Untangling the Web of Online Eyewear Stores

By Evra Taylor

This is the second installment in a series that explores online eyewear retailers, how they operate and what they have to offer.

specialonlineretailersDespite resistance from the professional eyecare community, online optical sales have reached critical mass in North America.

In February 2012, CBC’s Marketplace reported that many Canadians are overpaying for prescription glasses due, in part, to weak competition in the market. According to the report, a pair of glasses can cost upwards of $1,000, with the most expensive part being the lenses. But this report also stated quality generic lenses that will serve most people are mass-produced and can cost as little as $2 to $10 to make.

In light of the high cost of eyewear, a sluggish economy and continuing high unemployment, it’s no wonder that dollar-conscious consumers are turning to the Internet for significant cost savings in optical wear.

Eyeglasses Online Review 2013 compared consumer reviews of online eyewear providers and identified the top 10, starting with the most highly rated, as: FramesDirect.com, Coastal.com, Eyeglasses.com, GlassesUSA.com, Glasses.com, Zenni Optical, GlobalEyeglasses.com, EyeBuyDirect.com, GlassesShop.com and 39DollarGlasses.com. Reviewers commented on frame selection, lens options, value, shipping, and help and support.

While the convenience of online shopping is not lost on those in the optical sector who oppose e-retail, problems relating to frame fit and return policies are often raised by opticians who contend that a hands-on experience cannot be replaced by a virtual try-on. Try-on features are now the point of entry for any online eyewear store serious about competing in an increasingly cluttered marketplace, but even the ability to visualize how an eyeglass frame will look on a person’s face is no guarantee of a perfect aesthetic – or fit.

Home try-on, however, is a feature offered by some online eyewear retailers such as Warby Parker. While the company does ship to Canada, it doesn’t offer its home try-on program outside of the U.S. The website’s virtual try-on service works from any location, but purchasers in the U.S. can order up to five pairs of glasses to try on at home for five days. Once they’ve made their choice – even if they decide not to buy any of them – they can return them at no cost.

To dispel the pure cynicism that is hard to resist in this era of price-driven expediency, it’s not all about the money all the time. Warby Parker appears to be as good as it is hip and it wears its heart on its virtual sleeve. Front and centre on the company’s website home page is the “buy a pair, give a pair” option, the company’s expression of good citizenship, whereby, for every pair of eyeglasses purchased, a pair is donated to someone in need.

Coastal.com, which claims to be the largest online contact lens and eyewear retailer in the U.S., and to have the biggest selection of designer and brand name eyewear at the most affordable prices anywhere on the web, has its Change the View Project, although it doesn’t give the impression of being as essential a part of the company’s DNA as Warby Parker’s charitable works.

While giving is good business, at the end of the day the bottom line is the most important feature of all. Will online retail replace bricks and mortar stores? It seems doubtful, as many shoppers still prefer the face-to-face service provided by the traditional shopping model. Only time will tell.