One of the pains in the ass of moving to a new place is finding a new one of all the basic things you don't need often but need more often than Never. Eye doctors are a great example. Is the eye doctor an integral part of your life, your thoughts, and your routine? No. But you do need to see one annually, or whatever.

I chose a local optometrist essentially at random and got my eye exam. Lots of euphemisms were used to avoid telling me, "You're aging so your vision will continue to get weaker." Very kind of him. Like most people I have no vision insurance, so the exam was paid for out of pocket.

I understand that most optometrists make their money not by doing eye exams but by selling glasses; lenses, frames, or both. There's a healthy markup involved, which we all know now because we can compare the prices the brick-and-mortar optometrist charges with internet prices. What they desperately want their patients to do, of course, is to buy the glasses from them before they go home and order them online for less money. I get it. It's how they make their cash.

This place hit me (and presumably all customers) with a heavy dose of "Support your local small business please" including putting a large gold sticker bearing that phrase on my prescription – no doubt aimed at inducing some pangs of guilt when I entered my prescription online. Fortunately for them, I prefer not to order stuff online when I can buy the same thing locally with minimal effort. So they didn't need to preach at me, I was prepared to pay higher than Discount Eye Place Dot Com prices to, well, obey the sticker.

My better half had already purchased frames for me as a birthday gift. Lovely. So, I said, I'll be a lenses-only customer. I've bought glasses both online and from brick-mortar shops before.
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I know what lenses cost, roughly. Same with frames.

Based on my prescription for progressive lenses, the price they quoted me was – I shit you not here – $1060 plus tax. Just for the lenses. $1100, essentially. It turned into a Monty Python routine for a second, me asking him to repeat it twice to make sure I wasn't mishearing him or having a stroke.

I looked calmly at him, not sure if I should start laughing, and said, "No. No, that's not what lenses cost." And then I walked out and went home. Tried several places online. All prices were between $200-300. It suddenly felt like they were asking me "Please buy local!" with a big smile, but also giving me the finger with that price.

Look. I get it. Online is always cheaper because their overhead is minimal. I was prepared for it to cost more.
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But…not three or four times more. That's just dumb. And the thing that really irritated me is: You know goddamn well they aren't making those lenses in-house. They're being made somewhere else – maybe even at the exact same Lens-o-Matic Factory all the online places use to manufacture their lenses! – and shipped out. It's farmed out to the lowest cost supplier.
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The only rational explanation I could concoct is that perhaps the local universities (the megaemployers of the region) have vision insurance plans and the optometrists maximize their prices according to the limits of what those insurers will cover. If Vision Insurance says they reimburse up to $1060 for lenses, then I guess why the hell not charge $1060 for lenses. The customer (with insurance) certainly doesn't care. Other than this hypothetical I'm just baffled as to how that place ever sells a pair of glasses.

We are constantly put in the awkward and untenable position of being told we are responsible for things we do not actually have the power to fix – that *we* must save our small businesses, but at the same time being confronted with an economic reality that compels us to seek out low prices. You're a bad person if you shop online rather than at your local stores, but finding a way to make ends meet keeps getting harder. I don't *have* $1100 to spend on anything right now, let alone plastic lenses I can get for 1/3 or 1/4 the price.

I don't have any solutions here, only that helpless feeling of consuming in a way I am well aware is bad but not being able to afford the alternative of doing it the good way. I don't blame this one optometrist's office for the economics of healthcare or vision care in the United States, and no part of me wants to see them suffer. At the same time, the Please Buy Local principle has to be priced at a level people can actually afford.
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27 thoughts on “BUY LOCAL, BUT ALSO FUCK OFF”

  • I had a similar experience a few months ago, and was quoted a very similar price. A friend who has decent health insurance just paid $700 for her first pair of progressives. This is new to me–I'm used to local opticians and optometrists being pretty competitive with the big chains.

    It might be worth shopping around, even locally. There are opticians who grind their own lenses and those who order them from labs and those who order them from affiliated labs. Or if you don't mind compromising on the "local" concept, most big box stores host supposedly independent opticians, who have access to discount frames and lenses. Some of the ones around here have pretty good reviews.

    Years ago I was able to buy a vision insurance supplement from my HMO, which essentially cut my net costs in half. In my case lots of in-person attention from a local optician turn out to be necessary for that first set of progressives. The insurance "vetted" pretty quickly, too–I could have saved more by burning them early. There are stand-alone plans, especially via associations (AARP, alumni, union, etc.), though I can't personally vouch for them. And some opticians offer their own plans.

    Lucky for me, I discovered that I can now see much better with one of my older pair of glasses than I can with either of my two most recent prescriptions–well enough that I don't need new lenses. It's possible that presbyopia is partially correcting my near-sightedness.

  • I think the answer is that there's a certain percentage of the population that's simply a price taker in a situation like this. Maybe they're just uniformed and think that's what lenses cost. Maybe they have a sense that they're being overcharged, but they're embarrassed to make a stink about it, or don't want to deal with hassle of figuring out how to source lenses themselves. Maybe they're just reduced to deer-in-headlights when handed the bill and just sign on the line that is dotted.

