Specs: When the Price is Right

First things first: let it be known that I am not a good salesman (or saleswoman).
During my time as a student at OSU Optometry, one of my most frustrating classes was our business class.  Though I understood its necessity, considering the high percentage of most graduating classes that go on to join or form private practices, a business mindset never came naturally to me.  So, while the professor was lecturing on how to create our frame-board, set our prices, and push products for maximum sales, I was fighting the urge to run out of the classroom screaming.
Naturally then, I was overjoyed when I had the opportunity to work with several medically based optometrists who, rather than pushing products, would provide the prescription and say, “you can fill this at any optical.”

Honest optometry.
As I look the potential of a career in private practice in the face, however, the questions posed in the hours of business classes come back to haunt me.

Frame and lens sales are often the primary income of general optometry practices, compensating for the meager returns from insurance payments.
How do I do what’s best for my patients while making enough income to pay off debts and keep the business open?

When it comes to specs, when is the price right?

 Optometry Practices

Some optometrists that I have worked with who have an in-house optical push their patients to get glasses from their optical.  Like I said before, the thought of pushing someone to do anything for my profit sickens me. But, there are some definite benefits to buying local.
  • It supports local businesses.  As I already mentioned, many practices earn their living by optical sales – not eye exams.  I’m a firm believer in showing appreciation by action. If you’re a fan of the doc and the staff, consider buying products from their practice to help  them continue to provide quality care.
  • Better customer service.  This isn’t always the case, but in most of the private practices I’ve worked with, the staff genuinely care about you as a patient.  Your kid broke his glasses and you don’t have a back-up? They’ll be the ones to jerry-rig them back together with spare parts until the new one comes in.  Broke a nosepad? They’ll replace it, sometimes even for free.
  • Experience. In the best opticals, the staff are trained as opticians.  They know what the best products are for your needs, and they know what modifications to make to best suit you. They’ve tried the products (I rarely know an optician with less than 6 pairs of glasses) and can give you the inside scoop.

Online Retailers

In most aspects of life, I’m a huge bargain shopper.  Why buy one thing for twice the cost if you can get it for half the price somewhere else? (Especially when you’re living on a resident salary and trying to pay off school loans beside.) For this reason, it can be super tempting to buy online from retailers such as Zenni Optical.  Sometimes that’s okay. Others? Best stay away.
  • (Maybe) Buy Online: Simple prescriptions. If you’ve got one set of numbers on your prescription pad (just a relatively low near-sighted or far-sighted prescription, without any astigmatism, add, or prism) you’re probably okay to try buying online.  I can’t guarantee the quality of the material, but if you need a simple no-frills pair, you won’t be out much giving it a shot.
  • (Maybe) Buy Online: Back-up glasses.  Little Johnny has broken his third frame in 6 months. You’re past the warranty.  Your benefits have been used, and you frankly don’t have the money to go out and buy yet another pair full-priced pair.  Try online.  Again, it may not be perfect, but it’s at least something to hold him through til you’re in a better spot.
  • (Maybe) Buy Online: Frequently changing prescriptions.  This may be a near-sighted child who seems to need a new pair of lenses every 6 months.  Or maybe you’re a diabetic and the doctor has said that your prescription isn’t stable secondary to blood sugar fluctuations, but you’re not legal to drive with your current visual status. Try online.  You already know that your vision is going to change, but getting something fast and cheap while waiting for things to fluctuate is better than having nothing at all.
  • Don’t Buy Online: Difficult prescriptions. This is pretty much the opposite of my first point above.  If you have lots of numbers, or anything that sounds out of the ordinary, don’t waste your money on the online up-charges and end up with a pair of glasses that don’t work at all.  Spend the money and make sure it gets done right the first time.

Retail Opticals

From my experience, retail opticals (ie Walmart Optical, Costco Optical, etc, etc, etc) can be super hit or miss.  Some of them are awesome, and my patients rave about the specs they’ve gotten.  Others of them are crap, and I’ve sent 3 patients back for remakes within the course of a few hours.  For this reason, my advice regarding retail optometry stores is identical to that of online retailers.


Buying the perfect specs, like life, can’t be fit into a binomial. There are times to buy from your local optometrist, and there are times to bargain shop and buy online or at a retail optical. At the end of the day, what matters most is simply finding someone who you trust to keep you seeing and looking your best.

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