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Consumer Confidential: Glasses are still too damn expensive

David Lazarus, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The outlook for 2022 and beyond is increasingly blurry.

By that I mean global sales of eyewear and other vision products will top $209 billion over the next five years, according to a recent forecast by market researcher Imarc Group.

That’s up from $140 billion last year and reflects in part “the increasing usage of electronic devices or gadgets.” Which is to say, pandemic binge-watching and our growing habit of staring at small screens are ruining our eyes.

And yet, despite increasing disruption by a new breed of online optical companies, eyewear prices are still exorbitantly high — with markups in some cases approaching 1,000% — and remain one of the most egregious examples of an industry taking advantage of consumers.

“Prescription glasses are obscenely expensive and there should be more transparency in pricing,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of the California Public Interest Research Group (and, like many of us, a glasses wearer).

“We know who our optometrist is, and maybe even the manufacturer of the frames,” she told me. “But what about the lenses? The lenses are often more expensive than the exam or the frames, but we know little about where they come from or how they’re priced.”

 

I recently had my annual eye exam, required a stronger prescription and found myself once again poking around the eyewear industry. The last time I did so was several years ago, after a colleague griped about his new specs costing about $800.

At the time, it was estimated that about 126 million U.S. adults wore glasses. The Vision Council, a trade group, now puts that figure at 165.5 million (thanks, cellphones!).

My previous digging into this unusually secretive business turned up some troubling findings. Perhaps the most remarkable insights came from E. Dean Butler, the founder of LensCrafters, who now works as an independent industry consultant.

He told me about touring Chinese factories that produce frames and lenses for the U.S. market under a wide variety of brands.

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