In which I try not to lose faith in the retail sector

I try not to whine too much about first world problems, but sometime, like with my conversation with T-Mobile and its inevitable sad aftermath, I’m just overcome by the humanity of the situation. And I’m sorry – I’m afraid I’ve had a couple more conversations like that again; please bear with me.

No, not with T-Mobile – I ended that abusive relationship months ago and have been blissfully happy with AT&T ever since. Yeah, after T-Mobile, AT&T feels like “blissfully happy” – it was that bad. But I don’t want to talk about that now. I want to talk about buying glasses.

Have any of you bought glasses in the past couple of years? It’s been just over two since I’ve tried, and either I’ve had fake “Total Recall” memories of the experience implanted in my head, or the process has taken a turn for the worse. Much, much worse.

In theory, it should be simple: you go in, select a frame you like, select the lenses you want (plastic, polycarbonate, etc), the prescription (single vision, line bifocals, progressive) and the finish you want (anti-glare, scratch protection, etc.). I remember there being a chart for how much all of these cost.

Well, I guess those days are gone. The first shop I wandered into was For Eyes.

“Excuse me – could I see a list of lens options and prices?”

“Could you please sign in? One of our consultants will be with you in a few minutes.”

“Sure, but I don’t need a consultant. I just want to look at prices.”

“We prefer to give everyone personal service.”

“Uhhh. Okay.”

[15 minutes later]

“Mr. John?”

“Do you mean ‘Cohn’?” [me, standing five feet away, but no response]

“Mr. Chan?”

“Do you mean ‘Cohn’?” [louder, on the other side of the counter now, but still no response]

He goes back to fussing with papers. I look at the list and see that it’s my name at the top.

“Excuse me – were you calling this name? That’s me.”

We come to an agreement that it is me that he’s be calling, and we sit down at his desk.

“Have you selected some frames you like?”

“I’ve seen a few. Can I just find out what lens and finish options are available?”

“Certainly, here’s a chart.”

“You couldn’t have just let me see that 15 minutes ago?”

“We prefer to give everyone personal service.”

“I see.”

He tells me that the bottom of the line single vision lenses are $178, and progressive lenses are somewhere around $350. I notice that line bifocals – what I’m currently wearing – are not on the chart. How much are line bifocals?

“Oh, those are $119.”

“Wait, line bifocals – a more complicated lens cost less than single vision lenses?”

“Well, the price for line bifocals doesn’t include the optional anti-glare and scratch protection.”

“Ah, would you kindly compare apples to apples for me, kind sir?”

I extract, painfully, the price for bifocals with the magic coatings, and for the other lenses without. I suggest that this sort of thing would be much less confusing if, instead of brightly colored icons on their chart, they included actual data. He seems puzzled by the suggestion and assures me that it’s all very complicated. Which is why they prefer to give everyone personal service.

After a fair amount of cross-examination, it appears that the cheapest I can get a new pair of bifocals of any sort is somewhere around $400 – a bit more than I would have expected. But then a thought occurs to him, and his eyes brighten. They’re having a special: if I select one of their $99 pairs of frames, then I can get two pairs of glasses for $125. For the whole thing? Bifocals? Yes, for the whole thing. Bifocals.

And this just occurred to you?

He leads me over to the secret unmarked row of qualifying glasses hidden among the others like the daily double in Jeopardy. Honestly, it feels like something he’s just made up on the spot to try and make me feel better. Or maybe it’s the pony gambit – first convince me that glasses are stupidly expensive, so that I’ll jump unquestioningly at a “cheap by comparison” option. Either way, my trust that I’m getting a complete and unbiased accounting of my options has skipped out and gone next door for a cup of Peet’s long ago. I thank the young man for his time and take the same route.

Now, I would have taken this experience as an anomaly, except that this afternoon I had an even more surreal experience at LensCrafters. I did take the preliminary step of looking for lens prices on their website, only to find this on the FAQ page:

How much are your lenses?

Lens cost will vary depending upon lens material, features, and your particular prescription. We will be happy to accurately estimate the cost of your lenses at your local LensCrafters store once we know what your prescription is, and what kind of lenses you are looking for. To find the store nearest you, use the Find a Store locator or call our customer care representatives (1-877-7-LENSCRAFTERS or 1-877-753-6727).

Meaning, yup, please come into the store – they prefer to give everyone personal service.

So I did. [No, this doesn’t end well. Would I be writing about it if it did end well?]

Another earnest young man came to my assistance asking if I needed help picking out frames. No, I wanted to find out about lenses. Honestly, FAQ notwithstanding, it doesn’t appear to make one whit of difference what my prescription is or what kind of frame I’ve selected.

I inquired about the cost of progressive lenses, and he asked me, in these approximate terms, whether I wanted the cheap (and by inference crappy) lenses that other people sold, or the superior ones that LensCrafters specialized in. Well, how ‘bout you show me some prices, young man? Do you have a chart?

“No, but I can draw you one.”

This must be the single most common question anyone asks these folks, and their sales folks have to draw it out each time?!? Actually, first they have to go to their iPads and try to look it up, then transcribe it.

After a few minutes in which he wrestles with his iPad for numbers, I have my hand-drawn chart: the “cheap” lenses are $420, escalating up to $760 for the “good ones” ($850 if I want the high-index acrylic).

“Of course, we offer a 50% discount on the cheap lenses.”

“So they’re actually $210? How about the good lenses?”

“We have a 25% discount on those. But since that’s not very much, I can offer you a 30% discount on an entire package.”

Wait – am I buying prescription glasses or a used car? We spend a bit more time on which of those numbers include magic coatings and incantations, and I notice that my trust is edging toward the door again with that “We’ve got to go” look. I thank this young man for his time as well, and exit, stage left, as though pursued by a bear.

But following Shakespeare, all’s well that ends well, and I think all may be well here. I stopped off at Costco on my way home and chatted with their opticians. Teresa and Thanh(?) pulled out a chart for me, answered my questions in the clearest and most direct way possible, and 30 minutes later I was signing for a lovely pair of titanium-framed progressive prescription glasses with all the anti-glare and scratch protection bells and whistles. For $147.

my "chart" from Lenscrafters

3 responses to “In which I try not to lose faith in the retail sector

  1. Hey David,
    I usually purchase glasses as if I were advertising a govt. contract. I give the specifications for the required item and then collect three bids. Often, I send the bids back with the instructions that they should sharpen their pencils and resubmit. Either way, it seems to be about the same amount of trouble that you went through, but with lower expectations.
    Cheers,
    Tom

  2. Awesome! My husband just got new glaesss, too. Our little guy kept breaking them. We had to superglue them about 3 times so we figured it was time for new ones.

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