This post is a bit of a weird deviation from my normal subject matter, but I feel like ranting a little, so in that sense I’m right on track!
I have been wearing glasses (miskîsikohkâna – mis-kee-si-GOOH-gah-nu) since I was a wee iskwêsis. My parents had a hard time coming up with the money, but they managed it. Sometimes my dad had insurance through work and other times he didn’t, but I would usually get a new pair each year. Kids rip through their glasses like crazy, scratching them up so hard you can’t even see through them, and yes there were times all that held them together was some duct-tape or strategically placed paper clips.
I have astigmatism in one eye and I’m near-sighted, with a strong prescription. I can’t see much without my glasses except blurs. As I got older my glasses had to last me longer than a year, but what I’d usually do was keep the frames and switch out the lenses. The frames back then were crazy expensive so you hung on to them. For a good ten years, it was costing me about $70 to get new lenses in. Looking at that, it doesn’t seem a high price, but oh man money was tight and it seemed like a lot more.
Then in 2006, everything changed. I’d gotten my new lenses in 2005 for that $70, and the next year I went in expecting the same. A few dollars more, I would have understood. Instead, I entered the Twilight Zone!
From one year to the next, optical stores had jacked their prices for lenses up to a base price of about $250 for people with my level of prescription!
I was completely flabbergasted. This was just for lenses, mind you, not even for frames. The frame prices had gone down a bit I noticed, but how on earth did the lenses get so expensive? My awesome plan of saving my frames forever and a day was in the toilet.
I figured this was just LensCrafters going bonkers, so I walked out in a huff and tried all the other major retailers. It was the same story. What was worse is they acted like this is how it had always been, and when I explained to them that I’d bought lenses for only $70 just the year before they reacted like I was telling the biggest whopper ever!
Not only could I not really afford this, but I’m also ornery and the principle of the thing prevented me from handing that money over when I sure couldn’t see how they were justifying such a radical price hike. Especially since it now took upwards of two weeks to get your glasses in, and even those one-hour places said because my prescription is so strong, they needed a few days too. Really? Yet the year before it was no problem?
A few weeks later on a whim I popped into a place in Barrhead (Alberta) to browse the glasses, and ask about the prices expecting more of the same. Nope. $70 was what the fellow quoted me. I just about died of shock, and spilled the whole story of my travails to him. He shrugged and said that most optical places don’t have on-site lens cutters anymore and order the lenses from China. What’s more, the lenses often come pre-coated with that anti-UV coating and sometimes even the anti-reflective coating! Man! The other store had quoted me $250 as a base price and $90 for those two coatings! If this guy was telling the truth, that $90 was pure freaking cha-ching for something I would have gotten anyway! I hurriedly looked around for the assassin I was sure was going to silence this industry whistle-blower any second!
He acknowledged the rapid price increase, which was really gratifying for me because I was starting to doubt my memory. He still ground his own lenses and still go them from his same supplier but said that local suppliers were being pushed out by the Chinese competition.
I felt like I stumbled on to some sort of historically huge cover-up! I mean, for people with glasses this was a huge deal! I bought some new lenses and felt a little smug about getting a good deal, while at the same time being upset that the ‘normal’ deal was now the ‘good’ deal.
Years went by and my glasses struggled on unreplaced for a loooong time. My eldest daughter needed a pair but Alberta offered free glasses for kids in kindergarten as long as you chose from a (very) limited selection of frames. They were fine, so that’s what we went with.
Then she needed a new pair. By now I was living in Montreal and maybe I’d forgotten how bad the prices were. I took her in to NewLook which is the chain store here, and got her and her sister some new glasses. Even with a ‘rebate’ (I guess nearly breaking down in tears over how the hell I was going to afford the glasses made the salesguy take pity on me, and he knocked $150 off the price) I ended up paying $700 for the two pairs. The price of being a mom, hey?
And guess what? Just a week later my eldest fell down, broke her nose (my poor baby, that was awful) AND her frames.
I took them back, figuring that there would be some sort of insurance deal. After all, I’d grown up with that kind of service. No ‘extended warranty’ price needed. Trust me, I broke my frames once or twice as a kid and as long as I didn’t lose the frames completely, I usually got one ‘get out of jail free card’ from the optical store. Not this time. I had to pay the full cost of the repair AND it took two weeks to get the glasses back! It cost me half the original price of the glasses to fix them.
They were broken again not long after in an accident with a stool and an aunt who wasn’t looking and her dad had to get her a brand new pair. I’m talking $800 to have this girl wear glasses, within the space of two months.
EIGHT. HUNDRED. DOLLARS.
I just don’t have that kind of money. The service at the brick and mortar stores has been consistently terrible, the prices were jacked up for no apparent reason, the wait time was unacceptable, and I was ready to lose my mind.