    Perhaps local businesses were disinclined to gouge customers in a pre-internet world, but customer defection has pushed them to take ethically questionable measures. Perhaps the shuttering of many local businesses has decreased competitive pressure in that segment of the market, and made it easier to gouge those captive to B&M. Maybe this kind of thing has always existed, but increased price transparency has make it more obvious.

    Ultimately, I think the cold hard truth is that not every business needs a B&M presence. They may just not drive the kind of volume necessary to support themselves without a price gouging margin. The businesses that will survive and thrive will be the ones that add value beyond a point and click purchase. There will just be a long, painful transition to get there, and the hangers on will likely resort to various desperate measures (a package tax!) to survive before that transition is complete. The optometrist in question probably needs to exit the retail portion of the business, ceding it to the Warby Parkers of the world that can operate more efficiently, and charge a little more for exams in a medical offices where they need only occupy a small space and can lean on an existing infrastructure for reception, billing, etc.

  • I get my glasses and vision care through the VA. They switched providers last year and my last pair of specs were (imo) not up to the former supplier's level of fit and finish–but they work and the pric3 is $0, unless I want anti-scratch or progressive tinting.

    There is a local optician I know who is actually a buddy of my eye guy at the VA so, if I need my frames adjusted or repaired I can ask him or the local franchise guys who don't charge vets for minor stuff.

    * $59 for the tinting last time. Anti-scratch coating is a waste of money, ime.

  • How topical. The lenses scam I mean, although the support the local business aspect while they jack you over also resonates.
    My optometrist accepts Medicare/aid in a poor rural region and makes bank on frames and lenses, charging $200 for plastic lenses that cost a few bucks to make, and they last six months max before circled with scratches and being impossible to clean with whatever methods employed.
    I’m looking at the world right now through smudged, hazy and damaged lenses, not rose colored ones and I lack the do re mi for replacements.
    As a long time supporter of mom and pop local businesses, I’m amazed at the lack of vision of so many of them.
    However, we do live in desperate times, no? Probably gonna get worse before better.

  • ‘We are constantly placed in the awkward and untenable position of being told we are responsible for things we do not actually have the power to fix…”

    Prevailing pandemic morality operates in much the same way. Masks and lockdowns are of concrete value as well, but also sold at a 300 or 400% markup.

  • … local universities (the megaemployers of the region) have vision insurance plans and the optometrists maximize their prices according to the limits of what those insurers will cover. If Vision Insurance says they reimburse up to $1060 for lenses…

    That's…not how big insurance companies work. Some years ago I had surgery for a ruptured disk in my neck. I still have the original bill paperwork around here somewhere. The hospital billed the insurance company ~$18,000. (I spent the night in the hospital) The Insurance company paid ~$5000. I paid a $50 co-pay.

    And for glasses? Zenni; I paid $185 for my progressive 'your next prescription is a dog' glasses.

    I'd love to buy local but they want to rob me blind.

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  • I'm sure you're right—that the typical insurance used there limits them to $1060.

    And you're definitely right that this behavior was inappropriate.

    Two things can address this:
    1) The fact that everything over a certain price (lower than you'd think…maybe $150?) is negotiable, if you are talking to the person with the authority to negotiate.
    2) Being overt about the fact that you're paying out-of-pocket, throughout the exam, etc.

    I had a similar situation about 25 years ago. Yeah, I had insurance, but I'd used my annual allotment getting contact lenses or something, and found they didn't work for me. Had to buy my glasses, out-of-pocket.
    Office quoted me a certain price, and I said "Can't do it. I don't have insurance coverage, and I can't wait X months. I guess I'll go get them from (famous mall discount provider)." Got glasses from discount mall provider, which lasted 2 years.
    I kept getting my exams from same guy, 'cause he seemed good, and we got along.
    He asked where I got the lenses, and made the argument that, while almost everyone gets their lenses from the same place, and mall vendor used cheaper materials and you could see, and that's why they were cheap, and I said "well, I didn't have coverage, and these lasted 2 years, so…"
    And *then* he said "well, let me see what we can do…" and offered a cheaper price once my insurance coverage was exceeded for the year, some kind of 'second pair special' that didn't violate terms of insurance or some such. Point is, had I negotiated with the main guy, day 1, I bet i could have gotten a much lower price.

  • Welcome to the monkey house. I've been living in the eye-glasses nightmare now for 49 years. It got worse in 2000, after Luxottica bought the Bausch & Lomb frames division in '99.

    Ain't capitalism great?

  • "I'd love to buy local but they want to rob me blind."

    So, it's a RICO thing–they work with everybody else to make sure that you can't read the fine print.

    I don't know if it works, but you might try contacting a Lion's Club if there's one in your area. They run some sort of re-cycling program and may know someone in your area that will give you a better price–it's only a guess.

  • This is nothing new. Local optometrists were always noted for their outrageous prices. I think a lot of people just did without glasses or went into debt. In the 1960s, the first discount optometrists, e.g. Cohen's and Pilde's in NYC, started up and offered one hour service for standard lenses. They charged sane prices and cut affinity (union, AAA, HMO) discount deals.

