I’ll tell you a secret about online glasses and contact lenses. I used to work in an opticians. I’m not an optometrist myself, so I never tested any eyes. I did learn a lot about the optical industry though, and why we charged what we did as a business.
It made me wary of our online competition as Glasses Direct and other rivals grew more popular. It also taught me lessons for the rest of my life about what to expect from my optician and how to judge value for money when updating glasses or contact lenses in future.
I’ve split this post into two, and the second part is all about contact lenses. Read on if you already wear glasses and are looking for savings, or if you’ve been putting off a sight test and/or your first pair of specs because of the potential costs.
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
Why Are Glasses So Expensive?
When Should I Pay For A Sight Test?
Are Designer Glasses Worth Paying More For?
Are More Expensive Lenses Worth It?
What Are The Cons Of Buying Cheap Prescription Glasses Online?
What Are The Pros Of Buying Glasses Online?
What About NHS Entitlements?
I haven’t always worn glasses. It was a bit of a shock when my vision deteriorated as an adult. Later I added contact lenses into my spending priorities. I was probably as clueless as any of us about whether I was getting a good deal for any of my eyecare.
Then I joined an opticians. I didn’t have to pay for glasses anymore thankfully, and I learned as much as I could about eyewear and contact lenses behind the scenes. Now that I’m responsible for the cost of my eyecare again, I’m glad I’ve got an arsenal of information about how to get value for money in future whenever I need to update my specs and lenses.
As I mentioned above, I’m not an optometrist. I can’t give anyone clinical advice on their eyes. I also have no intention of naming my former employer and I’m not trying to expose any one particular business’ secrets.
I just thought I’d share my experience in case it saves you any money. Or perhaps it will make you feel better about belonging the majority of the nation that has to spend on correcting our vision because the Powers That Be decided you’re not allowed to see more than a metre in front of you without some kind of help…
By the way, this post is over 7000 words. If you don’t have time to read it right now, join the mailing list at the bottom of the page for a weekly reminder of what’s on the blog, and a bonus ebook.
Disclaimer: If you sign up for a free trial or purchase via one of the affiliate links below, I earn a commission from the seller that might one day go some way towards covering the cost of hosting the blog etc. Since I’m big on analysing value for money rather than big on big spending for its own sake, I obviously only recommend anything I think is genuinely good value. I hope you save on your spending priorities that way. On that note,the images below will take you straight to my best buys on Amazon.
Why Are Glasses So Expensive?
We might find high street spectacles expensive for a lot of the same reasons that online glasses are so cheap:
- The cost of staffing
- The cost of equipment
- Other business overheads
- The costs of being a franchise
Let’s take a look at these in a bit more detail.
The cost of staffing
Firstly, unlike a lot of other high street shops that try to run with a skeleton crew, an opticians will often have quite a high head count behind the scenes even when the employees feel short-staffed. This is because in addition to a shopfloor team, a clinical team needs to do the eye tests.
If they have a lab, there will also be lab technicians squirrelled away out of sight. There might also be a dedicated admin team just for phones and paperwork.
Online glasses retailers don’t do any testing. They get to skip the most expensive part of the staff salary bill. Optoms earn a good living generally. If they’ve been working for 10 years+ then their salary is likely to have climbed to represent that experience.
Some optoms are freelance. They might get paid even more, in the hundreds per day. Like other medical professions, it’s possible to be a locum optometrist and go wherever your hired. Some practices need a locum as sick or holiday cover. Other practices use locums all year round.
One way to slim the salary bill is to use as many pre-reg optometrists as possible. These are trainee opticians who have done the university part of their studying, and are allowed to work in a clinical environment to complete their qualification.
There’s nothing wrong with having a consultation with a pre-reg. They have to get to a certain stage to transition to working in an opticians under supervision.
This doesn’t mean their supervisor is in the room. This would rarely be necessary. If it’s not on a name badge, you’re not likely to know whether someone is a pre-reg or not. Unless they’re very new, in which case the test might take longer than you remember from past experience.
Their records get checked thoroughly as the supervisor’s name is attached to theirs in everything they do. They can’t test without their supervisor in the building in case they need to ask questions about a complex case.
Did your mother tell you you’re special?
If you do end up with more than one optician in your eye test, consider yourself special! If someone has a certain eye condition or a complicated history, then whoever coordinates appointments might assign you to a senior optometrist.
On the other hand, the trainees have to demonstrate certain competencies to qualify. Unusual cases can be good for everyone as time goes on to build up their experience.
If we all refused treatment from trainee nurses or doctors, we wouldn’t have nurses or doctors to visit in future. I see having a test with a pre-reg as my good deed for the day. It helps them and helps the future of community eyecare, plus I still get my eye test. (I realise I wrote “I see…” I stopped trying to avoid any eye-related words at unintentional points about two sentences in to writing this post).
Staffing costs in any business can be a black hole due to sickness and the cost of recruitment. Optics seem to really struggle to recruit and retain at the lower levels though.
This might be because there’s a lot to learn if someone has no experience in optics. Even if they increase their knowledge, they’ll never be earning in the same realms as the clinical staff. Their salaries will still more often compare to a shop where they just need to stack shelves.
The cost of equipment
There are single pieces of equipment used as part of an eye test that can cost £40k or more easily. Some places will have equipment on loan.
Either way it’s not cheap by anyone’s definition to kit out a test room. The more test rooms, the higher the maintenance bill also.
All that equipment has to be serviced annually. It also has to be fixed rickety tick at eye-watering prices if it breaks suddenly (pun intended).
Other business overheads
Like any online business, Glasses Direct and other up-and-comers don’t have to rent a store front. They don’t pay for all the other niceties that come with having a physical location.
Opticians need a decent stock-holding from frames, otherwise that obviously has a knock-on effect for customers looking for plenty to try on. Like any physical business, a lot of money will be tied up in what’s on display. Then there’s their stock holdings of contact lenses and accessories.
The costs of being a franchise
A lot of us don’t realise that when we visit a big brand high street opticians, the actual location might be a franchise. This means it’s owned by a few people who have no connection to any of the other branches other than sharing the brand name.
The owners are paying to have a well-known logo splattered everywhere, but as far they’re concerned they’re a teeny tiny opticians trying to make it in the big bad world like any other small business.
If you’ve ever tried to complain to a head office of a big high street optician brand and head office directed you back to the store, that’s why. It’s the store’s responsibility. This might also make it clearer why the entry level staff salaries never really go anywhere interesting. It’s just mom and pop dishing out those paycheques.
There’s a big tradeoff here involved too for the owners. I was pretty shocked at the non-negotiable costs my employers had to pay to participate in a franchise. Items would get delivered and billed automatically. If I tried to tell head office to stop said delivery that we decided we didn’t need, that usually wasn’t an option.
I personally wouldn’t fancy a business where I can’t control all my costs, especially when there are so many other totally unpredictable variables in retail. All of the above means that I still get a little protective of small business owners who are opticians whether they’re part of a franchise or not.
If you are a business owner reading this, I’d check for a better choice and price on your admin supplies with a free Amazon business account. Ordering from suppliers who still relied on paper leaflets or who only gave a price on asking used to make me feel like I was working in the Dark Ages. If I could have got more in one place and spent less time on the phone, I wonder how much more productive I would have been?
When we treat businesses like charities
When someone complains of being ripped off because they could have paid less online, I don’t think that’s a true assessment of value for money. If we go into a opticians and interact with human beings then it costs that business a lot for you to be there in the first place.
The sitcom Superstore has a joke about the show’s department store in one episode that is too true to be funny. A customer says indignantly to the other shoppers in the parking lot “I bet they sell everything for more than it cost them and keep the profit!” It’s like they’re a business, or something.
The only other caveat to that is that a franchisee might have access to tremendous buying power as part of that franchise. Head office will negotiate bulk discounts likely on things like the costs of frames and lenses that all of the franchises can benefit from even if they’re owned on an individual basis.
An independent optician not connected to a franchise has no such luck. Expect to pay the most at an optician that isn’t attached to a nationwide brand therefore as they will have high operating costs with less respite.
When Should I Pay For A Sight Test?
You might wonder then how various opticians can afford to keep offering free sight test vouchers. It naturally follows that if someone has a prescription that’s got worse or a first time prescription, that they might want to follow the professional’s advice and correct that with glasses. A free sight test will sometimes pay off if the patient becomes a customer afterwards.
Certain NHS eligible patients get a “free” sight test where the optician claims the cost from the NHS. These patients are often excluded from using the optician’s own free sight test offers. I’ve written more about NHS help towards the bottom of this post.
This is what I’ve covered below so that you know what to expect from a free sight test voucher:
- The length of the test
- Obligations to buy
- Copies of your prescription
- Emergency health checks
- Other types of test with a fee
- How often to have a test, free or not
- Employee eyecare schemes
I mentioned at the start this is a long post, but I want you to have as much info as possible. Join the mailing list at the bottom of this page to return to the blog later if you’re short on time.