So on my nightly phone-call to my mom, I ranted and raved and I may have cried a little, and she mentioned online stores. I buy some stuff online, but things like clothes and glasses? I mean, one time I got a pair of glasses that weren’t aligned properly and they gave me migraines for a week before they were fixed! But my mom said the glasses were good, and I misunderstood and thought she’d tried it out herself. I figured if my technologically impaired mother did it, then I’d be a coward to back down! (turns out she hadn’t done it yet, but had just gotten this advice from someone else)
I looked up the two sites she mentioned, zenni optical and clearly contacts. I was totally intimidated and unsure. I found out you need not only your prescription, but also the measurement between your pupils called Pupillary Distance (PD). I chose to work with zenni optical, and read their page of information about understanding your prescription, because man it was Greek to me! I felt way out of my depth, like I was one of those people who diagnoses themselves on the internet with some awful disease because they think they are qualified to do so.
I gave up on it for a while until a few weeks later my much-worn glasses started cracking. The lenses were in danger of splitting and if I didn’t want to be blind for two weeks waiting for a new pair, I had to act fast.
So I chose myself as the experiment. First I got my eyes checked again, and then I asked the optometrist for my Pupillary Distance, as this is not something they normally measure. What I’d read convinced me not to try to measure it myself. Remembering those migraines, I knew it was important to have the lenses centred properly.
Holy smokes! You’d have thought I just asked this fellow to eat his dog!
He was really upset. He started ranting about how people were getting scammed by online stores and ‘ruining their vision’ etc etc etc. I sat there stunned because I hadn’t even mentioned buying glasses online! He had me a little scared actually, except that I didn’t really buy that somehow I was going to ruin my vision, anymore than I believed it when my mom said too much tv would do the same thing.
He finally agreed to do it, but he lectured me the whole time. I felt like a real jerk. Once again I decided not to order online.
More cracks appeared in my lenses, and I looked around in the stores for possible replacements, but I just couldn’t do it. I knew I was going to have to buy new glasses for the girls soon, and I couldn’t afford spending $400-$600 on a pair for myself. I sucked up my courage and went back to zenni optical.
I spent hours that day looking at frames, ‘trying them on’ the picture I uploaded, doubting myself, and researching reviews. Finally I ordered two pairs of frameless glasses and a pair of prescription sunglasses. Originally I was just going to get one pair, but all three pairs ended up only costing me $102 so I thought, why not?
The glasses come from China. They took four days to get to me which surprised me since I was expecting a two week turnover. They had all the bells and whistles, the UV coating, the anti-glare coating, and they were cool looking too! I could see perfectly, no headaches, no worries.
I did find that I’d ordered lenses that were slightly too big, and since these were frameless glasses that means that the glasses overall were bigger than I wanted. However because they are frameless, you don’t notice. I can put a finger between my temple and the arm of the glasses, which means they don’t fit well under my Roller Derby helmet, but for Derby I just wear my old cracked glasses anyway. I also didn’t like the shape of the sunglasses I ordered. I got these cat-eye frames that ended up not looking great, but that was my fault.
But hey, SUCCESS! For a fraction of the cost, I did it! Look at all the sôniyâw I saved!
So, I decided to try it out with my kids. Oh my gosh, getting their Pupillary Distances measured was a painful experience. I discovered that the ranting optometrist wasn’t unique! We walked into places asking if they would do the measurement (for payment! I wasn’t asking for a freebie!) and literally got kicked out!
The trick is to try to find an optometrist who isn’t operating out of or in other ways linked to a bricks and mortar optical shop. They obviously have a vested interested in not encouraging you to shop online. I never actually did find one that wasn’t working out of an optical shop, but the next optometrist took pity on me and just gave me the damn measurement. She didn’t spare me the lecture though! Jeez, are we pirating software here? Cha.
Okay, now here is some important info if you’re considering doing this. The first order of glasses for my kids worked out really well. They liked their glasses, and the glasses lasted for over a year before they needed replacing, just like ‘store-bought’ ones. BUT.
I found the lenses were too thick. Too ‘fish-bowl’ in appearance. My prescription is strong enough that when I ordered my glasses, there was no option to get the lower index lenses so mine ended up as thin as normal. My kids have strong prescriptions, but not so strong that it automatically bumped us up to higher index lenses, so I got the no-charge ‘mid-index vision’ 1.57 lenses. Having no idea what ‘index’ even meant.
What I should have done is found out what index lenses were used in their last store-bought pair. They never cared, by the way, and no one teased them about it, but it bothered me a little. Scars from my childhood probably!
So this last time I ordered their glasses, I got higher index lenses which are thinner. I paid an extra $35 per pair to get really thin lenses (1.67 high-index). It’s entirely possible that was overkill, but I don’t think so. This time the lenses were perfect.
I also learned to pay better attention to the measurements of the frames on the website. Some of the glasses I got for my girls the first time (I got them two pairs each that time) were slightly too big. Each got a pair that fit perfectly, and then one pair that, because of the style, were just a little too large for their faces. Just a bit wide, not like huge and tall 80s style ones I mean. My youngest eventually broke one pair and wore the other and looks just awesome, but I was more careful this last time to take some measurements of their faces.
