Column: Why are glasses so expensive? The eyewear industry prefers to keep that blurry
It’s a question I get asked frequently, most recently by a colleague who was shocked to find that his new pair of prescription eyeglasses cost about $800.
Why are these things so damn expensive?
The answer: Because no one is doing anything to prevent a near-monopolistic, $100-billion industry from shamelessly abusing its market power.
Prescription eyewear represents perhaps the single biggest mass-market consumer ripoff to be found.
The stats tell the whole story.
- The Vision Council, an optical industry trade group, estimates that about three-quarters of U.S. adults use some sort of vision correction. About two-thirds of that number wear eyeglasses.
- That’s roughly 126 million people, which represents some pretty significant economies of scale.
- The average cost of a pair of frames is $231, according to VSP, the leading provider of employer eye care benefits.
- The average cost of a pair of single-vision lenses is $112. Progressive, no-line lenses can run twice that amount.
- The true cost of a pair of acetate frames — three pieces of plastic and some bits of metal — is as low as $10, according to some estimates. Check out the prices of Chinese designer knockoffs available online.
- Lenses require precision work, but they are almost entirely made of plastic and almost all production is automated.
The bottom line: You’re paying a markup on glasses that would make a luxury car dealer blush, with retail costs from start to finish bearing no relation to reality.
Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica advocacy group, has worn glasses her entire life. She figures she’s spent thousands of dollars over the years on new frames and lenses.
“Anyone who wears glasses would agree that cost is control,” Balber told me.
She said soaring eyeglass costs should be a part of the country’s overall healthcare debate in light of the fact that many people simply couldn’t function without corrective lenses.
“At the very least,” Balber said, “there needs to be some transparency about how much things really cost.”
Good luck with that.
I reached out to the Vision Council for an industry perspective on pricing. The group describes itself as “a nonprofit organization serving as a global voice for eyewear and eyecare.”
But after receiving my email asking why glasses cost so much, Kelly Barry, a spokeswoman for the Vision Council, said the group “is unable to participate in this story at this time.”
I asked why. She said the Vision Council, a global voice for eyewear and eyecare, prefers to focus on “health and fashion trend messaging.”
And because it represents so many different manufacturers and brands, she said, it’s difficult for the association “to make any comments on pricing.”
Which is to say, don’t worry your pretty head.
What the Vision Council probably didn’t want to get into is the fact that for years a single company, Luxottica, has controlled much of the eyewear market. If you wear designer glasses, there’s a very good chance you’re wearing Luxottica frames.
Its owned and licensed brands include Armani, Brooks Brothers, Burberry, Chanel, Coach, DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors, Oakley, Oliver Peoples, Persol, Polo Ralph Lauren, Ray-Ban, Tiffany, Valentino, Vogue and Versace.
Italy’s Luxottica also runs EyeMed Vision Care, LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Sunglass Hut and Target Optical.
Just pause to appreciate the lengthy shadow this one company casts over the vision care market. You go into a LensCrafters retail outlet, where the salesperson shows you Luxottica frames under various names, and then the company pays itself when you use your EyeMed insurance.
A very sweet deal.
And Luxottica is even bigger after merging last fall with France’s Essilor, the world’s leading maker of prescription eyeglass lenses and contact lenses. Do you have Transitions lenses in your frames? You’re an Essilor customer.
The combined entity is called EssilorLuxottica.
I reached out to the parent company as well as the Luxottica and Essilor subsidiaries asking about how frames and lenses are priced. None of them got back to me.
It’s almost as if the last thing they want is to have to explain why consumers are paying 10 to 20 times what frames and lenses actually cost.
I wasn’t able to make any headway even with Warby Parker, the New York-based eyewear company whose whole raison d’etre is to offer fashionable specs at a fraction of the price of other retailers.
Dr. Ranjeet Bajwa, president of the California Optometric Assn., suggested that consumers actually are getting good value for their money.
“We often see low-ball retailers promise price savings but fail to deliver the quality patients expect in terms of fit, comfort, durability and, of critical importance, precision in vision, over one or two years of daily wear,” he said.
“Eyeglass sales are becoming a very competitive market, with frames and lenses available in a range of prices and quality levels,” Bajwa said. “Today’s glasses aren’t the glasses of 20 years ago, and the price can reflect these technological advances.”
Fair enough. But with about 126 million American adults wearing prescription glasses, and many replacing those glasses every few years, you have to assume it doesn’t take long for frame and lens makers to recover any R&D costs.
It’s a dynamic that routinely plays itself out elsewhere in the healthcare field, with new prescription drugs costing patients a fortune as drugmakers insist that they had to spend millions bringing the med to market.
Yet prices of branded drugs seldom go down even years after their R&D costs have been amortized. To cite just one example, insulin costs have tripled in recent years, even as the number of people with diabetes continues to rise, allowing manufacturers to recoup expenses in a relatively short time.
