Let’s Talk About Specs


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At a time when the average person would sooner donate money to a relief fund for investment bankers than pay full retail price for a CD, millions of Americans happily spend hundreds of dollars on a single pair of eyeglasses. A pair of Tiffany & Co. frames at LensCrafters retails for $410, lenses not included. Bottega Veneta 95s can set you back anywhere from $699 to $1,499, depending on where you shop.


On the one hand, paying so much for stylish eyewear doesn’t seem completely irrational. You might spend $699 for a suit or a really nice pair of boots you’ll only wear once or twice a week, so what’s outlandish about investing a similar amount in a product you wear every day, right on the middle of your face? Especially when it simultaneously helps you navigate the world with a minimum of pratfalls and contusions?

On the other hand, why does a couple of ounces of titanium or tortoise shell acetate cost hundreds of dollars when it’s shaped like glasses, and less than $20 when it’s shaped like a toothbrush? Are those itty-bitty screws and hinges really more expensive to manufacture than, say, the insides of a 47-inch flat-screen TV?

For some time now, online eyewear revolutionaries with catchy names such as Cheapglasses123.com and 39dollarglasses.com have been offering an alternative to the eye-popping prices of traditional vision-care retailers. On the web, you can get frames, plus single vision lenses, for as little as $6.95 a pair. Shipping costs extra, and if you need or want bifocals, progressive lenses, or various other options, the price starts mounting. But $6.95, or even, say, $19.95 for a pair of prescription glasses is so outside the parameters of traditional eyewear economics it practically shouts F-R-A-U-D in letters as big as those found on the top rows of a Snellen chart. Indeed, it’s one thing to go from paying $18 to $0 for your favorite heavy metal albums overnight — but glasses are medical devices! You wouldn’t buy a $6.95 pacemaker, would you?

This, at least, is the mindset opticians are hoping consumers will continue to employ when making their purchases, and for the most part, they do. It also can’t help that many online eyewear sites look as if they were designed for people who can barely see by people who can barely see — their confusing, cluttered interfaces are jam-packed with frames so hideous even a blind hippopotamus would intuitively reject them as unflattering. According to the Vision Council, a trade industry group, a consumer survey it conducted in October 2010 found that less than one percent of eyewear sales occur online.

To change that, online retailers must address a major conundrum that characterizes their business: Few people want to buy a product as personal as glasses without trying them on first, and yet glasses are also a product that’s not particularly conducive to easy returns. A returned pair of glasses, with lenses created for a specific customer, isn’t something a retailer can simply resell to the next person in line.

Thus, helping customers better visualize how a pair of frames might look on them is the industry’s holy grail. Some sites allow customers to super-impose frames on photos or illustrations of models with archetypal face shapes. Others allow customers to upload photos of their own faces and superimpose the frames on them. In this manner, customers can virtually look at themselves in the mirror the way they do at brick-and-mortar eyewear retailers.

What the online retailer Warby Parker realized, however, is that actual glasses are, for all practical purposes, near-virtual entities. You can’t reduce them completely to zeroes and ones the way you can a pop song or a suspense novel, but they’re so tiny and so lightweight that you can transport them around the country at relatively insignificant costs, especially given how much you can eventually charge for them.

To take advantage of this fact, Warby Parker will, using an Internet-like network known as UPS, send as many as five pairs of frames to your home at no charge. If you like any, you can return them using a pre-paid mailing label included with the shipments and Warby Parker will make them into full-fledged glasses for $95 and send them back to you. If you don’t like any, return them within five days using that pre-paid mailing label and you won’t be charged a cent: Shopping online is rendered just as tactile and risk-free as shopping at the mall.

But if Warby Parker is taking the customer-centric approach pioneered by Zappos.com a half-step further — at Warby Parker, the free shipping and free returns policies kick in even before you commit to buying anything — the fact that it recognizes there’s a risk involved when shopping for its products suggests it isn’t quite as revolutionary as the purveyors of $6.95 glasses. Warby Parker frames are uniformly stylish, and at $95 pair, they compare quite favorably to traditional designer brands that can easily cost four or five times as much. For most people, though, $95 is not yet a threshold so negligible that it encourages the sort of impulsive, indiscriminate consumption that can radically transform a low-volume, high-margin business into a high-volume, low-margin one. $6.95, however, is.