The length of the test
Where I worked, using a free voucher didn’t mean a shorter test. It didn’t mean any steps were skipped out. Optoms must be registered to a governing body, and there’s certain things they have to do and show in their records for compliance sake. They don’t try and get around the rules by doing half a sight test because if they did that they’d get investigated. (Also, I don’t think there’s any research saying that the majority of opticians are psychopaths which is what you’d have to be to think this was acceptable behaviour).
Some optoms who’ve been working for years though test very quick, in under 20 minutes for sure, especially if you have a very small prescription that stays stable from one year to the next and no health problems.
Obligations to buy
There’s also no obligation to buy. You’re legally entitled to a copy of your prescription so long as the test was completed. i.e. if you ducked out towards the end to answer the phone, there won’t necessarily be a prescription copy waiting for you.
If you didn’t return and have a dilation as advised or a follow up due to a health issue, there might not be a prescription for you to collect as the test might not be deemed complete yet.
Copies of your prescription
If you lose the prescription and want another copy, don’t expect this to be instant. You’ll need a copy in writing, so allow time to receive the replacement.
If you want glasses made elsewhere, it’s important to take your most up to date and valid prescription with you. The optician might be able to obtain the prescription by requesting it with your permission, but it depends on how easy it is for them to contact your last optician and how accurate the information is that you give them.
If you don’t know where you had last test or can’t evidence your prescription but want more glasses, then expect to need another test before buying more specs.
Emergency health checks
If you’ve ever asked for a free sight test before you were due and been told you need to pay, there might be a few reasons for this.
One is if you’ve presented with other health symptoms. Sight tests are for correcting vision. While certain health checks are performed within a sight test, if you’re not due a vision check and you have something else wrong like a red eye, the optician is well within their rights to charge you for a health check instead specific to your symptoms. (You wouldn’t ask a garage to MOT your car if there’s already a wheel clearly missing).
If you think you can be crafty and get around this by booking an early sight test and then announcing a health problem once you’re in the room, don’t be surprised if the optician still advises you that you need to pay.
By the same token, be honest about how severe any health symptoms are if you contact an optician. Certain symptoms warrant being told to go to an eye hospital instead.
If you underplay a symptom, you might be endangering your sight.
If you overplay it because you think you’ll get an appointment quicker that way, or that it will make it free, then you might just find yourself with no appointment at all if the optician refuses to see you because they’ve advised you to go to an eye hospital instead.
Other types of tests with a fee
Contact lens appointments tend to carry a fee, but I’ve written about that more in part two linked at the bottom of these page. These are usually defined differently from “sight tests”, so if you see a free or discounted “sight test” advertised, assume it’s for testing your vision with and without spectacles unless the terms and conditions say otherwise. The same opticians might have separate offers for contact lens vision tests and contact lens health checks.
An optician might also refuse to honour a voucher if you’re trying to book a sight test before it’s due and you don’t have any visual symptoms (or any health symptoms either). Having a test done early “just because” is not necessarily the best use of your time or theirs.
I had the odd patient who used to crop up with a free voucher every few months and admitted they were only asking for a test because they were bored. They considered dropping in to us no different from wandering around Primark aimlessly.
There are also a few other exceptions when you might find yourself ineligible to use a free sight test voucher. One would be if the DVLA want you to have specific testing not covered by one of their contract agreements at an optician i.e. everyone involved expects the patient to pay for it and forward the results. In that scenario, shop around.
Another exception would be if you want a behavioural optometry test e.g. to find out if coloured overlays would enhance your reading.
How often to have a test, free or not
Your prescription expires when the optician says so, and this is stated on the prescription. It might be six months. It might be two years, or one year.
A short recall doesn’t mean they want to charge you more often. Optoms have clinical guidelines they have to follow and this will dictate when your next test is due. You might have a prescription that changes frequently, or a high prescripton, or other risk factors. There’s no harm in asking your optician why they’ve opted for that recall period for you.
No one is holding a gun to your head when your prescription expires, and I know full well that many of us who don’t have glasses will go years between sight tests. Regular sight tests are an important part of personal care.
An optician can potentially detect a brain tumour that has no symptoms at a sight test. Your optician might pick up on something else health-related that your eyes have given away that you were none the wiser about.