The high cost of frames reflects a market that is woefully lacking in meaningful competition. Warby Parker recognized this as a business opportunity. I’m surprised others haven’t jumped in as well with reasonably priced eyewear.
Lenses are a whole other matter. This is the “healthcare” component of vision correction and as such should be affordable to all. However, as with prescription drugs, government officials are content to pretend that “the market” will protect patients.
It won’t. And the more than 1,000% markup for most vision products proves that.
Why do glasses cost so damn much?
Because this industry has been getting away with fleecing people for decades.
And you don’t have to look hard to see this won’t change any time soon.
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David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to email@example.com.
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Why are eyeglasses so expensive?
At 20/20 Institute, we meet patients considering LASIK for many different reasons. Every person is different, but in a general sense, people simply want the freedom to live the life and lifestyle that they want to live and their glasses and contacts get in the way. Frequently though, patients also take into account the rather expensive and guaranteed-to-continue cost of eyeglasses.
Good vision is important so it is valuable to be able to see clearly, but have you ever wondered why eyeglasses and sunglasses can cost so much? A lot of people do. The frames appear to be made of mostly plastic and metal, but a new pair of glasses hit your wallet harder than a new tablet or smart phone.
It seems that they are getting even more expensive too! In 1986 when Top Gun came out, you could buy a pair of Ray-Ban aviators the ones Tom Cruise wore for just under $30, but today a pair of Ray-Bans can cost you upwards of $150!
So why are glasses so expensive? Let’s explore the possibilities
One reason could be the manufacturing and materials used to create eyeglasses. It is true that frames and lenses are manufactured better today than they were 30 years ago. As well, when it comes to the lenses for those frames, you have a plethora of upgrade options that promise and often provide a better experience.
But is the quality really that much better? Does this “excellent quality” justify why a pair of off-the-shelf frames with your prescription lenses can cost $400, $600, $800 or more? Even if the quality IS really that much better, today’s manufacturing capabilities should be able to improve quality and reduce manufacturing costs, right?
Whether by design or necessity (or both) glasses and sunglasses have absolutely become an accessory in addition to being simply a functional device. They used to be called “spectacles” but not anymore. Now, the preferred term of manufacturers and distribution stores is “eyewear.” Doesn’t eyewear sound SO much better than spectacles?!
The fashion component of the frames of eyeglasses and sunglasses is another factor of why glasses cost so much. Simple supply and demand economics and fashion is always in demand. The more frequently the frames are worn by musicians and Hollywood stars, the more they are “worth” right?
So, why is eyewear so expensive?
Improved design, structure, materials, manufacturer expertise and the “fashion factor” may not be the whole story. The entire answer is more complex, but one of the lesser-known realities of the eyeglasses industry is that it is less of a “free market” than most people realize.
While you may not have heard of a company named Luxottica, you will absolutely recognize at least a few of these brand names:
|Chanel||Dolce & Gabanna|
Luxottica manufactures the frames for all of these brands and many, many more. So when you browse for your new pair of glasses and notice the range of cost from the value brand to the luxury brand, chances are good that no matter what you end up choosing, you are buying a Luxottica frame.
In addition to manufacturing the frames for a remarkably long list of brands, Luxottica also owns a few optical stores that you probably know: LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Target Optical, and Sunglass Hut. These and several others are all are owned by Luxottica.
The second largest vision insurance company in the US, EyeMed, is also a Luxottica company.
In a free market, various companies and their brands compete for your business, but often in the eyewear market, perceived brand competition is a facade. It is a very good business position for the manufacturer, of course. For the consumer though, one significant reason that eyeglasses cost so much is because Luxottica can essentially set the price.
“Everything is worth what people are ready to pay”
– Andrea Guerra, CEO, Luxottica 60 Minutes, June 15, 2014
Luxottica does not manufacture the actual lenses in eyeglasses or sunglasses, they only manufacture the frames. But recently, Luxottica announced a merger with Essilor, the largest manufacturer of lenses in the world.
Where will this merger take the entire eyeglasses industry? Time will tell of course, but the good news is that there are options.
A good pair of sunglasses is very nice, and most eye doctors will tell you that you should wear good UV protection when outside. But most people will also agree that it is nice to not HAVE to wear them every waking minute.
Patients from all around Colorado and beyond seek out LASIK at 20/20 Institute to be able to enjoy freedom from a frame. If you are a good candidate, more freedom from the eyeglasses industry may also be an additional perk, but will ly not be nearly as cool as the simple ability to wake up and see without glasses!
The most important first step to have LASIK at 20/20 Institute is to find out if you are indeed a good candidate or not. To schedule a free consultation, request us to contact you or give us a call at 303.202.0669, and our attentive vision counselors will assist you with finding a convenient time for a visit.