If you wear prescription glasses, you know the drill: You go in for an eye exam at an eyewear retail chain, such as America’s Best or MyEyeDr., and the optometrist on duty breaks the news that you need a new prescription. Move from the exam room to the storefront, and you’ll get a rundown of the pricey frame and lens options available for purchase. Are you ready to drop several hundred dollars on the spot for a new pair of glasses?
You may be able to find a better deal on your eyeglasses online. By selling directly to consumers, online-only retailers are able to trim a lot of the back-end costs that shoppers unknowingly incur at brick-and-mortar establishments. For example, we found a pair of Vogue brand frames on sale at FramesDirect.com for $90. At LensCrafters, a well-known eyewear retail chain, those same frames cost $150.
Indeed, factors such as cost, convenience, and broader selection are luring more four-eyed consumers online. Last year, an estimated 3.2 million pairs of prescription glasses were purchased on the internet, up from 2.9 million in 2016, according to the Vision Council’s 2017 Internet Influence Report. Shoppers can search multiple online retailers and eyewear brands to compare prices from the comfort of their couch without the pressure of making an expensive decision right after an eye exam.
However, buying glasses online can be tricky — filled with inconveniences, extra costs and delays. We interviewed several experts to determine what consumers should consider before buying a pair of eyeglasses online. Here’s what they had to say.
Find out if your vision insurance covers glasses purchased online
Many online-only eyewear retailers are considered out-of-network providers by vision insurance plans. If your plan offers out-of-network benefits, you’ll initially have to pay out of pocket for your glasses online and then submit your receipts to your insurer for a partial reimbursement (out-of-pocket costs are typically greater when you choose an out-of-network provider). That’s the case with popular e-retailers such as EyeBuyDirect.com, eyeglasses.com, FramesDirect.com, GlassesUSA.com and ZenniOptical.com.
If your vision insurance doesn’t offer out-of-network benefits, a flexible spending account (FSA) or a health savings account (HSA) through your employer can help to defray some of the cost of your new glasses by letting you pay with pretax money. With this option, you’ll also have to pay up front and then submit your receipts to your FSA or HSA provider for reimbursement from your self-funded account.
Know the type of prescription you need
ZenniOptical, FramesDirect and eyeglasses.com all have opticians who inspect prescription lenses prior to shipment, but your prescribing doctor won’t be able inspect them before you buy to make sure the prescription and fit are correct.
“When prescription glasses are sent directly to the patient, the retailer knows the prescription will not be verified for accuracy, optical center positioning, bifocal or progressive vertical height measurement, and, most importantly, safety of frame and lens materials,” says Christopher J. Quinn, an optometrist and president of the American Optometric Association (AOA). In a 2011 study conducted by the AOA, 154 pairs of prescription glasses purchased from online vendors were tested for accuracy, and nearly half failed to meet optical requirements.
That’s why consumers who purchase prescription eyeglasses online should provide as much information as possible to ensure their order is correct. “This means asking your doctor for a copy of the prescription,” says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst for DealNews.com. You’ll also need to know the proper size frame for your face, your pupillary distance, and details on any special lenses and coatings you need. “When you’re in a doctor’s office — where they already know this information — it can seem easier to just go with what they recommend. However, you could end up paying a lot more,” she adds.
If after receiving your new prescription glasses you suspect something is amiss, “take them back to your prescribing doctor to have them verify the lenses are correct,” Ramhold says. If there is a problem, ask your doctor for a written explanation that you can provide to the company from which you purchased your glasses. (You may be charged for the follow-up doctor’s visit.) “Hopefully, the proof will be enough for the company to remake the lenses at no extra charge,” Ramhold says.
Read the site’s return and exchange policies
Most sites don’t offer full refunds on returned eyewear with prescription lenses. For example, FramesDirect.com deducts 50 percent of the lens price from the refund amount for returns within 30 days of purchase. ZenniOptical.com offers a 50 percent refund or a 100 percent store credit on all eyewear returned within 30 days of the delivery date. Eyeglasses.com provides a 50 percent refund on returned lenses.
All of the sites mentioned here also deduct the cost of shipping from the refund amount.
Look out for special discounts
Savvy consumers can score even bigger deals online by seeking discounts off online retailers’ already-low prices. For instance, at GlassesUSA.com, eligible college students can get 55 percent off non-premium and non-clearance frames.
To help you stay on top of discount promo codes and other can’t-miss deals, sign up for alerts from deal-aggregator sites such as RetailMeNot.com and Offers.com.
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Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.