Eyeglass Shop – The Wrong Kind of Business Model

Photo of eyeglasses taken by Wapcaplet.

I bought my last set of eyeglasses online from a company called Optical 4 Less.

They didn’t have a wide selection, and to be honest, the fit of the glasses was never quite right. But they cost $80 including shipping from China. Compare that to the $350 that I spent on my prior pair of eyeglasses, purchased from a chain in New York City. And hey, I could buy several more pairs to try to get the fit just right before I would use up the budget I would need to buy locally. Besides, the bad fit was really my fault – I measured badly.

Even worse, before I decided to buy online three years ago, I did visit some local stores for quotes. The cost for a very basic frame and the mid-range high-index lenses I need was now about $500, before tax.

I know there’s a lot of debate over the effects of buying online when local options are available. But when I compare $80 to $500, all I am getting by shopping locally is speedier service (I can get glasses in a day instead of two weeks) and better follow-up if I need a minor adjustment or repair.

But that’s exactly where the business model goes wrong, in American eyeglass retail shops.

Willing to Pay, But Can’t

A few weeks ago, part of one of the nose pads on my glasses broke. It wasn’t a catastrophic failure, since I was still able to kind of jam it back in there and continue using the glasses. But I put it on my list to figure out a way to repair them as soon as possible, and on my lower priority project list I added “Get new glasses” – planning to get that done also in the next month or so.

Well, it turns out that finding a replacement nose pad is a non-trivial task – the little kits that you always see at the drugstore don’t actually include the piece you need. So I visited a local eyeglass shop, to ask whether they could repair it. I expected and wanted to pay for the repair.

No can do. Eyeglass shops seem to do just about everything as a courtesy. I even once had a shop owner give me a lens-cleaning cloth when I went in to try to buy one. He refused to take money, and then insisted on giving me two cloths. And it doesn’t seem to matter if you bought the glasses at that particular shop – they never ask and never care.

So the first shop I went to said that they had the nose pads I needed, but I would have to come back later since the optician was at lunch. I came back later, and brought cupcakes, thinking that this would at least alleviate my own guilt at getting a free repair on my overseas-sourced eyeglasses. That was fine, except that the optician warned me that she might break my glasses when she tried to screw the new nose pads on – in fact, she had done just that earlier in the day. Obviously I didn’t want to take a chance with my only pair of glasses, with an optician who had proved that she was not very comfortable repairing glasses, so I begged her to give me the spare nose pads which I assured her I could install at home.

Well, it turns out it’s a helluva a lot harder than you would think to install nose pads. The screws are tinier than anything you’ve ever seen. But you know, that’s probably kind of why I wanted to pay them to do it, but they just won’t take money for it.

So I spend a week or two trying to figure out how to get these tiny screws to talk to each other, but it just isn’t happening. Meanwhile, I am realizing that it actually isn’t too bad to just walk around with only one nose pad – it basically feels the same as it does with two nose pads.

On a whim, as I am walking past my local (in my home town) eye shop, I decide to go in and once again try to pay someone to repair my glasses. The woman is very nice, says immediately that “of course” she can repair them, and does a marvelous job. The shop is really nice, the service is great, so I am sitting there, completely blind without my glasses and unable to really move much, trying to think of some way that I can give this shop my business.

Here’s what happened next:

I ask whether the shop sells those clip-on sunglasses, anything that would fit my glasses. (If I had this, I wouldn’t have to wear the cataract glasses I wear now, which I bought at Walgreens and fit over my glasses on sunny days. They make me look like an old person at the pool.) Unfortunately, no – they don’t sell clip-ons, but they have some new frames that come with clip-ons.

Great – how much would new frames cost? Turns out they are at least $200. Recall my last full set cost me $80 and lasted three years easy before suffering a break-down. This isn’t going well.

I change tactics, asking whether they do eye exams. After all, I will need an eye exam, even if I order my glasses online. The woman is still endlessly cheerful, but tells me that I would need to go to a local doctor, and promptly hands me several business cards. She also reminds me that I can come back to this shop any time for other minor repairs. Too nice.

Finally, I decide to go for the big-time, and try to get an idea of how much it would cost to just buy my glasses at this shop. So she looks some things up on the computer.

$500 – $600, once you add mid-range lenses to the really basic frames. So, the cheapest I am going to get is $500 for something which is equivalent to what I can buy online for well under $100.

It just doesn’t make any sense. I can’t justify paying five times the price for what is essentially the same product. From my point-of-view, eyeglasses are a commodity, and a fairly cheap one at that. All the value in the local sale goes toward the service, but the eye shop business model gives away the service for free. So I use that free service, only once every five years or so, and I feel guilty. Sometimes I bring cupcakes.

But what about a local eye shop business model where they embraced the out-sourcing of production to online vendors? What if I could go into an eye shop, get my exam, get a professional measurement, and then have an experienced clerk place the order through a service like Optical 4 Less? I would happily pay twice the normal online price – about $150 or so – for this service, and  the eye shop would get basically a 100% markup on the product, which is pretty good, I think, right?

It’s a very different business model – one where opticians would no longer be needed in local shops. That’s unfortunate, of course. But on the other hand I think there are plenty of people out there who are still happy to pay $500 or more for their glasses. There’s probably still enough business to go around at the “boutique” eye shops. But how much do you really need an experienced optician in that transaction, anyway? I mean, it’s mostly picking out overly-fashioned brand-name frames and  choosing from a list of stock lenses. Again – that’s all commodity. The actual service the optician adds in assembly them is, I am guessing, a relatively small percentage of the whole.

What do you think?

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons