Open your closet door and take a quick inventory. How many dozens of shirts/blouses, slacks, skirts, dresses, business suits, sports jackets, sweaters, etc., do you own? Look down. How many pairs of heels, flats, loafers, sneakers, sandals, hiking boots, snow boots? You also likely have a raft of rings, bracelets, necklaces and watches.
Now look in the mirror. If you wear glasses, you're likely staring at the only pair you own.
Why just one pair of glasses?
First, maybe you consider glasses a necessary evil rather than a fashion accessory. And, second, glasses can be a lot more expensive than any other item of clothing or accessory you own, often around $500 a pair and maybe more.
Except eyewear is a fashion accessory — just ask the increasing swarm of bespectacled celebrities. And you don't need to spend a fortune on it. You can buy a collection of fashionable eyewear far more cheaply — for as low as $10 for a complete pair — by shopping online.
How do I try them on?
Hold on, you say. How do you buy glasses online? How do you try them on and see what you look like in them before you buy? And how do you know they're going to fit? And what if you don't like them? What if the prescription's wrong?
Like online clothing vendors, online eyeglasses sellers have addressed all of these in absentia shopping objections.
First, most online eyewear vendors provide a "virtual" try-on feature. You essentially take a picture of your face, over which the site's software overlays your selected frames. Admittedly, it isn't perfect, but it's enough to give you an idea of what you'll look like wearing a particular eyeglass style.
If you're worried about fit, it'll help to know that glasses come in specific sizes, just like clothes. Look inside the left temple of your current frames. Odds are, you'll see a series of numbers such as 58 ▢18 145. These numbers (and that square symbol), expressed in millimeters, indicate the lens width, the bridge width — the bit over your nose that connects the two lenses — and the temple length, the arms that go over your ears. When you combine these with other measurements most online sellers provide such as frame width and lens height, you can get a pretty good fit.
And if you're worried about not liking how your new glasses actually look atop your proboscis or if you can't see right, all online eyewear sites offer generous return/exchange policies, usually for up to 30 days.
If you crave human customer service, a couple of eyeglass sites partner with brick-and-mortar retailers. Warby Parker and LensCrafters operate both physical and online operations, for instance, and glasses.com has a post-fitting/adjustment deal with LensCrafters.
7 steps to buying glasses online
Let's start with why glasses bought from your eye doctor or a chain are so pricey, and why buying online is conversely so cheap.
A company called Luxottica produces around 80 percent of the world's eyeglass frames, including frames from just about every familiar eyeglass brand, creating a near monopoly that maintains insanely high prices on what are essentially thin pieces of plastic or metal and a couple of tiny hinges. Optometrists and eyeglass stores then factor in their medical equipment and physical retail business overhead costs into frame, lens and lens coating/treatment prices.
To counter these high prices, most online eyeglass sites either buy from non-Luxottica frame vendors or make their own, and they have no medical gear or retail operations to add in, drastically reducing prices.
Admittedly, buying glasses online is not as easy as having a clerk in a store do all the work. But here are seven steps to make buying your glasses online easier.
1. Get your prescription
If you haven't had an eye exam in a year or more, get one so you'll have your up-to-date and exact prescription. You're under no obligation to buy glasses from the eye doctor who conducts your exam, and your doctor shouldn't hassle you when you ask for your prescription. If they do, get a new eye doctor.
2. Get your frame size
Check the size of your current glasses — lens width, bridge width, temple length — if the measurements are imprinted inside their left temple. If not, measure the temple length and bridge width (lens width varies wildly depending on frame style) in millimeters on the glasses you have now. Generally speaking, as long as you're within a couple of millimeters or so on each measurement for the frames you desire, you should be cool. Some sites include general frame size filters — small, medium, large, extra-large; sometimes petite, narrow or wide, depending on the site — which will help eliminate frames that definitely won't fit.
3. Create a virtual try-on image
Not all sites offer virtual try-on, but definitely create a photo mannequin of yourself on those that do so you can get at least an idea of what you'll look like in those wild designs you're considering.
4. Filter frame parameters
You may be partial to particular styles or shapes of eyewear. Eyeglass sites helpfully enable you to filter your potential frame options by (as noted) size, gender/age (men, women, kids), material (plastic/acetate, metal, rimless and mixed), shape (square, rectangular, round, oval, cat's-eye, etc.) color and price, to narrow your choices to likely candidates. Some sites differentiate between frames suitable for multifocal options — bifocals and progressives — which typically require more lens height. Sunglass frames are sometimes listed separately.
5. Enter your prescription
Where in the shopping process you'll be asked to do this differs from site to site. When you're prompted, your prescription is a series of numbers under specific categories, with one set of specifications for your right eye and one for your left, that could look something like this:
The "add" numbers are the magnification for the lower part of bifocal or progressive lenses; "PD" stands for "pupillary distance," the distance between your pupils, which can be expressed as separate left-right numbers or a single combined value.
6. Choose your lenses
Once you've picked your frames, you have to select lenses, which is the final — and easily the most daunting — step in buying glasses online.
First, do you need regular single- or multi-vision lenses? If you've already entered your prescription, the site will know this. You're then often asked to choose lens materials and thickness, aka lens "index." Many sites provide a lens recommendation based on your prescription, easing the process. Counterintuitively, the lower the lens index number, the thicker the lenses; for instance, 1.50 index lenses are thicker than 1.74 index lenses. That's because the lens index doesn't refer to thickness, but to something called "refraction index," how much the lens bends light. The stronger your prescription, the thinner the lenses you want, so the higher the index number you want, which helps you avoid wearing Coke bottles on your face.
Then you can choose from a dizzying array of coating and treatments, such as UV, anti-scratch, anti-reflective, tinted and transitional/photochromic — the lenses that get dark when exposed to sunlight. In our experience, transition lenses rarely get as dark as sunglasses; caveat emptor. These varying coatings and treatments can get to be quite expensive once you start piling them up, so shop judiciously.
There's one coating option you can avoid: blue-light filter digital screen protection, an option a growing number of online eyeglass vendors and optometrists offer. We're told the blue light emanating from computer and smartphone screens can be harmful.
Except that the American Academy of Ophthalmology says does not recommend special eyewear for computer use. The only time blue light from a screen can be a problem is at night when it can disrupt sleep patterns. But most smartphones now include a night mode that cuts back its blue light after dark, and there are downloads, such as f.lux, for your computer that do the same.
7. Shop around
Online sites offer similar frame styles, but prices and discounts vary wildly; many sites offer 10, 15 and even up to 60 percent off your first purchase after you register, for instance. Register for a few and wait for the promotional emails to come pouring in (sometimes in annoying volume — I'm looking at you, GlassesUSA.com). A few sites also let you use your insurance to help pay for your new specs. At these prices, you may end up ordering multiple pairs of glasses from multiple sites, giving yourself a chance to choose eyewear to match your mood, occasion or outfit.
Once you place your order, your glasses should arrive in a couple of weeks, usually in a hard shell case with a microfiber wipe.
The best sites for buying glasses
We've researched more than a dozen online eyeglass stores, and bought glasses from a half dozen of them. Here are the six sites that offer the best combination of value, wide selection of both frames and lenses, ease of purchase, and return/exchange policies. (Note: The number of frames listed is as of mid-July 2018; many frames are duplicated for men and women.)
Best selection of frames: Zenni Optical
Primary selling point: Zenni makes its own frames, and offers among the lowest prices on a pair of glasses.
Our favorite discount online eyeglasses store, Zenni Optical makes and sells the widest variety of low-cost frames of any store we surveyed, including dozens of sub-$10 and hundreds of sub-$20 choices, as well as sub-$75 options with progressive lenses, all without forcing you to search for special discounts. Zenni's lens and coating choices can be a bit overwhelming, however.
Main drawbacks: Dizzying number of often confusing lens and coating options
Frames choice: men, 896; women, 1,057; children, 288
Virtual try-on: yes
Contact lenses: no
Return policy: 30-day return for 50% refund to credit/debit card or PayPal or 100% one-time-use store credit (unless defective); shipping fees not refunded
Frames price range: $6.95–$45.95 (including single-vision lenses)
Best for refitting old frames: 39dollarglasses
Primary selling point: This is the only site we found that lets you "re-lens" — refit your old frames with new lenses, and it also sells contact lenses.
