Investigative Report

Optical Illusion

Increasing industry influence by manufacturers of frames and a marketing campaign aimed at making eyeglasses a fashion accessory have decreased the medical focus for this product. And purchases from online stores and discount retail specialists won’t always make things more convenient or affordable. Not keeping an eye on these issues can create problems for consumers.

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If you want to see what’s really going on in the eyeglasses industry, look back no further than last year, when LensCrafters commercials and advertisements advised any potential customer to “Open Your Eyes.” To us, it’s a catch phrase that, as it turns out, has a double meaning, but we’ll get to that in second.    

The marketing push by the nation’s largest retail eyeglasses chain included print ads featuring stylishly clad models, who—according to the ads—weren’t quite finished getting dressed until they put on their glasses. For example, one ad shows a party-bound woman in a black dress. An adjacent photograph in the advertisement contains a pair of glasses with the caption: “That dress makes you feel 10 years younger ... do your glasses?”

In short, the LensCrafters campaign is part of a much larger marketing trend that wants you to look at eyeglasses as a fashion accessory that makes you look better, not a medical device that helps you see better. You’re an adult now. Nobody’s going to call you “four eyes” anymore. So, optical retailers, frame manufacturers and even some eye doctors have essentially embraced this suggestion: C’mon, why not buy as many pairs of glasses as you want?

“We want people to view glasses as a fashion accessory—an item they change like they change their shoes,” says Barry Santini, owner of a New York optical shop and the author of a continuing-education course for opticians on how to market the sale of eyeglasses.

We don’t think it’s wrong for people to want stylish eyeglasses or for people to buy an extra pair of glasses that they can wear for special occasions. Switching among multiple pairs of glasses with slight (unintended) variations in the prescriptions shouldn’t cause any problems for people or their eyes. But we can’t help but wonder whether too many players inside (and outside) the eyeglasses industry have lost their focus in trying to shift eyeglasses away from a need-based medical product to an overpriced want-based fashion item.

The federal government barely blinked when Luxottica Group, the world’s largest frame manufacturer, extended its reach and influence beyond design. It now controls 20 percent of the retail market in the United States, including ownership of national chain stores, such as LensCrafters and Pearle Vision. On top of it all, you’re paying way too much. From the local doctor’s office to the well-known retail chain, these places mark up the price of your frames and lenses by about 250 percent.

So, yeah, LensCrafters is right. It really is time for you to “Open Your Eyes” when it comes to buying glasses.

Seeing Is Believing

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EYE ON ACCURACY. We reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and interviewed 22 industry experts—eye doctors, optical lab experts, office specialists, manufacturers, retailers and independent industry analysts. (Two of the biggest players declined multiple requests for interviews.) We came away shaking our heads at what we discovered and what still puzzles us and consumers. We even did our own shopping, only to learn that in some cases the prescriptions or frames we purchased had flaws—including two purchases where the glasses were considered technically unacceptable products. (See “Seeing Is Believing.")

It’s not fair to say the results of those lab tests represent what’s happening across the board in the eyeglasses industry. But they certainly indicate the kinds of problems you might encounter when you buy a new pair of glasses. It’s unfortunate that more than half of all states don’t require certification for the technicians who make your glasses or the retail specialists who help you choose frames and make sure they fit.

Plus, the national standards that determine what wiggle room technicians have in making sure your glasses match your prescription are voluntary, which means that one lab’s poorly ground lens could be another lab’s acceptable work.

Fortunately, a bad pair of glasses won’t damage your eyes, although they can cause headaches, says Mark Bullimore, professor of optometry at Ohio State University. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect the most accurate work possible from the people who design, create and fit your eyeglasses.

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