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Two models wearing sunglasses Photo: Warby Parker

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How to Make Shopping for Prescription Sunglasses as Painless as Possible

Everything I wish I had known and can pass along to you.

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“Nobody needs prescription sunglasses,” the eyeglass specialist told me and my husband while we sat at her cubicle deciding between the Hollywood-style $450 Dior sunglasses that had gotten a thumbs-up from me and the $600 eyeglasses and clip-on matching cat-eye sunglasses he liked.

“Well this’ll show you, Rebekah,” I thought but didn’t say (mostly because her name wasn’t Rebekah and the $600 price tag covered the frames only).

Three months ago, I woke up and grabbed my phone, like any normal day. But that morning, the 100-percent screen brightness jarred me more than it ever had before. I blinked a few times before I realized that the vision in my left eye was mostly gone. My right eye was much better, but my vision was blurry and wouldn’t clear up no matter how many times I stared outside and blinked over and over.

After multiple hours-long optometrist and ophthalmologist appointments, I came away with a diagnosis that, from that morning on, changed my entire life. My ophthalmologist told me I had a severe case of non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy that was quickly approaching proliferative diabetic retinopathy.

In short, I had the thing endocrinologists try to scare you with to keep your blood sugar levels managed; it’s what most often causes people with diabetes to eventually lose their vision completely. Although my A1C — fancy language for your average blood sugar measurements over the previous 60 to 90 days — was at a 6 in October, living my life undiagnosed with type 1 diabetes, the stress of learning (and sometimes failing) to use insulin properly, and becoming pregnant and miscarrying had done their damages. (If you’d like to learn more about A1C and how important it is, the Centers for Disease Control has some great information here.)

It was bad, but not enough to do anything surgical to fix it. The only recommendation I got was to try wearing sunglasses to help blend the black spots in my vision with everything else I saw. Since I already wear glasses, that left me with a few choices: wear contacts and buy non-prescription sunglasses, buy prescription sunglasses while keeping my regular prescription glasses and switching pairs whenever I needed to, or buy a new pair of glasses with magnetic clip-on sunglasses. So no, Rebekah, no one needs prescriptions sunglasses… until they do.

It’s been three months since that appointment. After deciding to purchase a separate pair of prescription sunglasses, I’ve shopped at five different online retailers, at stores like Target and Walmart, and at more than one optometrist’s office before finally landing on Target. From insurance concerns to frame styles and lens types, here are some things I wish I’d known before both starting this process and parting with my cash.


When you find the perfect pair (or so you thought)

Because the word “budget” was absolutely in my vocabulary, shopping online was my first move. I went to five different websites: GlassesShop, Zenni Optical, Warby Parker, GlassesUSA, and Steven Alan Optical.

The first thing that I noticed was the complete and total lack of selection. While all the websites seemed to have a lot of options, after I entered my prescription numbers, I found that I was restricted to only a few different styles; the majority of the frames were unavailable for people who had as strong of a prescription as I did. Once I’d entered my info, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a quick and easy purchase.

Be prepared to waste a lot of time searching for styles and colors you like because — and again, this is on every website I searched — you must select your frames and lenses (we’ll talk about this later) before entering your prescription numbers and finding out whether you can purchase the glasses you’ve placed in your shopping cart.

While my in-store experiences were markedly different due to visiting both optometrists’s offices and discount stores, all of the places I shopped had significantly more options in different styles, and I wasn’t restricted by frame, style, or shape by my vision prescription — only by my budget.

I was advised by optical technicians to pay more for thinner, lighter lenses (often called “High Index lenses,” or “HI” for short), since lenses for stronger prescriptions can end up being thicker than the frame. Yes, it’s mostly an aesthetic concern, but these lenses can also help with visual acuity and relieve eye strain.

The only negative experience I had with shopping offline was a personal one. It’s really hard to keep yourself from becoming emotional about a very emotional thing in a public place where other people are just trying to get their car batteries, sandwich bread, and coffee creamer.

Bottom line: If you have a strong prescription and/or astigmatism and specific styles and colors in mind, shopping online might not work out for you, as stronger prescriptions and astigmatism often raise the lens price significantly, along with restricting frame and lens choices.

While online retailers might seem like a bargain or an easier way to get what you need, if you have anything other than the most basic of vision needs, shopping online can be a total waste of time. You could easily feel like you’ve been tossed around and toyed with for two hours when all you really want is to see clearly — or, if you’re like me, to see at all.


Prices will (most likely) be cheaper offline

A lot stuck out to me about price and the difference between shopping online versus in stores. Nearly every single online prescription glasses retailer had some sort of introductory promotion along the lines of “50% off your first pair,” and a few even had “50% off all pairs,” in case you wanted to buy more than one. With frames starting at $9 at some retailers, I thought I was set… until I read the fine print.