If you do wear glasses, and you don’t keep your tests updated, then that’s up to you. Let’s just hope that you’re still within legal driving standards if you’re convinced nothing’s changed. And don’t expect to be able to buy new glasses on an expired prescription.
Also if you need to update contact lenses or want to try them for the first time, you’ll have to update your sight test first if it’s expired.
Employee eyecare schemes
If you work with screens a lot or need safety eyewear at work, then your employer might have a scheme in place to cover the cost of this. It will usually only be with certain participating opticians, plus you might have to go for a test then submit the results to your employer and wait to be issued vouchers for glasses. This will likely only cover them up to a certain cost.
The optician might also declare that you don’t need a prescription for screen work specifically. If you wear glasses for other things, don’t be surprised if you can’t get them covered by work therefore.
Are Designer Glasses Worth Paying More For?
Here are the things to think about:
- Style and status over function
- Are you a loser?
- The life expectancy of a frame
Style and status over function
If we’re just talking about the cost of the frames, then obviously we all know we pay a markup in the shops for anything we buy to cover the manufacturing costs. Designer frames cost more to buy in than own brand frames. Thieves prefer designer frames funnily enough which then leads to a merry roundabout of climbing prices that make them more desirable to steal and so on…
You can try haggling over designer frames, but there usually isn’t that much room to manoeuvre. Online has forced high street offerings to become pretty competitive. A lot of these prices come with offers attached anyway, so if they discount the order further and then have to remake the glasses at any point, or reorder lenses in the lab, then it might wipe out their profit.
A dispensing optician or optical assistant should be able to tell you if there are any special features of a frame. I’d expect to pay more for titanium because it’s very strong but light.
I’d also expect to pay more for a sprung hinge because that makes the arms a bit more flexible and slightly harder to break therefore. You can get these features without a designer name.
Conversely paying for a designer frame doesn’t necessarily mean that they used more expensive materials. As with most designer brands, you are mostly paying for the name and the aesthetic of the design itself. I think you’ll find one factory in Italy makes the majority of the world’s spectacle frames.
Are you a loser?
Designer glasses are also not more hard-wearing if you treat your specs like Tom Hardy getting pummelled in Warrior. (I have a whole other blog post about Tom Hardy and value for money). If you leave them behind on the train, they will not get up and walk after you.
If you twirl them around by one arm, expect the arm to break. If you open the case and find them broken, someone broke them behind your back. Glasses don’t magically fall into two pieces. (Still my favourite customer explanation for how their glasses broke: they broke themselves in the case. There must be tiny elves going around breaking glasses when they’re not being worn because we used to hear this regularly).
Get a decent hard case while we’re on the subject, and a reliable place to keep your specs at home.
If you drop them without a case on gravel, expect a scratched frame and lenses even if you paid extra for super duper hard wearing coatings to go with your sparkly Chanels.
If you run them over or the dog chews them, or you clean them with something abrasive, expect scratches. Expect to pay for repairs and replacements when your glasses look like they’ve been around the world three times. If you do find designer glasses online cheaper, then perhaps it will be less painful when they get damaged if you are accident prone.
If you lose or break things easily, you are probably better off investing in more pairs at a lower price. I walk into things a lot (stop laughing), and as yet have mysteriously never fully broken any of my specs, but I’ve definitely scratched them this way. I like having spare pairs just in case. Cleaning them on the hem of a wooly jumper or with anything other than a microfibre cloth and lens spray can easily scratch too.
Glasses are like any other hardware
The only downside with buying lots of cheap pairs instead if you’re a loser or a breaker is if you do manage to keep all the frames intact and you insist on keeping them, it won’t necessarily be cheaper going forward just to replace the lenses.
Like a lot of technology, it’s built into the business model for it to cost more to update an existing pair of specs than to buy brand new.
In fact, in most high street opticians it’s possible to get a pair of new frames with lenses included than it is to “reglaze” frames you already own. It’s not really in their interests for you to be wondering around in a discontinued style with the paint chipped off on the arm.
If your prescription has changed substantially then you’ll likely want to update the lenses on all those frames, but this is rarely cost effective for the customer. Pace yourself.
The life expectancy of a frame
The same applies if you go the designer route with the idea that you’ll keep the frame for years and just pay for new lenses when needed. Because there’s such a premium on just updating the lenses, you might find yourself forking out nearly as much as the first purchase, and only getting a pair of lenses the second and third times around.
