Why do some eyeglasses cost so much?

The price of eyeglasses varies wildly—from $5 readers to designer glasses costing hundreds of dollars. Here are the big factors that impact the bottom line.

Joel Hunter, MD
Joel Hunter, MD
Refractive Surgeon, Hunter Vision Updated 08/09/17 12:43 PM

We’ve all walked by the rack of reading glasses in a grocery store and seen how inexpensive glasses can be. For that kind of glasses, the high-quality options usually range somewhere in the neighborhood of $10. And those $10 versions are genuinely good glasses: actual glass, good optics… there’s no scam there. Foster Grant puts out a good product. So, it’s no wonder people would be confused why the prescription glasses they get from an optician are so much more expensive. Sure, they’re custom-built with a specific prescription and to fit correctly. It just seems like that would bump the price to 50 or maybe 100 dollars. But $300? It seems impossible they should cost that much. Yet they often do, and sometimes it can be twice that. Let’s see what makes glasses so expensive.

It’s not the raw materials. High-quality, mass-produced reading glasses are very inexpensive, but the companies making them still make a healthy profit. That wouldn’t be possible if the cost of the glass and metal used was high. And again, it’s good glass. Yet high-quality, mass-produced gold bars cost approximately one bajillion dollars each. The disparity from scale of production only helps out so much when your raw material is the expensive part. With glasses, that’s just not the case. The price of your glasses stems from two main factors: the cost of a brand and the cost of labor.

First, the cost of a brand. What we’re talking about here is licensing and distribution of a name that consumers agree to be worth more money. Sometimes it’s because it represents actual higher quality. Oddly enough, higher cost brand names may also represent the idea of higher quality. It doesn’t make you a bad person if you buy a $100 Gucci undershirt instead of a $5 Hanes undershirt, it just means the vibe you get from wearing the Gucci undershirt is worth the extra $95. They’re both going to work as shirts. With something like glasses that are on your face all day long, that metaphysical difference can have even more influence.

There are too many variations of brand cost vs. quality vs. “coolness” to list them all out and be helpful, or even remotely close to interesting. The basic idea is understandable with a few examples, though. Anti-reflective coating can be sold at an exceptionally high markup, and the quality can vary from amazing to stuff that actually makes your glasses worse. If you’re buying a brand name like Crizal, the general consensus is cost of markup vs. quality can be worth it if you can afford it. If you’re buying the less-specific, less-regulated brand of “anti-reflective,” you may find that markup vs. quality is a bad deal when six months later you’ve got stuff that looks like dried glue peeling off your glasses. Gucci? Most of that cost is the price of having those five letters printed on the frame. High-tech, light-weight polymers? Most of the cost is the science involved in making your glasses significantly more comfortable.

The second (admittedly over-generalized) factor in cost is labor. Probably the best way to demonstrate this is by using a pair of very well-made progressive add lenses. Those are the “no line” bifocals people often want either to help them with computer-range vision or to avoid looking like they need bifocals. There’s a lot of cost involved in obtaining the perfect prescription (“better one, or better two?”), glass that is molded and surfaced exactly right with a big “sweet spot” for near vision, and optical zones lined up so it all lines up perfectly with your eyes. These each require relatively unique skillsets, and getting all of those to collaborate and create great glasses is expensive. Anyone who’s ever tried to save money on progressive glasses finds this out when they try to enjoy a book through the one millimeter area of their glasses for reading.

Expensive glasses cost so much because they can. It may be because the type that looks best also happens to have Versace on the label. Or it may be because you’ve got a prescription necessitating optics and fitting that cost a lot to get just right. It would be easy to blame it all on glasses or frames that cost $45 for the seller and are sold at a markup of $450 to the poor soul buying them. It’s just that it wouldn’t be the whole picture. Sure, there are outrageous markups. And sure, I enjoy a good pitchforks-and-torches kind of mob as much as the next guy. The whole truth, however, is sometimes glasses are expensive because it costs a lot of money to create the masterpiece required for some eyes to work just right. In those cases, the only way around the lifelong costs is to see if you’re a candidate for a procedure like LASIK to make it so you don’t need those glasses ever again.

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