How often has this happened to you?

You’re relaxing with friends or family, and someone shows up wearing a new pair of glasses. Naturally, you notice and say something like, “Those new glasses look great on you.”

They reply, “Thanks. I paid a lot for them, so they better look good.”

Then there’s a short pause, followed by what I call The Question: “Why are glasses so expensive?”

Sound familiar? If you’re like me, I imagine you’ve been asked The Question more times than you’d like to remember.

I usually take a deep breath before responding. Then I give this little speech: “A nice looking, well-made pair of eyeglasses is one of the most important items you can own. It’s the result of a lot of research and development, manufacturing expertise and, often, craftsmanship. For it to function properly, it needs to be custom fitted for you by a trained, experience professional. Isn’t all that worth paying for something that enables you to see the world, and influences how the world sees you?”

I’ve been giving my speech for so long I’m afraid it’s getting stale. I wanted to freshen it up, so I asked some of my optical friends how they respond when asked The Question. Here’s what they told me.

Bruce A. Kolkmann is a licensed ophthalmic dispenser with over 45 years of experience in optical retail. He is the former owner of Raymond Opticians Inc.

I am going to try to explain why eyewear is considered by many people to be high priced. The reason is very complex due to the multi-faceted optical industry. It factors in the cost of research & development, technology, marketing, design, manufacturing and branding.

It’s not just a hunk of plastic.

Branding starts with the R&D and marketing departments that work in conjunction with each other. The bigger manufacturers employ behavioral psychologists to try to predict future trends in the consumer market, and the marketing departments use this information to predict those trends. This is the first cost.

It's not just a hunk of plastic.

Now the creative eyewear artisan takes this information and uses their skills to come up with their designs. They use technology as a 3D printer to make prototypes and, when satisfied with their designs, they start to create working prototypes with the materials they are going to use. On occasion, they bring these prototypes to focus groups to assure the success of the design. More cost.

It's not just a hunk of plastic.

When pleased with these results, the manufacturing process begins. This process uses very high tech and costly machinery to create the working parts and the acetate parts are then put into spinning drums filled with wooden chips to get the luster and textures they have designed, now these parts have hinges and other mounting parts to assemble the finished product. At this point they are ready to enter the supply chain. More cost.

It's not just a hunk of plastic.

Most frames are imported and have many costs attached to them ie: in Europe they have a VAT (value added tax) and import customs duty fees before they reach the distribution warehouses. For distribution to the sales forces. At this point the sales force are sent out to the retailer to show these new designs. More cost.

It's not just a hunk of plastic.

Now the professional optician must mark up based on their cost of doing business. And this is not the only cost involved in completing the eyewear with the precise measurements to create a personalized corrective lens, to be inserted into the frame, now it's ready for the customer. More cost.

It’s not just a hunk of plastic.

During the last decade there has been a revolution in lens manufacturing. The Digital Age! These high tech facilities have very large investments in this new technology, millions and millions of dollars and the staff to accomplish this. More cost.

Did I say it's not just a hunk of plastic?

Now, the retailer receives these uncut lenses and must bear the cost of the lens inventory and perhaps the cost of edgers and other lens finishing equipment. But the retailer's cost does not stop there. Add in professional staff, rent, payroll taxes, insurances and incidentals. More cost.

It's not just a hunk of plastic.

At all these steps there has to be a ROI (Return On Investment), otherwise none of the finished eyeglasses would ever reach the consumer. More cost.

It's not just a hunk of plastic

Now the retailer must simplify all this to the consumer to create the value!
How often have we all heard “It is just a piece of plastic.” I think professional opticians over the years have shot themselves in the foot by not charging a professional fee, so the public never puts any value on the educated professional optician. I have often had to remind the consumer of my value in providing the consumer with a high-tech visual experience matched alongside the fashion design that is constantly changing.

So, at the end of the day, the professional optician must do a better job explaining the value when the cost is in question.

It’s not just a hunk of plastic!

Deborah Kotob is the director of education and training development for Jobson and Pro to Pro in 20/20 Magazine. She is a Master Optician with a deep background in ophthalmic optics who has worked as a dispensing optician for medical practices and as the owner of optical shops.

Like many any in optical, the question arises, why are eyeglasses so expensive? The unfortunate bad press by the uninformed has eroded trust in the value of eyeglasses in recent years.