In the meantime the frame will be out of guarantee, and will be bowing under the pressure of wear and tear regardless of which fashion house stamped their name on the arm.
If your prescription is stable (it hasn’t changed significantly), and your glasses are older than a year or two, I don’t think it’s a waste of money to get new frames even if they seem to look fine and still feel strong. I say this because I have seen some absolute filth in labs. Even if you take care of your glasses, when the technician removes the lenses, it’s like something out of Mad Max between the lenses and the frame. (Mad Max Fury Road is coincidentally worth its pennies, but unlike your glasses it’s happily a one time purchase, and all of the dirt is fictional).
Are More Expensive Lenses Worth It?
To judge the value of your lenses, you’ll want to consider extra options, and the speed of the service.
Extra options: thinning
Lenses are a whole different matter to choosing designer frames. Certain patients want to pay more for certain brand lenses. The rest of the time you’ll be paying for a generic brand and the more important decision will be the options to customise that lens which cost extra.
These options might have fancy names in different opticians or when buying online glasses. To compare prices you want to familiarise yourself first with how they refer to lenses that have thinning, or are polarised, or anti-reflective etc.
Depending on your prescription and what you want and need from your lenses, you might be able to get a standard prescription lens included with the cost of the frame, but it’s rare not to want a single extra.
These extras can have a clinical aspect, or they can be something that just makes glasses more comfortable for you. I don’t really have a bridge at the top of my nose, so thin lenses are lighter and more comfortable for me to wear.
There are different stages of thinning, and opticians will recommend more thinning for higher prescriptions most of the time. The thinner the lens, the more you can expect to pay.
Extra options: polarised
I could just buy prescription sunglasses with a tint and UV protection, but I like to get polarised sunglasses lenses. This doesn’t give extra UV protection; it cuts down on glare.
If you drive a lot, you might find they make driving in sunglasses more comfortable than driving with your clear spectacles. If you’re not fussed about this, but you don’t like to faff with changing between clear specs and sunglasses when the sun can’t decide if it’s in or out (so 360 days a year in the UK then), you might see more value in paying for a lens that changes to tinted in a certain level of sunlight. It’s like owning a convertible, but for your face.
No one else will be able to tell whether you paid for polarised lenses or not.
Extra options: anti-reflection
The other most common lens option is an anti-reflective coating. If you’re paying for thinning this might be included anyway. Or they might have an offer where it’s “cheaper” to go for a slightly more expensive frame and get this included than to pay for it separately on top of a cheap frame.
I can usually tell if someone hasn’t got this on their glasses because I can see reflections in their lenses when I’m talking to them. It’s a bit annoying when I want to look someone in the eye. (Doesn’t happen often, but apparently making eye contact is considered normal social behaviour so I’ll try if you insist…)
No reflection allows slightly more light through the lens too, so the wearer might notice a benefit too.
The speed of the service
This also isn’t a situation where paying more necessarily gets you a different level of service. If you go to a 5 star hotel, someone will wait on you hand and foot. If you pay 5 star prices for glasses, it doesn’t change the process that much. This is because at the end of the day you pay for a product to be custom made to you to an extent, but a large chunk of how smoothly that goes depends on how easy it is to manufacture the lenses for your wonky-badass-awkward-as-hell prescription.
Quite often the more someone has paid, the more complicated their order is because of their eyesight. Paying a premium because you and your eyeballs don’t like to cooperate is not the same as choosing to pay a premium to a concierge because you fancied that extra personal touch.
Why paying more doesn’t mean faster service
It doesn’t make factories open on Christmas Day. Paying more doesn’t make the lab machine magically work if it has broken down and the workflow has fallen behind several days as a result.
Paying more doesn’t make the postman deliver your glasses quicker if they’re sat in a depot where the optician can’t get to them. It doesn’t fix lenses that have arrived broken and that need to be reordered. It doesn’t fix lenses that have arrived broken TWICE and that need to be reordered…and manufactured from scratch in a lengthy process…(Gosh, I really miss that job, can’t you tell?)
If I had a pound for every time someone offered a bribe to get glasses overnight or the same day, I would be very rich. Pay what you like, but that factory is not going to open especially for Sian from Oxford so that she has prescription sunglasses for her holiday tomorrow…
Pay what you like, but if the lens is not in stock, it is not in stock.
So don’t expect your glasses made quicker as part of a more expensive order. Even if they have a lab at your opticians, they will likely only have a small stockholding of prescription lenses.
