The brick and mortar opticians’ cabal.

Have you heard of Warby Parker? Or Lookmatic? They’re just two of a bunch of new companies that sell cheap and stylish prescription eyeglasses online. Warby Parker is my favorite, because of their marketing slickness, Tom’s-style buy-one, give-one do-gooding, and the fact that they’ll send you five pairs of frames (for free!) to try on in the comfort and privacy of your home before you make a selection. If you try them, know before you go to your eye doctor that you need your “pupillary distance” or “PD” measure, and it’ll save you a lot of hassle. I went through this hassle, and it seems like a good example to me of a broken regulatory system and anticompetitive market, so I cannot resist boring the Internet with my story:

I’d decided a few months ago to get new glasses because I was sick of my current pair and because the insurance I had through my fellowship covered an eye exam. Before I moved to California (and before that insurance ran out), I got a new prescription for eyeglasses at an eye doctor in D.C. A few weeks ago, I ordered a home try-on kit from Warby Parker and spent a couple days being indecisive about what pair of frames to choose. After I finally made a decision, I dug up my prescription to enter it into the Warby Parker site, when I discovered that my eye doctor had not included a PD measure. Apparently, this is common, and the Warby Parker site suggested that I go back to my eye doctor to get my PD measure. In my case, since my eye doctor was across the country and I didn’t want to pay for another eye exam, this wasn’t really an option. The website also made two other suggestions: I could try to see if the last place I had glasses made had my PD on file, or go to a local optician and see if they would measure my PD (possibly for a nominal fee). The copy on the Warby Parker page was actually pretty interesting:

You can also try to walk into an optical shop and ask for a PD measurement. In the past, most optical shops provided PD measurements for free, but now we’re finding that many are no longer doing so in a vain attempt to maintain control of the market and prevent people from buying online.

That made me think that the local LensCrafters store was not going to be happy about measuring my PD (trivial though the process is). So my first thought was to call the Pearle Vision store where I had bought my last pair of glasses to see if they would just tell me my PD. The woman who spoke to me on the phone told me that an email had gone around about these online opticians, and that she could not give me my PD measurement information. When I asked her if there was any way I could request its release to me, since it was mine, she said, “No, it’s not yours, it’s the lab’s.”

Plan B was to try calling the local LensCrafters. After I explained my situation to the guy on the phone, he tried to dissuade me from buying glasses online at all, saying that the PD measurement was likely to be inaccurate if I had a strong prescription and they didn’t have the actual frames on me to measure them. When I told him I’d take my chances, he suddenly remembered that the store’s pupillometer was broken and that I could try my luck at a different LensCrafters. (So if you’re thinking of waltzing into the LensCrafters in Emeryville, don’t bother! Their pupillometer is broken and they are apparently ethically bound to taking only the most precise PD measurements before any eyewear changes hands. [Just kidding! Opticians don’t have professional ethics.])

In the end, I wound up paying $25 for the optometrists-in-training at the UC Berkeley Eye Center to measure my PD. I guess they’re more of a medical school than a member of the brick and mortar opticians’ cabal, so they don’t really have a dog in this fight.

When I sat down to write this blog post, I did a little Googling and discovered that there really is a brick and mortar opticians’ cabal. It’s called Luxottica:

It owns LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, and the optical shops in Target (TGT) and Sears; (SHLD) it owns Ray-Ban, Oakley, and Oliver Peoples; it manufactures, under license, eyewear for more than 20 top brands, including Chanel, Burberry, Prada, and Stella McCartney. “They’ve created the illusion of choice,” says [Warby Parker co-founder] Gilboa. And inadvertently they’ve created an opening for an indie anti-brand brand such as Warby Parker. Luxottica declined to comment.

…Warby Parker uses the same materials and the same Chinese factories as Luxottica. It can sell its glasses for less because it doesn’t have to pay licensing fees, which can be as much as 15 percent of the $100 wholesale cost of a pair of glasses. Warby Parker doesn’t have to deal with retailers, either, whose markups can double or triple prices, it says. And at least for now, the founders are content with lower margins.

So, Warby Parker and co. are full of win, right? They simply seem to have the superior business model; if the market works at all, then surely the pathetic and apparently-coordinated attempts at Luxottica outlets to resist progress through noncooperation will ultimately prove futile. Well, I’m not as optimistic about the market as some, but we’ll see.