Indeed, a few years ago, when my own poor vision reached that tipping point at which I could no longer find my glasses without my glasses, I turned to the web for a solution. While I was skeptical that a pair of $6.95 glasses, or even $12.95 glasses, might be even remotely comparable to something I might buy at a traditional eyewear retailer, that really wasn’t much of an issue: All I wanted was some glasses that would work well enough to help me find my real glasses when I misplaced them.

Ultimately, I spent around $60 at a site called ZenniOptical.com for three different models, and when they arrived, I found that they were all perfectly adequate. Their lenses helped me see just as clearly as my $250 glasses did. Their frames seemed approximately as well-made. I started wearing one pair so often it eventually replaced those $250 glasses as my primary pair.

In the years that have followed, I’ve purchased five more pairs at similar prices online. While I’ve worn glasses for much of my life, I’d never owned more than two pairs at once; now, I own seven or eight. And thus, while the LensCrafters and Pearle Visions of the world may think they’ve dodged a bullet — more than 15 years into the Internet revolution and terrestrial retailers like them still claim 99 percent of the eyewear market according to that Vision Council survey — they’re ultimately just as doomed as bookstores, music stores, video stores, and newsstands.

That’s because optical dispensaries tend to be small, local businesses which serve relatively small customer bases. Indeed, consider the numbers underlying Luxottica, the traditional eyewear industry’s largest player. In addition to manufacturing the frames for more than 20 license brands and its own in-house lines, Luxottica also owns LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Oliver Peoples, and several other retail chains. All in all, it operated 2,952 retail outlets in 2009 according to the industry trade publication Vision Monday, and those 2,952 outlets generated $2.55 billion in sales. This works out to $866,531 per outlet, which ultimately suggests that even for the major players in the industry, eyeware sales is a low-volume business. Indeed, if a typical sale at these outlets is $265 — $139.95 for a relatively inexpensive pair of semi-rimless Club Monaco silhouettes, say, plus another $125 for the lenses — that works out to 3,269 sales per year, or a little less than nine sales per day!

No doubt the thousands of mom-and-pop shops that comprise much of the industry move even fewer units, which means they have little choice but to keep their prices high and squeeze as much revenue from every sale as possible. On the retail level, at least, the eyewear industry is the sort of fragmented, inefficient realm that Internet upstarts love to brutally consolidate. Unlike traditional glasses retailers, companies like ZenniOptical and Warby Parker sell to the world, not just the block. It makes sense for them to carry larger inventories than traditional retailers can justify, and thus they can obtain and sell that inventory for lower prices.

In traditional Internet fashion, they also look for opportunities to eliminate middlemen. Warby Parker designs its own frames in-house rather than licensing established designer brands. ZenniOptical does the same and also owns and operates its own factory in China. By cutting out manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, and the mark-ups they impose along the way, ZenniOptical is driving the price of some of its models down to that improbable, paradigm-shifting, semi-miraculous $6.95 level. While a relatively high-volume traditional retail outlet might sell 4,000 pairs of glasses a year, ZenniOptical’s founder, Levente Laczay, recently told Vision Monday that his company is selling 4,000 pairs of glasses a day.

But Internet retailers like ZenniOptical don’t just make glasses so affordable they’re almost disposable. They also make glasses more useful, more enriching. I never waste time looking for my glasses anymore, since my apartment is now so strewn with glasses there’s always at least one pair within the limited range of my uncorrected vision. And while I once expected a single pair to fulfill all my glasses needs, I now have business glasses, casual glasses, exercise glasses, etc.

For all its practical virtues, though, my growing eyewear arsenal may ultimately be most valuable on a more metaphorical level, as a daily reminder of what extraordinary times we live in. As the Internet ruthlessly remakes our world, it’s easy to dwell on all that we’re sacrificing in the process. But when you’re looking at the world, day after day, through lenses that bring everything into dazzling, undeniable focus, you tend to look on the bright side of things. Will the sterile gloss of an Apple store ever replace the glorious tactile overload of a big-city newsstand? Absolutely — you can browse all day there and never have to wash your hands. What does the culture lose when gangsta rappers no longer have CD inserts to fill with their shout-outs to God? Not much — they’ve got Twitter now. Can democracy survive if we no longer have neighborhood opticians to hide the ways a new, unadjusted pair of glasses can expose the ungainly asymmetries of our faces? Are you kidding? Now that we don’t have to pay $500 for glasses every two years, we’ll have enough money to pay for the nose jobs and ear realignments we’ve always dreamed of! • 8 April 2011