

This is more than $140 billion last year and partly reflects “greater use of electronic devices or gadgets.” In other words, the pandemic binge-watching and our growing habit of looking at small screens are destroying our eyes.

And yet, despite the growing disruptive activity of a new generation of online optical companies, eyewear prices remain prohibitive—with markups approaching 1,000% in some cases—and remain one of the most egregious examples of how the industry is taking advantage of consumers. in your own interests.

“Prescription glasses are outrageously expensive and pricing needs to be more transparent,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of the California Public Interest Research Group (and, like many of us, wears glasses).

“We know who our optometrist is and maybe even the frame maker,” she told me. “But what about the lenses? Lenses often cost more than an exam or frames, but we don’t know much about where they come from or how they’re priced.”

I recently had my annual eye test, needed a stronger prescription, and found myself once again poking around in the eyewear industry. The last time I did this was a few years ago, after a colleague complained about its new features. costs about $800.

At the time, it was estimated that about 126 million American adults wore glasses. The Vision Council trade group puts that figure at 165.5 million (thank you mobile phones!).

My previous investigation of this extraordinarily secret case led to some disturbing conclusions. Perhaps the most brilliant ideas came from E. Dean Butler, founder of LensCrafters, who is now an independent industry consultant.

He told me about tour of Chinese factories which produce frames and lenses for the US market under a wide variety of brands.

“You can get amazingly good Warby Parker quality footage for $4-$8,” Butler said. “For $15 you can get a designer quality frame just like Prada.”

As for the lenses, “you can buy absolutely first-class lenses for $ 1.25 apiece.”

Think about it when you’re shelling out hundreds of dollars for new glasses, as I recently had to do, even with the pathetic discount programs that are considered “vision coverage” in this country.

“It’s ridiculous,” Butler admitted. “It’s a complete scam.”

My last dive into the glasses pool showed me that this is still a complete rip off, but there have been some additional improvements since I last bought the glasses.

growth of online optical stores puts downward pressure on prices. Discount stores like Zenni Optical and offer decent frames and lenses for a fraction of what you would pay in a physical store.

According to the Vision Council, most people pay an average of $126.47 for frames. I found a good pair of Ray-Bans at an optometrist in Los Angeles that retailed for $207 but cost me $63 with my employer-sponsored EyeMed vision plan.

Don’t forget, though: the frames cost about $10 to produce. So even for $63, that’s a big markup. For $207, it’s ridiculous.

I need progressive lenses with prisms and anti-reflective coating. I also wanted photochromic lenses that would darken in the sun. They were sold at a price of 615 dollars. With my vision plan, the lenses cost $382.

Even fancy lenses like these can only cost a few dollars to produce. In any case, their production does not cost close to hundreds of dollars.

I contacted Butler, founder of LensCrafters again the other day and shared my recent shopping experience with him. I asked him how much it actually cost to manufacture my new frames and lenses.

He called the figure “no more than $25”.

The list price for my new glasses was $822. The discounted price was $445.

Butler said his estimate does not include labor and other overhead costs. So, okay, let’s double his $25 production estimate. Damn, let’s triple.

With a factory price of $75, the retail markup on my glasses was 996%. The markup with my vision plan was 493%.

I asked Butler if he still considered the glasses to be complete plagiarism. “My statement made a few years ago still stands,” he replied.

And that’s not the worst. What really annoys me is that I was paying the rates set by a company that dominates the optical market so overwhelmingly that it operates with almost monopoly power.

This is Essilor Luxottica. Even if you don’t know him, you know the frame brands this giant either owns or controls including Armani, Brooks Bros., Burberry, Chanel, Coach, Oakley, Oliver Peoples, Polo and, yes, Ray-Ban.

EssilorLuxottica is also the largest manufacturer and distributor of lenses, controlling the leading brands like Varilux, Crizal, Eyezen, Foster Grant and, yes, Transitions lenses for my Ray-Ban frames.

But wait, that’s not all. The company currently owns or operates LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, Target Optical, EyeBuyDirect and FramesDirect.

And since Paris-based EssilorLuxottica also owns EyeMed’s vision plan – to me vision plan – has a huge impact on independent optical stores. Its coverage extends to almost every aspect of the eyewear market.

Think about it. Unwittingly, I bought EssilorLuxottica frames and EssilorLuxottica lenses using the EssilorLuxottica vision plan. It’s unavoidable.

The company “controls the market too much,” Butler said. “The FTC doesn’t seem to realize how much EssilorLuxottica controls the market.”

No one answered my questions at the company. The FTC declined to comment.

In the meantime, here are some tips on how to save on points:

  • If, unlike me, you have a relatively simple recipe, feel free to shop online. Online optical companies are becoming more reliable and making returns easier in the event of a problem.
  • Zenni has amazing deals, but I prefer the options provided by GlassesUSA. If you’re interested in getting new lenses to fit in old frames (smart move), check out LensDirect and Lensabl.
  • For the best prices on regular glasses, Costco is the cheapest option. Walmart also has great deals, and Warby Parker offers high style for a relatively low price.
  • Feel free to bargain. Your independent optometrist won’t like this, but he or she may be open to modest discounts to keep your business alive in the face of online competition.

Finally, it must be recognized that prescription glasses are healthcare. This means that lenses, if not frames, must be covered by health insurance.

Nearly two-thirds of American adults wear glasses, and the number is steadily increasing, creating huge economies of scale.

A fair, honest market would reflect that.