The girls sat there with me and I uploaded a picture of them, and individually they ‘tried on’ glasses and chose the ones they liked.
With the high index lenses I only bought them a pair each instead of two pairs and it was roughly the same price, but that price was still only $132! And these frames are really, really cool. I probably went overboard getting anti-reflective coating, but whatever.
Did I do something wrong?
I thought about this long and hard, and considered many aspects of making these purchases. I was worried I was wasting my money on a crappy product. I was worried that the optometrists had a legitimate beef with online optical retailers. I was worried most of all that I was no longer supporting local brick and mortar optical stores.
That last issue was the big one for me. I try hard to support local stores. I want people to continue to have jobs with living wages. Yet the fact is, most of these brick and mortar stores no longer employ glass cutters. A whole group of people lost their jobs before I even knew those jobs were in danger. If those people had their jobs, I’d pay the $400-$600 again and not feel ripped off.
I’m not wild about any of this. I do not know what wages and working conditions are involved in producing these glasses. Yet these stores are getting their frames and lenses from the same place I am. China. And they are getting them for a fraction of the cost I am. Pennies, literally.
Then they turn around and mark them up to extraordinarily disgusting levels. I could stomach a decent profit margin. A profit margin that ensures that salespeople are well trained and not starving, and I would even be fine with the fancy schmancy floor displays they have. But I doubt that staff are all that well paid to be honest, and I doubt even more that the increased profit margin is directly benefiting them. Like most cases, it’s being pocketed by the higher ups and their shareholders (in the case of the chains anyway).
Nope. That profit isn’t getting me better quality. It’s getting me the same quality. The service is not so spectacular that it makes up for it and by the way, when I ordered these last two pairs of glasses, I made a mistake on one prescription. It was caught immediately and I was contacted to confirm the correct prescription. I’d say that is good service.
Brick and mortar optical shops, wake up! You are not competitive, and your profit margins are pissing us off. I’m a single mom of two children who are going to need new glasses every year. Yes, you need to justify the cost of your products, or cut that cost down because until then you have lost me as a customer. I simply cannot afford $700 or more a year for glasses just for my kids while I go without for years on end.
I haven’t kept quiet about my dissatisfaction either. I went back to NewLook and explained why I was no longer shopping there. The salesperson was nonplussed, but I wanted the message passed on. I should probably write a formal letter and see what some of these places have to say. How they’ll justify themselves. What scare tactics they’ll engage in.
Anyway. There you go. Now I don’t have nightmares about one of my kids breaking their glasses, and me having to choose between us eating or buying them new ones. Nor do I have to squint through the scratched-up fog of my own lenses for years because it’s either glasses for them OR for me and not both. Could I go back to that? Absolutely, if I had to, and if it was worth it. Right now, neither of those criteria are met.
miskîsikohkâna, my glasses odyssey
napatêhkasikan, my pumpkin pie adventure”
Wow, reading this Illiad-themed science fiction must have me in an ‘epic tale’ mindset or something! What’s next, “My epic battle with laundry!?” hahahahahaa…
This is a wonderful distraction. I was supposed to be working (as a work from home Artist, the only boss I’m cheating here is myself), but began reading your blog and got hooked into reading to the end. I like your writing style – it’s wonderfully honest. Keep up the great work. Thanks!
Thanks for reading! I am a huge fan of your work:)
I really do think there’s a larger narrative at work here, on how aspects of the medical profession and the enormous costs associated with obtaining it’s services are just sort of explained away as if medical professionals were above reproach. Markups like that? That’s gouging, and there’s so much of it going on. It’s hurting people to the point where we’ll actively avoid seeking help for our maladies because we’re totally priced out.
I’m glad you found an equitable solution 🙂
I love your blog, it is very educational. Ayhay!
You know, that’s a good point. I sort of poo-pooed the way people jump to the internet to diagnose their own maladies…but I do it too! I’m in Canada, and our healthcare is free, but I also live in Quebec where we have a critical shortage of family doctors. You can spend literally all day in a clinic waiting to be treated, so I tend to avoid having to go to the doctor as much as is possible. I do a lot of home-remedying. The crisis we’re facing here was absolutely avoidable, but I digress.
I don’t think we should allow the almighty market to decide what we are being charged for essential services, and vision is one of those essential services. We don’t even really have the option of going out and getting ugly bargain basement frames and cheap-o lenses from the brick and mortar stores. I don’t care about designer frames, but I do care about having glasses that correct my vision and I cannot function without them. Neither can my children. So how is it that the entire vision industry is based on a profit model when this is a social need? Granted, unlike in Alberta, children do not have to pay for eye exams here in Quebec, but I do. I know in parts of the US an eye exam is $250 compared to the $50 here. Perhaps that part of the industry is regulated here to keep costs down, but the provision of corrective lenses certainly is not. The sky is the limit on those. Rant rant rant…:D