Why eyeglasses don't have to be so expensive

David Lazarus asks "Why are eyeglasses so expensive?" in his LA Times article and makes this bold statement:

"Prescription eyewear represents perhaps the single biggest mass-market consumer ripoff to be found."

As the co-founder of Lens & Frame Co., offering premium reading glasses and custom prescription eyewear, you would think my reaction would be to bristle and offer up a stinging rebuttal. However, I have to say, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, that’s why we started the company in the first place.

I’ve been in the eyewear business for over 20 years. I first ran up against the power of the 800-lb gorilla that Lazarus refers to when I was one of the founders who started Kaenon Polarized in 2001. We made polarized sunglasses that featured high-quality, performance lenses. Anyone who tried them said they were the best lenses they’d ever worn. Yet, when your competition owns 60% of the brands in the marketplace (including Oakley), and also the distribution channels (including Sunglass Hut), and the opticians (including LensCrafters, Pearle Vision), and a vision insurance company (EyeMed) you can imagine that it was an uphill battle getting our glasses in front of people.

While most of our business in those days was in non-Rx, or “plano” sunglasses, we also offered custom prescriptions. And this was when I first discovered how outrageous the cost markups are on prescription lenses. One may argue that paying a high markup for frames by a fashion brand like Prada (owned by Luxottica) is no more outrageous than paying a premium price for a jacket or a shirt, because - after all - you’re paying for the brand name and the quality that you expect to come with it (and the status). But why was there such an extreme additional cost on the lenses? As Lazarus points out, a fashion brand frame alone can easily cost $300 or more. Add the custom prescription lenses and you’re looking at another $250-$500 depending on who you’re buying from, the lens materials and the specific coatings selected.

And that’s when I decided there might be a market. Armed with the knowledge that I could leverage a direct-to-consumer model and avoid the additional markups that come with retail distribution, I gave myself a challenge to see if I could make high quality frames that were as good or better than what the top luxury brands were selling - and offer them at a fraction of the price. I wanted to be able to deliver high touch customer service that would always ensure that the products we sent to our customers were the best that they could be, and exactly what they expected. On top of that, I needed to be able to make high quality lenses with premium coatings at a fair price.

To accomplish all of this, I spent months meeting with different manufacturers, working to find the best quality acetate and titanium frames at a cost that would allow us to compete. I partnered with a privately-owned lab that was able to give me the hands-on attention to detail to ensure that our lenses were of the highest quality and that the prescriptions were perfect. And if they weren’t perfect, they had to be willing to do them again and again until they were. Lastly, I built a direct-to-consumer, web-based platform and fulfillment process that guaranteed that every pair of glasses we shipped would be inspected by hand for build quality, and the lenses polished and the hinges calibrated. And all of this would be followed up by a personalized note to make sure that everything was just right.

Sure, to accomplish all of this, we have to mark things up. It is a business after all. But our business is driven less by the desire for high profit margins and more by the desire to offer something better. Better quality. Better service. And better prices. And fortunately, for the industry, we’re not alone in taking on the eyewear monopoly. I’m inspired every day by the other independent brands in our industry – Caddis, David Kind, Salt – each offering their own take on David vs Goliath. Sure, I want consumers to buy Lens & Frame Co readers and custom prescription glasses. But in my opinion, there’s plenty of opportunity in this market for consumers to find what they are looking for. It doesn’t have to be - indeed, shouldn't be - dominated by one company that controls all of the products, the prices, and the availability. It can be better. And, as long as consumers are willing to try something new, it will.