I could answer the question by telling them about the prescription lens and coating research, development, and production cost. I could tell them about the design, brand licensing cost, or the fifty-plus manufacturing steps to make a frame. I could point out the shipping, warehousing, marketing, and merchandising cost bundled into the sticker price, but I don’t.

Why? Because anyone questioning the high cost of eyewear views their glasses as a medical device that they need, not that they want.

Let’s be honest. If we desire something, we will find a way to justify buying it, so “expensive” means we don’t desire them; instead, we need them and see them as functional, not fashionable.

It is easy to look at glasses as functional medical devices, not fashion accessories; after all, they’re covered all or in part by insurance. When faced with this skepticism, I remind my inner circle of their other fashion accessories, like the ten purses or thirty pairs of shoes. I remind them these items aren’t worn on their face daily and cost as much or much more than a quality frame. And I remind them that they wear their glasses every day and that glasses, like other fashion accessories, should reflect their style and should rank as high on their wish list as other pure fashion accessories.

Greg Blackwell is the owner of Pinnacle Optical, an independent wholesale lab in Birmingham, Alabama.

With the advent of internet sites temptingly selling eyeglasses at sometimes very meager prices, I'm often asked this question by family, friends, and strangers I meet who find out my profession. My usual first response is a bit of a cliché, I admit, but a very true one: "Well, you get what you pay for."

Quality eyewear requires extensive research and development, high-quality machinery, and skilled employees. Manufacturing of materials to produce a quality Rx that represents the best vision you can achieve, the addition of items such as no-glare coatings, aspheric lens designs, the exceptional quality of freeform, and digitally processed lenses that replicate your doctor's refraction to exacting standards are all expensive endeavors that extraordinarily improve a patient's vision. Obviously, newer (and more expensive) equipment to meet these requirements is required and has made incredible advances in eyeglass processing methodology; we can more accurately process any prescription. These developments have been years in the making, requiring millions of dollars invested in R&D. Skilled employees are still a vital part of quality and service, and their skills should be well-compensated.

I also explain that vision health is one area where I feel we don't want to cut back. To make a comparison, most of us spend $700 to $1000 a year on cable TV, streaming services, and other forms of home entertainment. We upgrade to new smartphones. We may complain about the cost of new tires for our vehicles, but we know they are necessary for safety. Eyeglasses are a necessary and vitally important medical device that improves our lives. No one should feel like they're being "taken advantage of" or "overpaying" by spending a comparable amount on vision health. Really, what could be more important?

And I end with, I suppose, what would be another cliché, "You only get one set of eyes."

Mary Lou Schatan is a licensed optician and owner of Schatan Optical Gallery, an upscale boutique in Torrance, Calif.

I buy eyewear frames that are well known sellers for my clientele and more expensive eyewear lines that appeal to newer clients who have moved to the into 90274/90275 Area of Los Angeles.

Schatan Optical Gallery has a reputation for selling expensive eyewear. I am proud to have return clients from 1974 when I received my dispensing optician license after five years of apprenticeship at Ballard Optical and the signatures of three ophthalmologists who sent all of their clients to me.

I learned from my parents the merits of buying the best quality available because it was known to last the longest.

My store motto is “For those who recognize quality and appreciate personal service.” My son remarked that there are fewer and fewer stores that still sell quality, in any business. He is proud I used our last name, Schatan, for my own business because his new clients have asked if he is related to me. He says “yes” and they have mentioned my store is considered the most expensive but the quality of the product and level of personal service they receive makes it worth the purchase. 

Arlene Schlesinger recently retired after working for many years as an optician in New York City eyecare practices.

Not all glasses are expensive. It depends on what the customer wants to spend. Patients know the glasses are on their face each and every day, it represents their look, their position and how they come across to people.

There are many inexpensive frames today that will give them that special look!

For those patients who choose an upscale or funky style with a designer or niche pair of frames, we will always be able to keep those on hand and fill their needs as well.

In my opinion it is the lenses that increase the cost. Quality lenses are going to increase the cost even with single vision lenses and hi index lenses. Today there are digital single vision as well as premium progressive lenses. Prices are dependent on what best suits their needs. The eyecare professional is always willing to go over what lenses best suit their individual needs.

Coatings add to the cost and make a huge difference!  How we see and how comfortable we are, especially with the amount of time we spend on our phones and computers now is more important than ever.

Today’s lenses are worth the extra expense.