Eyeglass & Contact Lens Store Buying Guide

Eyeglass & Contact Lens Store Buying Guide

Most people who use corrective lenses purchase their glasses or contacts from the same office where they had their eye exam, according to the market research firm Mintel. But federal law mandates that eyecare providers give you a copy of your prescription after an exam. And with a wide variety of glasses and contacts available online, inside big box stores such as Costco and Walmart, and at other chain and independent retailers, your options for finding quality eyewear are wide open. 

Whether you want disposable contacts, a basic pair of glasses, or tinted, progressive eyeglass lenses in a designer frame, quality eyewear can run you hundreds of dollars. With so many options to choose from, where should you shop to be sure you’re getting glasses or contacts you’ll love without paying too much?

What Satisfaction Looks Like

In Consumer Reports’ spring 2019 survey, the eyeglass and contact lens stores that topped our ratings received high marks for overall satisfaction. Results are based on more than 65,000 members who, collectively, reported on eyeglass purchases at 33 retailers and contact lens buys at 17.

Survey respondents who bought glasses out of pocket (without any insurance reimbursement) at one of our top-rated eyeglass stores reported paying a median cost of $187, which can be hundreds less than what you might be charged elsewhere.

Can you find cheaper options? Sure, according to our survey results, but you may have to make other sacrifices. For example, members who bought online reported paying less out of pocket at certain retailers. But these same stores didn’t receive top marks in other categories, such as follow-up care (this may include services such as glasses adjustment and minor repairs).

The takeaway is that when you’re figuring out where to get your eyewear, the option that works best for you is the one that best meets your individual needs. Our ratings highlight exactly what survey respondents report that each vendor provided—or didn’t. Here are some considerations that may come into play when you’re looking for an eyewear store.

Whether they’re buying online or at a walk-in store, CR members told us that cost is one of their chief considerations when choosing an eyewear retailer. There’s a lot of variance when it comes to eyeglasses—the cheapest options sold glasses for a median of less than $100, while the priciest had a median of more than $400.

One cost-saving possibility: Look online. People paying entirely out of pocket for their glasses paid a median of $91 online, while those buying in-store paid $234. Prices for contacts varied much less, and CR members reported paying a median cost of $142 at online retailers and $146 for walk-in stores when paying fully out of pocket. (Read more on paying for glasses or contacts using insurance below.)

Service and Follow-Up
If it’s important to you to get help and information from your eyewear retailer, you don’t mind paying more than $400 for your new glasses, or most of your purchase price is covered by insurance—it may be worth it for you to buy from an independent local optical shop or a private doctor’s office, where you’re more likely to get exceptional personal attention.

Some people may have plenty of walk-in stores available nearby, while others have very few local options. But more and more people are drawn to the convenience of buying glasses and contacts online. Even though frames have to fit (and ideally be flattering), online retailers are increasingly coming up with ways to give you a sense of how frames will look on you, from letting you “try” them on an uploaded photo of yourself to allowing you to order and evaluate multiple frames, and return the ones you don’t want.

When you’re buying glasses online, the selection is likely to be good, and so are the prices. But both may vary a lot from site to site, so it’s still worth shopping around.

There can also be drawbacks to buying online. You’re taking a chance if you buy frames without having tried them on to see how they look and fit, so you may want to stick with an online retailer that offers a way for you to try before you buy. It can also be a hassle returning glasses you’ve purchased if there’s an issue. This can be more problematic if you order eyeglass lenses along with your frames, especially if you have a complex prescription. And if your frames need adjusting, you’ll probably have to find a local professional to do it.

All that said, it’s worth noting that satisfaction rates averaged about the same for online retailers as for walk-in retailers overall for purchasers of both glasses and contacts.

One retailer that strives to give you the best of both worlds is Warby Parker; it sells eyeglasses online and in walk-in stores, which also provide eye exams. A complete pair of glasses with single-vision lenses can cost less than $100, but if you have a more complicated prescription that requires, for example, multifocal lenses, things can get more expensive. (Our members reported a median out-of-pocket cost of $204.) And Warby Parker sells only its own brand of frames. 

If you need your eyewear ASAP, you may be better off with a walk-in store. Our survey reported that almost half of people who bought their eyewear in person received their purchase within a week; only around a quarter of those who bought online did. If you’re really concerned about how quickly you can get your corrective lenses and you have the option, contacts may be your best bet. Seven out of 10 contact buyers received their eyewear within a week.