If they have to wait for your lenses to come from the manufacturer, or if there’s no lab on site and they send your frames away to be made into glasses then returned for fitting, then this takes as long as it takes. They should be able to quote you when they’ll be ready. This can easily get delayed though.
Pay for what your prescription requires. Buying instore is still a more personal experience than online glasses whatever the final bill.
What Are The Cons Of Buying Cheap Prescription Glasses Online?
- Choosing the wrong frame for a prescription
- No frame fitting or adjustment
- Buying frames without lenses that no one wants to touch
- Entering the wrong information online
- Shorter guarantees and less aftercare
Choosing the wrong frame for a prescription
There’s a few ways that buying cheap prescription glasses online in the UK can end up less than ideal. One is if we choose frames that aren’t that suitable for our prescription and the retailer doesn’t correct our choice. A high prescription in a cheap standard lens is going to come out fishbowl thick. This won’t fit well or look great in most frames.
No frame fitting
When we get spectacles at an optician, the dispensers measures us up after the sight test. The dispenser can fit the frame to your face before it goes away to have the lenses inserted. Then when we go to collect, there should ideally be a final fitting if we’re willing.
If you order frames online to try and you’re having trouble finding the right comfort or style, you might prefer a fitting with a human being (coronavirus permitting).
An assistant can make any final adjustments to make your vision and comfort as good as possible (that’s not the same as perfect. Sometimes 20/20 simply isn’t achievable depending on your eyeballs).
This is also why if we have trouble with a new pair of glasses, they might just need adjustment. Lots of patients jump to the conclusion that their prescription is “wrong”, the optom is a ****up and a con artist, and that they want to burn everything down.
If you order online glasses, and have an issue with the vision and the fit once they’re ready, then again it might be because there’s an adjustment missing.
If you take these to an optician and ask for an adjustment, they might refuse. This is in case anything happens to the glasses during the adjustment since they weren’t bought from there. Or they might advise you that if they get broken during the adjustment that it’s at your own risk. If you buy designer glasses online, they will be very wary of handling them. The higher the retail price of a frame, the more peed off they expect you to be if the adjustment goes wrong obviously.
Buying a frame without lenses that no one wants to touch
If we don’t trust getting designer glasses online, but we see a designer frame cheaper on the interwebs, it’s tempting to get the frame and then ask for lenses at an optician’s after.
The difficulty with this is that most optician’s can’t advise whether they can put lenses in a frame without seeing it first. There’s a risk that you’d buy the frame only to be told it’s unsuitable for glazing. You might not be able to shop around fully for the lenses until after you’ve already committed to the frame.
This again might be down to the requirements of your specific prescription. Or simply because you’ve bought a fashion frame that isn’t suitable to put in a glazing machine. This used to come up a lot with sunglasses. Manufacturers must comply with different standards for prescription sunglasses versus non-prescription sunglasses frames. As with adjustments, if they can help, it will usually be at your own risk. The frame might get damaged during the process.
If you’ve ever tried to reorder a pair of lost or broken glasses on the phone at your optician and they told you to go in instead, the above might indicate why. If the supplier discontinued your frames, no one can choose a frame for you.
If the frame is still available, they might insist on fitting it to you and taking an up to date pupil measurement in person. It depends on the dispenser. They don’t have to dispense anything they’re not comfortable with as it’s their name on your order if anything goes wrong.
Entering the wrong information online
To order online glasses you should need your pupil measurement. This is not part of a sight test. If you’ve never had glasses made at an opticians, don’t expect this to be on record.
You can request this information if you have been measured up for glasses before. Allow time to receive it because it will need supplying in writing.
In my non-professional opinion, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take your own pupil measurement. I also think it’s a bit jammy to ask an assistant for a pupil measurement for you to take away and buy elsewhere, but hey ho…
I say you “should” need your pupil measurement because Which? found some online providers not asking for this. They were using averages which makes me shudder. Your pupil measurement and your prescription is individual to you. (This is also why “I tried on my friend’s specs and I think I can see with those so can I have that prescription made without a test?” is always going to result in “No” on the high street, and rightly so).
You’ll also need to enter your prescription yourself to buy online glasses. If you don’t understand what to enter when looking at your prescription copy, then I don’t think you should order online glasses.
Your optician can’t tell you what to type in where when ordering online glasses. This is because they can’t be liable for any mistakes you make when ordering online glasses. (Have you ever called a restaurant to ask for step by step instructions on how to cook one of their menu items? Do you think they’d coach you through it and take responsibility for the results?)
