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Should You Buy Eyeglasses Online?

When it comes to shopping, I have more than average experience in two types: shopping online and purchasing prescription eyeglasses. Until recently, I never thought to combine the two activities.

Does it make sense to buy prescription eyeglasses on the Internet? Don't you have to get measured and fitted by an optician? I always thought so, but my quest to get designer frames at a discount has made me -- cautiously -- reconsider.

Forrester Research predicts that the average person will spend $1, 738 online in 2016 at a time when 56 percent of the U.S. population is expected to make at least one purchase via the Internet, according to Upstream Commerce's analysis of the Forrester report. Although I respect the work of Forrester, an independent market research company, I find these numbers very low. Admittedly, my perception is skewed. I've spent more than that on shoes (but, in my defense, some of those shoes are for my daughters -- and Zappos makes the experience irresistible.)

Early E-Commerce Convert

I started bidding on eBay auctions in 1998, subscribed to Netflix minutes after an ad popped up on my Yahoo home page in 2000 and signed up with esurance in 2001, although I'd never heard of the company and didn't know anyone who had. and, back when Gap and Victoria's Secret were the only prominent retailers that offered online shopping, there was very little in my closet that didn't come from those stores.

My experience with eyeglasses predates the Internet. I hadn't taken my first step before I was fitted with my first pair of glasses, which aimed to correct my farsightedness and strabismus. I had surgery when I was 10 months old to strengthen the muscles in my weak eye and had glasses fitted on my tiny face shortly afterwards. That was some 40 years ago so I have no business remembering my first pair of glasses, but the awfulness of having glass stems wrapped twice around my ears and a patch affixed to one of the lenses still lingers.

The experience, augmented by my mother's reminders that I was lucky that being cross-eyed didn't lead to permanent blindness in my left eye, has made me very conservative about eye care. I get my eyes examined by an ophthalmologist, a medical doctor who specializes in diseases of the eyes, and take my prescriptions to a local optician to get fitted for new glasses.

I never considered changing this policy until two things happened in 2011: 1) My vision worsened and 2) I bought designer lenses for the first time.

Need and Vanity Converge

For most of my adult life, I got away with wearing glasses no more than about 25 percent of my waking hours. So I chose economy over vanity when buying prescription eyeglasses. As long as the glasses were more or less in style and more or less suited to my face, I bought whatever glasses were cheapest. I didn't need to wear glasses on dates, to job interviews or anywhere else that appearances mattered, so it was easy to keep to my eyeglasses-buying budget.

But when an ophthalmologist told me a couple of years ago that my headaches would go away if I wore glasses 100 percent of the time and prescribed every vain woman's nightmare -- bifocals -- I became vulnerable to the lure of designer eyeglasses.

I was easily talked into buying a pair of Michael Kors frames and lenses that were both progressive (no ugly bifocal line) and transitional (the lens darken in sunlight.) I wear them about 90 percent of the time and am happily surprised that people tell me my eyes are pretty, a compliment I formerly received only when my eyes were naked.

Price of Beauty

But the cost of filling that prescription -- about $850 -- resulted in so much sticker shock that I waited two years between annual exams. I finally saw an eye doctor in December, but the prescription he gave me remains unfilled. I know the pair of eyeglasses I want, but it's out of my price range. So I've spent the last two months wondering: Do I dare buy eyeglasses online?

In January, I started my search for new prescription eyeglasses at a Los Angeles LensCrafters store. James, a salesman there, answered my questions and left me mostly alone while I tried on frames. I found nothing I liked in the $99 section but about a half dozen choices among the designer frames, including ones by Burberry, Prada, Coach and DKNY. While I was mulling things over, someone came by and handed me another pair to try on "just for fun."

So I did, but there was nothing fun about it. What I felt was the soul-searing, heart-stopping frustration of falling hopelessly in love...with a pair of Tiffany & Co. eyeglasses. The black, rectangular frames with a hint of Tiffany blue at the temples were so stunning that, for the first time in 40 years, I wanted to wear eyeglasses.

More Expensive than Prada

Eight weeks later I feel the same way about them even though the closest I've come to the glasses since is on the Tiffany & Co. page of the LensCrafters website. I've memorized the model number and tried to justify the cost --$400 for the frames alone -- and shopped for a better price online and off.

Internet bargains called out to me, but the prospect of measuring my face was daunting. It wasn't that hard to figure out that PD stood for Pupillary Distance, but how was I supposed to measure the space between the pupil in my left eye and the one on the right -- without my glasses -- when I've incorrectly measured floor space with them? It's one thing to buy a couch that's three inches too long, but quite another to buy glasses in which the corrective portion of the lens is a quarter-inch from the center of your eye.

Not an Optician

I looked up directions on about a half dozen websites and watched a YouTube video. And then I enlisted the help of two friends, figuring that, between the two of them, I'd get an accurate measurement. But how accurate did it have to be? We were supposed to measure the PD in millimeters and there are 25.4 of them to an inch. What if I were off a millimeter or 10?

So I sent off emails to the contact person at assorted companies that offered prescription glasses online. I received answers I didn't trust -- "The average PD is 60 mm -- just go with that" -- and ones that seemed dishonest -- "Pretend you're buying glasses at a local store and then leave after you get the PD."

But I also chatted with Mitch Gantman, who provided me with more detailed information than I found on his EyeGlasses123 blog and said nothing that made me feel uneasy. He told me I needed four measurements, not one, and advised against using a local optician to get a free measurement.

Gantman, an optician for 30 years, also said he understood why some people would be reluctant to order prescription eyeglasses online and that special lenses, including progressive bifocals, needed more precise measurements than reading glasses. He offered to talk me through the measuring process or provide a free measurement at his local optical store --" no questions asked!"

Experiment in Progress

Was I successful in measuring myself for eyeglasses? How did my results compare with those of an optician's? Did I place my order online or fill my prescription locally? Or am I still wearing my old frames?

Find out in part two of two: Should You Buy Eyeglasses Online? One Woman's Experience.


Sources: , Profile, Pierre Omidyar The state of Ecommerce

Upstream Commerce, Consumers will Spend $327 Billion Online in 2016: Forrester Research

EyeGlasses123. How Eyeglass Frames are Measured

Mitch Gantman, owner Eyeglasses 123. Interviews Jan 28, Feb. 15

By Milo Dakota - Milo Dakota is an award-winning journalist and copywriter who has also run a successful public relations and marketing firm specializing in undercover work for clients who covet both fame and privacy. Dakot...  

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