Why do glasses cost so much?

The high cost of glasses can make your eyes pop. Here’s the lowdown on the price of your specs

Why do glasses cost so much?

Source: Best Health Magazine, January/February 2011

If you wear glasses, you know that buying a new pair of specs can put a sizable dent in your savings account. For a premium pair of prescription glasses, the cost of the lenses alone can range from $500 to $1,000. When you add on the price of frames, you might wonder if those top-of-the-line products are really worth their hefty price tags.

You might be able to get by with a $10 or ‘$20 non-prescription pair of glasses if you need something only for reading or distance. But because the frames haven’t been fitted properly so that they are centred for your eyes, and the left and right lenses haven’t been prescribed to correct your vision specifically, you could experience blurred vision, eye strain or headaches. Wearing custom-fit single-vision glasses (about $150 to $200 with a basic frame and $250 to $350 with a designer frame) means you’re looking straight through the middle, which makes vision crisper.

The price of glasses starts to go up with progressive lenses (also known as invisible bifocals), which have a continuous change ‘of strength’for the different distances we encounter’in one lens. "The surface of the lens needs to be custom shaped," says Ralph Chou, associate professor in the school of optometry at the University of Waterloo.

Says Halifax optician Robert Dalton, executive director, Opticians Association of Canada, "The progressive lens brings your vision as close to normal as possible, with less distortion and less need to move your head to find the sweet spot." If you’re paying $700 to $1,000 for the lenses, you’re getting technology that conforms to the individual topography of your eye, he says. "It’s not that you couldn’t get along with something else, but you would have to make a compromise and adjust your head" to see clearly.

The price of both single-vision and progressive lenses also reflects production costs, starting from research and development, to labour in the manufacturing stage, to dispensing. “At every stage, incremental costs creep in, and they add up,” says Chou.

Looking at the extras

A UV (ultraviolet) filter, which protects the eyes from sun damage, can be relatively in’expensive, as is anti-scratch coating. Other specialized coatings that are more technically complex to produce (such as anti-reflective coating, which reduces glare from computer screens and while driving) might range from $100 to $225, depending on the number of coats; the greater the number, the more dur-able and effective the product. You’ll pay extra ‘$100 or more’for lighter, thinner lenses made from "high-index" plastics. With such lenses, light passing through them is refracted at a sharper angle, generating more glare, so an anti-reflective coating is a good investment, says Dalton.

Optometrist or optician?

Where you live may also affect the price. In Ontario, for example, regulations require optometrists to dispense all frames and lenses at their wholesale cost, whereas opticians typically work in a retail setting and can mark up materials. Optometrists may charge a fee to cover the cost of preparing and fitting a patient’s glasses, but it’s not related to the brand name of the frame or lenses. Glenn Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Association of Optometrists, says there’s more flexibility for optometrists in other provinces, such as Alberta and Nova Scotia, where they respond to the market in setting fees and pricing, which can mean either higher or lower pricing depending on the community.

The time it takes to prepare your glasses shouldn’t affect the quality of the product ‘and usually doesn’t impact on price either, says Dalton. "All licensed opticians and optometrists have a standard of practice and a set of tolerances that a product has to meet." Because most single-vision lenses are finished lenses, they can be put into frames in one hour, but progressive lenses can take a week or more, says Chou.

Tips for saving

"If you want anti-reflective coating or "high-index" lenses, maybe you can compromise ‘by purchasing a less expensive frame," Dalton says. So check what’s on sale. Today’s better frames are often made from titanium, a light, impact-resistant material. "Sometimes a titanium frame ends up on a sales rack," he says. "Just keep in mind that whatever the material, if it’s a discontinued style, you may not be able to get a replacement part for it. Ask what the odds are of running into a problem if you buy a discontinued frame."

This article was originally titled "Jeeper$" in the January/February 2011 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience ‘and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.