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...and the Retailer, and "free gift" type.

I've chosen to finally read "The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More" by Barry Schwartz. It's a VERY interesting look into how life has changed with all of the choices we make day in and day out.

How do these choices affect us? Are we happier having so many choices on even the minutiae of our lives? I've had the book on my "To Read" stack for a couple of years now, but the other day I got stuck behind a couple of older women at Subway trying to negotiate getting something to eat and it moved to the top.

Normally, I'd have been annoyed with these two, but I wasn't. The choices they were being asked to make were absurd. I grabbed a menu and did some math while I consumed my 6-inch, Veggie Delight, on whole wheat with lettuce, tomato, plenty of jalapenos, mayo, oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. Looking only at the sandwich choices, there are over TWO BILLION combinations on the menu -- and that's before they ask you if you'd "like it toasted".

At this point, I wanted to know how "painful" it was to find and order eyeglasses. This is one of the areas that the online stores are generally better than their brick and mortar counterparts. Both have a dizzying array of choices, but at least at online, I can browse while I watch an episode of "Arrested Development" or "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" on hulu.

And this relates to glasses how exactly?

I wanted to lay out a scale of the retailers based on who caters the best to your individual personality and patience the best.

My methodology to come up with an "apples to apples" comparison:

  • I decided to focus on single-vision metal and plastic frames.
  • No rimless (as some provide an infinite array of lens shape choices)
  • No clip-on frames.
  • Ignored color choices as that's more subjective than fit.
  • Originally, I had lenses included, but I wanted a compact study aimed at simple first-time buying choices.

Here are some of my findings:

The most obvious thing I found is that it's VERY difficult to comb through the Zenni and Goggles4U sites. Goggles4U is a special case because of their crazy inventory model -- pretty much everything is a close-out (only 1 left).

For Zenni, it's because they're breaking almost every rule of information architecture. They do pretty well (they're the 900-lb Gorilla) -- perhaps it's the way they throttle their business. Getting too busy? Make it more frustrating. But seriously, the navigation combining pricing with far too many categories of frames makes my head hurt.

Where do I find Harry Caray glasses? "$8.00 Eyeglasses", "$9.95 Eyeglasses", "$12.95 Eyeglasses", "$15.95 Eyeglasses", "$19 Plastic or Acetate", "Acetate or Mixed Material", "Full Rim Frames", "Variable Dimension Frames", "Leading Edge Designs", "Men's Classic", "Bifocal/Progressive Frames", or "New Arrivals". Twelve eleven options? Which do I choose? Are they inclusive? Overlap? Anyway, they do just fine apparently -- so I guess this is just me.

39DollarGlasses has 48 options that fit the above criteria for single vision customers looking for basic lenses.

EyeBuyDirect has about 80 frame options for single vision wearers.

Goggles4U has (at noon on 8/3/2008) 1754 options for single vision people, although this number fluctuates wildly with the way they handle inventory -- and includes many different colors of individual designs. There is no good method of parsing this.

Optical4Less has quite a few frames -- 110 single-vision options (with more color choices in that than anyone besides Zenni).

Compare this to the nearest physical optical store to my home, with approximately 300 frames and you'll see that the online stores fall on both sides of this -- although the cheapest frame I was able to find was $119 without lenses.

I'd argue that more choices leads to two things; more time and frustration, and more room for making a mistake. I'm not suggesting that no choice is a good thing. Visions of a Soviet optician revealing my choice -- "You want brown or black?" -- make me happy that there are options. I think you'll agree that even the choice of retailers provides something that fits how each of us approach choice.

There are two schools of thought on how important customer service is to the fledgling online eyeglasses industry. Some people in the forums are adamant that expecting any customer service on products with prices such as these is wrongheaded.

Kmart rode the "sell cheap, screw 'em if they complain" strategy right into Chapter 11. They've emerged as an even more depressing shadow of their massively depressing prior self.

I'm a firm believer that customer service isn't optional -- for any business.

You can look at it two ways, economically speaking; it's expensive, and it's an investment. If you're selling a selling a a truly custom product like prescription eyeglasses, your direct customer service costs are going to be higher than the costs associated with selling a "one-size-fits-all" widget.