A few online glasses retailers have moneyback guarantees if you screw up. However, many of them offer no refund/exchange if you get any details wrong. In an optician’s, there’s obviously no point where you as the patient can enter your prescription details wrong. (Malingering is a whole other issue).
The returns periods generally are shorter than buying from the high street too, and there’s very little in the way of aftercare.
If you buy offline and want your glasses adjusting later in the year, the optician you bought them from will help free of charge most of the time. They might also replace a nosepad or a screw free or for a small fee. There’s a certain reassurance from being able to pop back if you have a question about your glasses.
As a general rule, I would normally want to get my glasses made where I had my eyes tested. The dispensing process and the sight test are very close relatives. This article says out of 1000+ optoms surveyed, over 80% dealt with patients who had problems after getting their glasses elsewhere. (This likely includes going to a different optician after the test to buy glasses, and not just online ordering).
Keep in mind too that the original optician is only liable for the sight test. If you have a problem with glasses made elsewhere, it’s not necessarily the tester’s job to help you unless it can be proved that the issue lies with the test rather than how the prescription has been made up.
If you get the online glasses made 18 months after the sight test, and your prescription has changed, good luck arguing that the initial sight test was incorrect. It’s entirely possible that your prescription has just moved on. (This is true of getting glasses made elsewhere offline too).
I don’t know what quality control processes these online providers have in place. I know where I worked our lab had several stages of quality control. The lab checked orders for suitability before ordering lenses. We had strict rules about what the dispenser had to write in their notes. E.g. that they had specifically fitted the frame to the patient. (This step is completely missing online obviously…)
The lab approved lenses after delivery to make sure they were adequate for the order. They checked the glasses over before they left the lab. Then there were internal audits that required extremely high scores to “pass”.
Makes you wonder, eh?
What Are The Pros Of Buying Glasses Online?
In the name of fairness, I will list a few pros:
- Some savings for some people
- More time to decide
- It’s easier to compare prices
Some savings for some people
If your prescription is simple and you want the cheapest frame possible with no extra lens options, then you might find it cheaper than any of the high street offers. This only represents value if you can see out of them though…(see the cons above).
You can also occasionally get cashback through websites like TopCashback for brands like Glasses Direct. I wouldn’t choose an online brand solely for this reason (although joining TopCashback to earn on any purchases you make generally is a good idea).
More time to decide
You’re not obligated to buy glasses the same day as a sight test. I think it’s ideal to update your prescription lenses as soon as possible though. Some people wait until their prescription is close to expiring before updating their glasses. This doesn’t achieve much, as their vision might have changed by then.
The internet is open 24 hours and during pandemics though. It’s slightly less awkward browsing online if you’re the type of shopper who likes to spend hours making a decision.
It’s easier to compare prices…
…to an extent. Standing in an opticians if you haven’t done your research beforehand can feel a bit like being in a vacuum.
Even if you do research beforehand, if it’s your first time getting glasses, or the optician recommends something different to usual for clinical reasons, you might not feel like you have all the information to know whether you’re getting a good deal or not.
Let me know in the comments if any part of this post has helped so far though.
In theory you can browse a larger range across many websites and then try on various pairs in comfort at home. This still has limitations.
If like me you have a small face or you’re narrow at the temples, look at the numbers written on the inside of the frame arm. In a shop if I showed this to an assistant, I’d expect to quite easily locate their petite range. Same if I spent more than a minute looking at the display.
Most websites don’t even have a filter for petite specs. Or they use a different frame measurement that can’t be cross-referenced with existing specs. This might mean a lot of time spent looking at frames that will never be suitable anyway. It’s quicker to find this out when they’re at your fingertips.
What About NHS Entitlements?
There are two forms of NHS help. One is just assistance with the cost of the sight test. The second form of help goes towards the cost of glasses.
Patients can’t currently purchase online glasses with NHS vouchers.
The NHS can change any of the information below. I’ll try to keep this section updated if there are new developments. Please do your own research if you think you might benefit from one of these criteria.
Assistance with sight tests
The NHS Low Income scheme supplies certificates to cover some health costs if you can prove you only have savings and earnings up to the threshold. The certificates last a year. They will either provide “full” help (HC2 certs) or partial help (HC3 certs) towards the cost of sight tests and glasses. (Patients can use the certificates toward a month’s supply of contact lenses instead. However, what will you do for the 23 months after that without glasses?) The certificates don’t apply to contact lens appointments.