Shopping Strategies

Where and how you should look for glasses depend on your needs and preferences. If you’re not fussy about frames, a discount store may be right for you. If money isn’t a primary concern, your ophthalmologist or optometrist (if they sell eyewear) or an independent eyeglass store may be your best choice. But if you’re looking for savings, a great selection of frames, and the personal touch that comes with dealing with a professional in person, you might consider splitting up the process, as we discuss below.

Get Educated About Options
Start by going to a trustworthy website run by an organization such as the American Academy of Ophthalmology to learn about your basic options in terms of lenses, lens coatings, and so on. To find out more about the types of frames and cosmetic lenses available, try sites such as Eyeglasses.com and LensesRX. Knowing something about the types of frames, lenses, and coatings can help you understand your options and give you a sense of whether a store or website is trying to sell you more than you need. You might even be able to upload a photo of yourself and use the virtual try-on feature available on some sites to get an initial idea of which frames look best on you (although we still recommend that you try on a frame in the real world before buying it).

Talk to Your Eye Doctor
If you’re having your eyes examined (which is always a good idea to rule out any underlying eye health conditions, as well as to get a solid prescription), ask the doctor for advice about which lenses are best for you and whether there’s anything you need to consider when buying frames or lenses. For example, if you want contact lenses but have astigmatism, your doctor may suggest avoiding certain types of lenses. If you’d like progressive or other multifocal lenses, a narrow frame might not be able to accommodate your prescription. And rimless and semi-rimless frames may be problematic if you have a strong prescription that requires thicker lenses.

Also discuss add-ons, such as anti-glare coatings and transitional lenses, to find out what your doctor thinks. If your doctor’s office sells frames, try some on to get a sense of what you do and don’t like. And ask the staff for advice about what will work best for you.

If you are planning on buying your eyewear elsewhere, make sure to ask the doctor to measure your pupillary distance (the distance between the center of each of your pupils); online vendors will need that information to create your glasses properly. There are some online tools for this, but a professional can do the job properly.

Comparison Shop
If you look for frames at your doctor’s office and don’t find anything that you like or think is reasonably priced, try some other walk-in stores. Many brands and frames are available from multiple retailers, so record the brands, models, and sizes of the frames you’d consider buying. You’ll find that information marked on the frame’s temples (the pieces that connect the glasses to your ears).

Once you have a few top picks, search the web using those brands and model numbers. There’s a good chance you’ll find the frames you like at a much lower cost. If you plan to buy your lenses online as well as the frames, check the sites’ lens prices, too.

After you have your best price, go back to the walk-in shop where you initially saw the frames and find out whether it can meet or at least come close to your top deal. Keep in mind that buying your glasses at a walk-in store makes it easier to return them if there’s a problem. Plus, you’ll be able to get after-purchase care that a website can’t provide, such as frame adjustments. So consider whether it’s worth it to you to pay a bit more.

Divide and Conquer
If you decide to buy online, you may still want to think twice about adding lenses to your frame order, especially if you have a complex prescription. Another option is to purchase the frames and have the prescription filled at a local discount store. You’ll probably have to pay a little extra to have lenses put in frames you bought elsewhere. The store may be willing to adjust your new frames, if needed.

Or Consider One-Stop Shortcuts
If your eye examination was at Costco and you spot a frame you like there, you might not need to look any further for lower prices. A Warby Parker store may be another one-stop option, especially if you need only single-vision lenses, because those are included in the prices of their frames.

Report Any Problems Right Away
After you get your new glasses, alert the retailer immediately to any problems you notice with the frames or lenses. Some retailers will let you exchange frames that you find you don’t like for little or no cost, even if you ordered prescription lenses. If you find defects or just don’t like your glasses, be aware that warranties and store policies vary, so there may be time limits involved.

After You've Chosen a Store

Here are a few practical tips to follow wherever you decide to shop.

Check the Retailer’s Reputation
If you’re unfamiliar with an eyewear retailer, whether walk-in or online, it’s worth checking to see whether it has a Better Business Bureau report before buying. You can also do a web search with the name of the retailer and terms such as “complaints” and “reviews” to see what other customers have to say.

Ask About Insurance
If you have vision insurance, find out whether the eyewear retailer you’re considering accepts your plan. Even if it doesn’t, in some cases you may be able to pay up front and obtain reimbursement from your plan. Find out from your insurance company.

Get a Spare Pair
If you find a great deal, consider buying a second pair of glasses. That way, if your primary pair is lost or broken, you won’t have to run to an expensive shop to have a replacement made right away.