Is the Market for Eyeglasses Frames Gamed?
Last updated April 2020
Eyeglasses follow trends these days, much like clothing and shoes. Just look on your little and big screens: There’s Anderson Cooper showing off his baby blues behind sleek metal hornrims and Cate Blanchett rocking wire aviator glasses. There are so many different styles, worn so well, it seems easier than ever to suss out a range of specs from a range of makers.
But in actuality, much of this variety is an illusion: The U.S. eyewear market is dominated by the Italian Luxottica Group, which not only manufactures millions of pairs of glasses annually, but also markets and sells them via thousands of retail stores it runs.
Want glasses or shades made by your favorite spendy designer? They were probably made by Luxottica. It owns several brands outright, including Ray-Ban and Persol. And other name-brand specs are created by Luxottica via licensing agreements, which means if you buy frames marketed as Armani, Brooks Brothers, Burberry, Bulgari, Chanel, Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors, Oakley, Polo/Ralph Lauren, Prada, Tiffany, Tory Burch, Valentino, Versace, and more, they were churned out in a Luxottica factory.
And, no, Michael Kors didn’t have a major part in how your new progressives look; design houses usually just send sketches of new-season styles to optical companies so their in-house staff can riff on, say, Tiffany’s new pearl earrings or Ralph Lauren’s latest runway lineup.
But the eyewear giant doesn’t dominate just the manufacturing market. Though the name “Luxottica” doesn’t show up on their signs, when you head into LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, optical departments at Target, or several others, you’re shopping at a space or store that the behemoth owns or controls.
To close the loop on vision care, Luxottica’s parent company bought insurer EyeMed, and in 2018 also bought French company Essilor, which is the world’s largest maker of prescription eyeglass lenses and also makes contacts.
With one company controlling a large share of both the manufacture and the distribution of eyeglass frames and lenses, it’s tricky to figure out whether you’re getting a good deal or not. Luxottica frames can cost from about $300 to several thousand bucks per pair. Sure, some of these styles boast luxurious-looking details—a gold-tone Tory Burch “T” logo here, some Tiffany faux pearl trim there. But it’s hard to justify paying such hefty prices when you can buy a far less expensive model at Target that possibly was made in the same facility, and the manufacturing cost of both models probably was less than $5.
One way to assess value is to buy from a store listed in our ratings tables that gets top ratings for advice. At these stores, you’re more likely to be told whether more expensive frames warrant their higher price tags or that you’d do just as well to buy a lesser-known brand. And if you shop at a retailer that receives a low price comparison score, based on prices quoted to our undercover shoppers, you can be reasonably confident that the price you’ll pay for the same frames will be lower than elsewhere.
Several other companies seek to challenge Luxottica’s near monopoly. While most of these stores’ offerings are so different from their competitors’ that we can’t report price comparison scores for them, their prices and selection are good enough to deserve your consideration.
For example, for $95, Warby Parker offers single-lens glasses with funky, fashionable frames. It began as an internet-only business that would (and still does) send out five free frames for customers to try on before they ordered glasses. The company has since opened more than 100 brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S.
Several other online optical companies have joined the eyeglass market. Founded the same year as Warby Parker, Brooklyn’s Classic:Specs hawks vintage-inspired single-vision ($89) and progressive ($289) lenses with frames. Classic:Specs also sends customers five pairs to test at home for free and offers an online 3D try-on tool: Simply upload your photo to see yourself in a range of its colorful acetate frames. Similar styles (hipster shapes, trendy colors), free at-home try-on, and pricing also come from felix + iris ($89 readers, $119 single-vision, $299 progressives) and Fetch Eyewear (starting at $95 for single-vision lenses with frames), which donates all its profits to animal welfare groups.
Other non-Luxottica online-only retailers that ship complete pairs of glasses (single-vision) for less than $200 for no-commitment at-home previews include:
But if you prefer shopping in person—understandable, since in-person, frames can be bigger, less flattering, or just uglier than they look online—a few non-Luxottica brick-and-mortar stores offer good frames at prices that won’t give you double vision. Here’s a quick look at what a sample of these alternative outlets offer.
- The basics: Costco carries a mix of its own frames and a few designer options. For overall quality, Costco received fairly high scores from its surveyed customers, as reported on Table 2. It offers lots of wire rims, some chunky acetates, but fewer trendy colors and unusual shapes, compared to other eyewear outlets. Like most sections of Costco, the optical department is brightly lit and busy.
- Prices: Frames start at $39 and run up to about $200; add $80 for single-vision lenses and $210 for progressive lenses. An annual membership ($60) is required to purchase glasses.
- Policies: Accepts most vision plans. On-site optometrists at many stores. Returns or exchanges on defective merchandise.
- The basics: Long-running web-based retailer that has opened brick-and-mortar stores. Offers a wide variety of distinctive, stylish frames, with several color options for most. It’s slogan: “You supply the personality. We frame it.”
- Prices: Most frames are $89. Lenses are free for plain readers, $40 extra for blue light readers, $60 extra for all-day readers, $110 extra for single-vision, and $210 for progressives.
- Policies: Does not offer a try-at-home program. Offers refunds or exchanges of “new, unworn, unaltered, merchandise” within 90 days of purchase. (The “unworn” requirement worries us.) Very few stores offer eye exams.
- The basics: SEE operates 44 boutiques in the U.S. In business since 1998, SEE is a bit pricier than some retailers, but you get a lot of style for the money: The company bills itself as “Hip Without the Rip.” Each frame comes in a limited-edition run—usually, only a handful of each frame design is available in each of its stores—and styles boast more higher-end finishes (wood inlays, mesh-textured titanium) than many other manufacturers offer at these price points. The less-expensive core styles are all made of Italian acetate and come in multiple colors. Store atmosphere is sleek and cheeky, with vintage photos of frame-wearing folks on the walls and trim glass shelves holding colorful specs.
- Prices: Single-vision lenses with frames cost $199 to $419.
- Policies: Accepts most vision plans. On-site optometrists in some locations. Lets you try out frames for 14 days, but once it sends you glasses with prescription lenses you have only 10 days to return them for store credit.
- The basics: Walmart runs optical departments in many of its 5,000 U.S. stores. We found a range of wire and plastic frames, many that could pass for higher-end brands with hipper-than-Walmart reputations. Adornments—gold trim, brand logos—aren’t a thing here, but you can score basic-but-not-too-boring frames, some in cool patterns or hues (tortoise, purplish red). The optical department’s atmosphere varies from store to store, but the branch we visited boasted the warehouse-y bustle the chain is known for.
- Prices: Private-label frames with single-vision lenses cost about $35 to $180; frames with progressive lenses cost about $90 to $225. You can order either in person or online.
- Policies: Free refunds for 60 days for any reason. Walmart will repair or replace any glasses bought in store or online within 12 months with proof of purchase.
- The basics: In addition to its well-known website, Warby Parker has now opened more than 100 boutiques in the U.S. Warby captured the hipster zeitgeist for a reason: Its specs look like they catwalked off the streets of Tokyo or Brooklyn. New collections and designer collaborations are released several times a year. The stores themselves resemble old-fashioned libraries, with shelves holding both vintage books and frames that you can simply pick up and try on. Staffers ring up customers at desks resembling library checkout counters. Gets very favorable ratings in our surveys of consumers.
- Prices: $95 and up for single-vision lenses with frames; $299 and up for progressive lenses with frames.
- Policies: Thirty-day no-questions-asked return policy and one-year no-scratch guarantee for lenses. On-site optometrists in many stores. Also has a try-at-home program, which sends five frames to try out for five days.