What if you’ve already paid for eyecare and find out retrospectively you are eligible to apply for the above? There are also refund forms for you to ask for a rebate on what you already spent. (See the link above for LIS).
A few other things make you eligible for an NHS sight test. These include a very high prescription, or diabetes. (Make sure to register with a doctor first, as the optician will need to record the GP’s details).
Diabetes is only relevant to the sight test though; there are no NHS vouchers towards glasses for this. There’s criteria for what makes a high prescription too. The patient doesn’t get to decide, no matter how afflicted you feel by the vagaries of myopia or hyperopia.
Mature students and pregnancy were the other most common exceptions that tripped up patients who thought the NHS covered them. The NHS only covers full time students up to the age of 18. Consider getting a Totem discount card instead. There’s no NHS provision for eyecare during pregnancy on the high street however.
Branded free sight test vouchers usually exclude NHS patients in the terms and conditions to avoid interfering with NHS rules. I wrote about that in more detail at the top of this post if you missed it.
Assistance with glasses
A crucial thing to understand on HC2 and HC3 certificates is that the figures state what you can afford. The sight test cost for a private patient must be priced higher than the amount on the certificate to get NHS help.
The same goes for the amount it says you can afford regards glasses. The cost of the most basic pair of glasses you need must be higher than the amount on the certificate.
Lots of people just see a number on the certificate and assume that they can “spend” that amount at no cost to themselves. That number is instead what the powers that be think you should be able to pay out of pocket before NHS help.
Because HC3’s only offer partial help anyway, you will usually pay for part of the order. Meanwhile a HC2 might net a free pair of glasses from the lower price ranges with standard lenses included.
If you want extra lens options or a higher priced frame, you will usually need to pay the difference. Or the optician might have a system where you pay a small top up instead. Ask them the difference between using your voucher at face value (i.e. treating it like cash or a cheque), and combining it with any top up schemes.
ONE LAST THING
One more thing that I won’t explain too much because I’m not clinically qualified:
Wearing glasses doesn’t make your eyesight worse, so you’re not paying to punish yourself. Don’t put off having a sight test for this reason. Also don’t drive if you know your vision ain’t what it used to be. Go and see your friendly neighbourhood optician.
I couldn’t resist including some contact lens humour when I started making notebooks on Amazon.
The End Is Almost In Sight
This post is in two parts, remember? But we’ll get to the end eventually.
Let me sum up here first:
If you find the high street pricier than online glasses, remember they have higher overheads. This includes their clinical staff and equipment, and either franchisee costs or little negotiating power if they’re independent.
If you’re ineligible for an NHS sight test, you might be able to use a free sight test voucher for private patients. Or ask your employer about employee vouchers, but expect to pay for other types of eye testing.
Designer frames don’t necessarily have a longer life than own brand, especially if you’re a loser.
Expect to pay more for extra lens options. Expensive orders don’t equal an express service and might actually take longer.
Cheap prescription glasses online aren’t a saving if we choose an unsuitable frame. They’re also not a saving if we get our details wrong, or need extensive aftercare. Don’t expect frame fittings and adjustments.
You might find more choice with online glasses, and almost unlimited time to browse.
Check if you qualify for any NHS help towards the sight test and glasses.
I will cover value for money on contact lenses in part two.
Where can I get my glasses cheapest?
Unlike my 100+ Best Value Food Ingredients page, I haven’t listed above where to get each designer frame or each lens option cheapest. There are just too many variables specific to you whether you want online glasses or not.
Whether you can combine certain lens options depends on your prescription and lifestyle intentions for your glasses. Then the frame needs to be suitable for both of those also.
Our eyes are important. The dispenser should be able to help you find the best lens type for your budget, prescription and lifestyle and the best fitting frame in a style you’re happy to wear.
If you do find online glasses cheaper, I hope you find them true value for money also.
Just a final reminder: I am not an optician. It wasn’t my intention with this post to damage anyone’s reputation online or offline. I haven’t tried to reveal the specific details of one particular business or brand. Basically, don’t sue me. If you have a problem with the way I’ve worded anything, let’s have a polite chat about it in the comments.
I think that’s everything about online glasses and high street specs…Let me know in the comments if you have any (non-clinical) questions, or anything you think I missed. Also if any information changes regards things like the NHS entitlements and you notice it before me, a gentle nudge is also welcome and I will update the post. Phew.
Subscribe too if you want more content like this that covers all the angles, and to find out what’s new on the blog before anyone else.