With my strong prescription and my need for sunglasses specifically, I was restricted from a lot of choices. So not only was I required to buy the more expensive frames (this was a pretty universal experience with all of them), I also had to purchase the HI lenses, which upped my ticket price by at least $50 and, in a few cases, more than $100.

Adding to all this was insurance. Through my husband, we have fairly decent vision insurance that’ll pay up to $200 for frames and take care of a significant portion of the lens cost. However, no online-only retailers currently accept insurance, so the full cost of both prescription glasses and prescription sunglasses are out of pocket. (Warby Parker, which has both physical stores and e-commerce, does.)

Finally, the hardest pill to swallow was the delayed realization — after choosing frames, selecting lenses, entering my prescription, and signing up for an account to finally get to the checkout screen and see the price — that the introductory promotions were not referring to the total order cost.

Most gave 50% off of the frames only, and only one BOGO 50% promotion was actually applied to the final price of the second pair of glasses. But because I was required to choose the HI lenses, my cost skyrocketed, even with the additional 50% off of the second pair. Either way, whether I bought one pair or two, I was still stuck paying nearly $200 for a pair of sunglasses out of pocket.

Hillary Duff wearing sunglasses Photo: GlassesUSA

It goes without saying that shopping in an optometrist’s office is probably going to be the most expensive avenue, but I learned not to rule it out. While the offices I visited had the highest prices of all the places I shopped, they also had the highest-quality lenses and frame selection available. Other places felt a little lighter, thinner, and cheaper both in my hand and on my face.

I found the best of both worlds in Target and Walmart, and both consistently run great promotions. While Walmart had a BOGO 50% promotion, Target had a $100-off-any-pair sale, and this did include sunglasses (but couldn’t be combined with insurance). At Target, I chose a $100 pair of frames and, while HI lenses were recommended, the rep made sure to tell me I did not need them due to the style of sunglasses I chose — a similar style I was restricted from purchasing at all the online retailers I visited. Even though my frames were essentially free after the $100 promotion was applied and $200 cheaper than other in-store retailers, I still had to pay a significant sum for my lenses, but those prices were cheaper than shopping online.

Target also regularly has a $25-off coupon that can be combined with current promotions and/or insurance. If you don’t have one, try asking the optical rep if they have an extra you can use. By combining my coupon and the $100 promotion, the pair of sunglasses I chose ended up being cheaper to buy out of pocket than with insurance.

Bottom line: If you have insurance, make sure to check all final prices before making your purchase. You might pay less out of pocket with current promotions than you will if your insurance chips in. Be sure to read the fine print when shopping online, because many promotions aren’t applied to anything other than the (already heavily discounted) frames available, even though lenses are usually the most expensive part of a new pair of glasses.


Peace of mind, returns, and more fine print

After finding out about the squirrelly promotions, I made sure to check on return and refund policies before paying between $175 and $300. Return policies were my primary concern because every online retailer asked me for or plugged in a general number for a pupillary distance measurement (called a PD or PDM). There are tons of links online from those same retailers detailing how to measure your own PD from home, taking care to make it seem extremely easy and foolproof. The truth is, without a proper PD, you’ll end up finding your glasses basically unusable — think blurred or double vision and other negative experiences.

Every online retailer had a refund policy that, unless the return was due to a mistake it made in creating the glasses (you giving them the wrong PD would not count as their mistake), subjected you to a 50% return fee, and sometimes a restocking fee, too. Some had a return policy based on time, like returns accepted within 14 days instead of the usual 30, 60, or 90 days most retailers have. In short: You buy it, you just bought it, honey.

This is really what turned me away from shopping online. Every retailer I visited in person had a 90-day return policy, no matter what. If the glasses didn’t work, or if I simply didn’t like them, I was free to return them for a full refund. Store reps even measured my PD at the time of ordering and did another fit test during pickup to make sure the sunglasses would work. Each retailer even offered to give me my PD in case I wanted to go home and shop online before making my decision.

Lastly, in-store shopping taught me about the colors of lenses I could choose, why and how prescription sunglasses aren’t really that dark, and the differences between polarized and non-polarized lenses so I could make the best decision for myself before purchase.

Bottom line: If you don’t have insurance and don’t mind getting a no-frills pair of glasses, an online retailer might be your best choice. It seems like most, if not all, online retailers will best serve folks with only the most basic of vision correction needs. If you have any particular concerns, need a strong prescription, have astigmatism, or want more than a fairly basic selection of shapes and colors, going to a brick-and-mortar retailer will most likely be your best choice — especially if you’re insured.

While it’s not exactly false advertising, don’t be immediately sold on the promotions you see online. Shopping from multiple places both online (while taking care to immediately unsubscribe from any mailing lists you had to sign up for in order to receive promotional pricing) and offline will absolutely serve you best. If you have insurance or anything stronger than the most basic of prescriptions, keep online shopping for glasses as a last resort.

Update: February 19th 11:00 a.m.

A previous version of this story did not specify that Warby Parker, which has both physical stores and e-commerce, takes insurance online.

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