Online Eyeglass Company Offers Much-Needed Alternative

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Courtesy Warby Parker

Consumers spend a lot of time worrying — or at least complaining — about those prices that seem to keep climbing ever-higher: gasoline, health insurance, college tuition. So it’s a pleasure to stumble, every once in a while, on something that is getting cheaper.

That’s what happened when I went shopping for eyeglasses the other day. The receipts in my file cabinet tell the story. In March 2006, my every-two-or-three-years update of frames and lenses, one regular pair and one prescription sunglasses, cost $457 at an optical shop that had been operating on New York’s Lower East Side for 100 years. In August 2009, I went online to find a discount price on a frame I had selected at a local eyeglass store, then printed out the Web page and gave the local merchant a chance to match the price. After giving me an impassioned speech about how the online competitor had no rent, no inventory, and no payroll, the local merchant cut his price by $150 to match the online offer — $250 for the frame and a polycarbonate lens with an anti-reflective coating — and I was out the door for $425 total, including some new sunglass lenses.

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Then, last month, in August 2011, I managed to buy a nifty new pair of frames with polycarbonate lenses and an anti-reflective coating for just $90 from Warby Parker. That primarily online eyeglasses company has been attracting press attention and venture capital funding since it was founded last year by students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. Warby Parker isn’t yet selling prescription sunglasses, though it says it will start doing so soon. Even so, $90 for the one pair of glasses is $160 less than I spent for essentially the same thing two years ago, and a $310 savings over what the local eyeglass store’s asking price was.

One of the ways that Warby Parker manages to keep prices so low is by minimizing its storefront presence. I had started the shopping expedition by going to its web site and ordering five frames to try on at home for free. But none fit or looked good, so I sent them back using the prepaid UPS label included with the package of frames.

My next move was a tour of neighborhood optical shops. The optometrist at the place where I got my eyes examined said he was considering countering the online competition by raising his price for an eye exam and making a portion of the exam fee a credit that could be applied to a purchase in his store. A nearby shop had a sign in the window advertising $100 glasses, but the frames looked either rickety or old — not retro-hip old, but nursing-home-resident old — and by the time they added on all the extra charges for polycarbonate and anti-reflective coating, we were back into the mid-$200 range. Another shop had gone to the trouble of attaching white stickers to the inside of the frames. The stickers covered up the lettering of the model names, presumably making it harder for customers to go online and comparison shop.

At a fourth local store, I mentioned that in the past some eyeglass vendors had been willing to negotiate with me on price. The salesman nodded agreeably. But when I said I was hoping to get two pairs of frames and lenses for no more than $500, he told me, in essence, no way — that’s about what he’d charge me for one pair of glasses.

So back to the Warby Parker web site I went, this time to schedule an appointment at their showroom, a sixth floor space in a decidedly non-fancy building off Union Square in Manhattan. The next available 15-minute appointment was nearly two weeks away.  The lure of the potential savings, and the possibility that the wider selection of the showroom would yield success in way that the five-pair home try-on did not, made the wait tolerable.

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Sure enough, it worked. The Warby Parker sales associate even provided a promotional code as I worked my way through the order form on the Macintosh computers set up in the showroom. That took the price of the frames and lenses down to $90 from the $95 list price.

The Warby Parker Web site explains that the eyewear industry “is controlled by a few large companies that have kept prices artificially high, reaping huge profits from consumers who have no other options.” And it’s true that the Luxottica Group, an Italian company, owns Ray-Ban, Oakley, and Oliver Peoples, as well as LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, and Sunglass Hut, while also controlling the license for glasses sold under the Paul Smith, Polo Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, and Prada labels.

What $90 eyeglasses mean for Luxottica (and its shareholders) or your neighborhood optical shop (and its owner and employees) is a question that will be answered over time. From a consumer’s point of view, though, the introduction of more competition looks to be a pretty clear win. My biggest quandary is how to allocate the savings. Gas? Health insurance? Tuition? Maybe by the time my kids are ready for college there’ll be a Warby Parker of higher education around to challenge the Ivy League.

Ira Stoll is the editor of and author of Samuel Adams: A Life.