    Overcharging for certain kinds of goods and services has long been a problem. I've been reading a history of Ravenna, and Theodoric, the first Gothic emperor of the west, gave a sarcophagus monopoly to some cove on the condition of accepting certain fair prices. I'm sure Hammurabi would have had something to say about ridiculous prices for eyeglasses if eyeglasses had been invented a few thousand years earlier.

  • Mid-80s I was in Hong Kong, shopping for a camera in Tsim Tsa Tui in Kowloon (if you don't know it's the area of small streets encrusted with small stores and lurid signs: you've seen it in the movies). Now in my 5th or 6th store I asked the price of the Minolta 9000 I wanted. "X" quoted the shopkeeper, which was about 3- or 4-x more than the other stores. I had to ask how he thought he'd ever sell a camera at that very inflated price. Boiled down to that "everybody" knew Hong Kong was cheap and some people would go to one store only, his. Luck of the draw. He'd make so much from each that he didn't need to sell many.

    If you look like a mark — and let yourself be a mark — don't be surprised to see a grifter take the shot. The past 5 years and 30 hours have shown the reality, and danger, of that.

  • Kaleberg, what history of Ravenna is that, if you don't mind? I'm very curious about that city, especially after the Roman Empire began to circle the drain. Thanks. :-)

  • $1000 for progressive lenses not even including frames sounds absurd. I got glasses about 2 years ago from an optometrist in a fairly well-to-do suburb (Thousand Oaks, CA, rents not particularly cheap). Single vision, with anti-glare coating, and expensive frames (around $180?), and the whole works was $400-something. Could have been $460.

    If "Buy Local" = "Get Gypped" you're under no more obligation to be a good citizen than they seem to feel about being a good business.

    One thing that optometrist had was a device to do wide-field digital retinal mapping, Optomap I think it was called. It's really worth finding someone who has one of those. The machines are an order of magnitude better at detecting any small abnormalities early when you still have a chance to do something about them.

  • Don't worry about it. My local Walmart is staffed entirely by local people. Some of them don't look so local because they are not. It is not worth arguing over. Don't worry about it. Of course we shop with our neighbors when we can, but if we can get the same or slightly worse, it will be Walmart. Not feeling revolutionary at this time.
    It has been 10 months since i visited a Walmart.

  • "I'm sure Hammurabi would have had something to say about ridiculous prices for eyeglasses if eyeglasses had been invented a few thousand years earlier."

    Prolly wouldabeen a lotta cyclopean optometrists.

  • Barbara Spitzer says:

    Basically – the cost of your physical glasses – lens, frame, the works – is $10-$30. The rest is IP.

    Some of that IP is the tech behind the manufacturing; some is the branding; some is the "these are chipped – replace it, because I am here every couple of years" factor. YMMV

  • @ Joe Max:

    A skim of the article shows that the figure was based on a 2012 Forbes article, which article had no support for its citation.

    So, it's a "fundamental fact"–meaning it was pulled outta their fundament.

  • There's a family owned optician's in a very expensive Massachusetts town (got a famous bridge in it). My family's been going to this place for >50 years. This summer I paid app. 500 for frames and progressive lenses with coatings, and that's with me picking strictly by looks not price ( I had a 'use it or loose it' FSA account). If I happen to go 2-3 years without needing lenses this place will adjust and repair the frames over and over and not charge a dime.
    So there are local places that won't rip you off, I'd just say avoid the linked up places.

  • Parallel on the "buy local" angle: about two years ago, I needed to find a decent-sized cage to keep two rescue cats inside during the _hard_ freeze in January / February. (Spoiler alert: they loved it and live inside now )

    Literally no store locally carried one – they all had them on their websites, but if you went in they didn't have any inventory. I was surprised by this; I get that they wouldn't have a lot of choices, but you'd think they'd keep _one_ around for the person who shows up like "ZOMG I NEED THIS NOW I'LL TAKE WHATEVER YOU HAVE".

    I assume somebody high-up made the analysis between the cost of holding inventory and the lost profit of the occasional impulse sale, but it's seriously annoying to have to wait days for shipping when there are dozens of pet stores around…

  • I went local and the mall was closed so I went down the road and by and by I spied Amish children selling eggs and bought a dozen just to give a boost cause you can’t make bank on eggs or pirogis or stuffed dumplings and I like to give a hand to the well intentioned and deluded in addition to which I’m inclined to run on sentences and prepositional phrases and trying to sound smart when I’m not and if anyone is reading and comprehending this I raise a salute. To your health revolutionary brother/sister!

  • Sounds like you're doing business with whitey. Always a bad move.

    I live in a black neighborhood (New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward). I have "a guy" who repairs my car and works out of his garage. He does excellent work for approximately half the price of a "real" shop. My optometrist is an ex con who lost his license behind a drug conviction and works out of his living room. My dentist takes Medicaid. I spend all that money in my community.

    Stop shopping "locally" if that means shopping where affluent whites do business.

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