What do I expect?
I expect the following:

  1. The order process should be simple - Reduce the number of steps necessary. Don't try to upsell me on an eyeglasses case. There is no way that enough people bite on this to muddy every one of the orders. If you've got 5 steps, make it 3. If you've got 10, you're in the wrong business (and drop me a line for some consulting).
  2. Clean up the spelling and grammar - I know you sell good products. I've gotten quality from all of you, but the literate guy who is discovering all of this tonight for the first time is going to be concerned about your professionalism. This isn't rocket surgery. At the very least, dump your content into Word and look for squiggly lines -- it's a great first step.
  3. The payment process should be secure - Show me how secure it is. I want to know that the information I'm giving you isn't being stored improperly.
  4. Email! - One upon order, with details, a printable receipt, and a link to view the status of my order. Another one upon shipping with my shipping information. Provide a tracking number.
  5. Modern, effective contact options - You may think that this "Liveperson" stuff is state of the art. Two words for you, "it sucks." It's never "online" when you need it to be and frankly there is no benefit of this over timely email responses or a quick phone call. I've tried to leave a message on three different sites and gotten a response only once. Note: A "Fax" is not an acceptable primary contact method.
Systematic or Ad Hoc?
If you're a boutique selling a few pairs of high-priced eyeglasses a day, you can get by with a competent human to provide customer service. I don't cover places such as this.

If you're selling 50 pairs of glasses a day, much less 10,000 pairs a month, you better have some systems in place or you're going to drown. These systems are mandatory (and should be as automated as possible):
  • systems to facilitate a higher percentage of error-free orders (simplify!)
  • systems to notify customers of status changes
  • systems to notify shipping information
  • systems to facilitate repairs, replacements and refunds
One would think that a company online, reaping the benefits of increased efficiency and lower people and space costs would see the intelligence behind automated logistics. But many are still trying to get by on the seat of their pants. An email telling me that my order has been placed is nice, but unless there is a method for me to follow up on the process, it's value is very limited.

If I have to call or email customer service to find out this information, and particularly if these are the only options, you're going to lose money on me (here's where it gets interesting), but only for that order. If I get kick-ass, accurate and timely customer service, I'm likely to purchase again. I'm also likely to tell everyone who will listen what a wonderful experience I had with you.

But what if I NEED to call?
Give me the option -- even if it's not toll-free. Post a number, tell me what languages I can use and if it's important enough to me, or your email system fails (as is the excuse explanation du jour) I may just call. But when I do, don't blow smoke and tell me "they shipped yesterday" or "they're going out today" unless they really are. You want to make me really angry? Lie to me -- while I'm paying you for a good or service.

I've gotten much email on phone conversations had with customer service people at the retailers listed over the left. It seems that nearly every site (with a phone number) has at least one decent customer service person and at least one closer to horrible. Do yourself a favor, fire the bad ones. This afternoon, if possible. They're customer poison.

Wake up out there. Time to start thinking about the big picture.

If you can't see it, you might want to get your prescription checked.

PD (Pupillary Distance) measurement has been one of the most common threads in the 20 months that GlassyEyes has been around. Dispensing opticians appear to see it as a key to continued profits, and hold this very simple number (at least in a traditional single vision script) over our heads in order to over pay in their stores.

PD measurements aren't difficult to obtain as has been discussed over and over. There is nothing magical about them and optometrists themselves have debated over the accuracy of machines designed expressly to provide PD. I did my own. I measured my wife's uncle and he's thrilled with the result. There are many different ways to do it and you'll see each of them employed in professional environments as well as in bedroom and bathroom mirrors around the world.

Forum regular, IMQ came across a thread at the beloved Optiboard ( that has a number of interesting comments from supposed health care providers concerned more with profit over providing accurate (and complete) prescriptions.

"LeighLee" starts things off with an alert to all opticians:

Our OD called the Georgia Society of Optometry, and was told that we HAD to give the PD as part of the prescription if we do a refraction as part of the exam... We have never included PD as part of the refraction before. So we have never included a PD along with the RX that is handed to the patient... I am concerned that if we are forced to give the PD, more and more of our optical patients will go elsewhere, like ONLINE!!

"Fezz" would just as soon be snarky when providing the PD:
Write it down in inches and forget about it!

"MarcE" sees providing the PD as a big problem:
Yes Fester, including a PD on an Rx is terribly shortsighted.
This is not a small issue - it could be our biggest problem going forward.

"Against the Rule" makes the only solid point in the thread thus far:
If giving out PD's is going to bankrupt your practice, your practice ain't gonna be around long anyway.

I find all of this very disconcerting. I think, as a group, the people who use and contribute to this site are VERY concerned with their overall eye health. One thing is certain, I'm much more able to afford to get my eyes checked regularly now that I'm not going to have to tack on $400 for a new pair every time I get them checked. I'm also not wearing old, weak prescriptions any longer. Why would I? I can spend as little as $8 and get something that allows me to see the way I should be seeing when things change. I don't have to budget for this any longer. When I feel like things are starting to get a bit blurry, I'm in (paying these people who seem to want to inconvenience me) to get an updated prescription and make sure my eyes are healthy.

I think the real winners when everything shakes out in this field are going to be those professionals who actually act as professionals should. Give me what I've paid for and I'll keep coming back. If you can figure out a way to get the prices down on the glasses in your store (yes, I'll even wait a week or two), I'd gladly give you a shot.