Frames at 39dollarglasses — which was developed by eye doctors — start at $39 and the bulk come in at a comparatively semi-pricey $50, but go up to just $89, and multi-vision lenses are more expensive than at other sites. But the real reason to shop at 39dollarglasses.com is to buy new lenses for your old favorite frames, ultimately saving you money. You'll just need a second pair to tide you over until your refitted glasses arrive. 39dollarglasses also sells contact lenses.
Main drawbacks: Ridiculous and distracting price-slash display — $225 cut to $39? Really? Also, the multifocal and coatings options are slightly pricier than other sites'
Frames choice: men, 322; women, 380; children, 30
Virtual try-on: yes
Contact lenses: yes
Return policy: 30-day full refund, no questions asked; 90-day exchange/store credit
Frames price range: $39–$89
Best for students: EyeBuyDirect (EBD)
Primary selling point: EBD manufactures its own inventory and offers a 20-percent student discount (verified by UNiDAYS).
EyeBuyDirect offers a wide selection of fashionable frames priced from $6 to $70, it charges just $6.95 for standard anti-scratch/antireflective lenses, and you get an initial 15-percent discount. These low prices make it easy to buy a pair of single-vision glasses for less than $20, and it's unlikely you'll spend more than $150 with all options included. Even stepping up won't cost much; all of EBD's frames, thinner lenses, multifocal options and coatings are reasonably priced.
Main drawbacks: No virtual try-on, and no filter to choose frames appropriate for multifocal lenses
Frames choice: men, 351; women, 392; children, 20
Virtual try-on: no
Contact lenses: no
Return policy: 14 days, no questions asked; 1-year replacement if defective
Frames price range: $6–$70
Best for sports glasses: California Optical
Primary selling point: All listed prices include basic single-vision lenses; only site we found with prescription sports glasses.
California Optical tells you nearly everything you need to know up front: The price listed for the frames includes basic single-vision scratch-resistant lenses with UV coating and shipping, and the buying process was among the simplest we found, with clear explanations of everything along the way. Better yet, most complete single-vision glasses run around $50 or less, and progressives are just $49 more. For athletes, California Optical also has the only separate prescription sports glasses section we came across among discount vendors.
Main drawbacks: No pricing filter, pricey thin-lens options, limited rimless selection
Frames choice: men, 286; women, 337; children, 46
Virtual try-on: yes
Contact lenses: no
Return policy: 14-day "fit & style guarantee"; 30-day no-questions-asked exchange; 1-year replacement if defective
Frame price range: $19–$89 (including single-vision lenses)
Best for budget glasses with lens extras: Payne Glasses
Primary selling point: Super-low prices include anti-scratch/UV/antireflective lenses.
Payne Glasses manufacturers frames for itself and, seemingly, for others, so its prices are super-low and include anti-scratch/UV/anti-reflective lenses. But there's no virtual try-on, and there isn't a huge variety of frames or lenses to choose from.
Main drawbacks: No virtual try-on, limited frame selection
Frames choice: men, 110; women, 148; children, 11
Virtual try-on: no
Return policy: 50% refund or 100% store credit (unless defective)
Contact Lenses: no
Frames price range: $5.95–$39.95
Best for try-before-you-buy: Warby Parker
Primary selling points: Get five frames sent to you to try on at home; more than 75 physical locations in U.S. and Canada.
While not exactly a bargain shop (not even close), Warby Parker is unique in the eyeglass world — it operates not only an online site but around 75 physical retail locations. This virtual/real combo means you gain all the advantages of both types of shopping for try-on, adjustments and returns/exchanges. Even more uniquely, instead of a virtual try-on on its website, Warby Parker will send up to five of its fashion-forward frames to your home for you to try-on — and they pay for shipping both ways (although not all frames are available for home try-on). The trade-off is that Warby Parker's frames are more expensive than those on the other sites we've listed here, although not as expensive as frames found on premium online eyeglass sites or the physical stores you've been over-paying at (until now).
Main drawbacks: No virtual try-on, pricier frames than other discount sites, no price filters, no prices listed until you click on a pair, progressive lenses a whopping $295
Frames choice: men, 76; women, 114; children, 0
Virtual try-on: no (at home try-on)
Contact lenses: no
Return policy: 30-days, no questions asked; will replace lenses if scratched in the first year
Frames price range: $95–$145
[Image credit: Stewart Wolpin/Techlicious, Warby Parker, Payne Glasses, California Optical, EyeBuyDirect, 39dollar Glasses, Zenni Optical]