Eyeing Brick-and-Mortar

An ocular tailor sizes up the advantages of shopping at a real optical shop

Eyewear: SPY OPTIC Maxwell and NORMAN CHILDS Vintage 3

By Preston Fassel

The story you are about to read is true. No details have been changed to protect anyone.

What am I going to do, sue myself?

Recently, a family member came to me with a dilemma. Due to a clerical error, his vision insurance had been cancelled, and he needed new glasses ASAP. He had shopped around to various businesses, but what they were offering didn’t match what he could afford to spend. He had heard good things about a particular website though, and well, something was better than nothing. Could I help him with some measurements?

Of course, I did. This particular onliner had a positive reputation, and I wanted to see if they’d live up to it.

They didn’t.

While I had included instructions to the lab to use the current bifocal heights in the lenses, they dropped the seg by a good 15 mm. Then for good measure, someone forgot to keep his or her eye on the edger when cutting the left lens: It had very obviously turned, and the job was returned to us with a bifocal on the lens at just about a 135-degree angle.

We were, to say the least, less than impressed.

I’m now in the process of pulling what strings I can to help get my family member a pair of affordable frames and lenses from elsewhere—from a brick-and-mortar (B&M) store to be specific, or in other words, the only RELIABLE place to pick up a pair of glasses these days.

I’m still on the fence regarding the place of onliners in the world of opticianry. As someone currently employed in the optical field, my default position is supposed to be something akin to the mob at the end of a Frankenstein movie, wielding a pitchfork and a torch as I chase the abominable menace of online optical to its fiery death… or something like that. The truth of the matter though, is a lot more complicated.

Six years ago, I was a college kid with no insurance and a job waiting tables, living in a town where most people wore $50 shirts and drove $60,000 cars. At the time, “online glasses” translated to “I get to see AND pay the water bill!” My early adventures in online were exactly that: The first pair I ordered, which should have had a gray #1 tint, came back with one lens at a gray #3 and the PD off in either lens by about a dozen millimeters. Future endeavors produced mixed results: I got a very well-made pair from one retailer I could only wear for a half hour at a time before it began to feel as though I had a brick strapped to my head; another site sent me a rimless pair that were of B&M craftsmanship, and that I wore for three years. That though, was only after countless hours of searching and several false starts and stops.

The object lesson from all of this was quite simple, and is probably the most apt summation of the current state of online versus brick-and-mortar: If you need glasses, get them online. If you need glasses made RIGHT, go get them at a brick-and-mortar.

 Eyeglasses are, at their heart, about customization. While waist sizes and hem lengths are relatively standard, the same cannot be said for nose positions, cranial circumferences, PDs or any of the other amazing little intricacies that combined, form the wonder that is the human face. Something so personal requires detailed, individual attention in order to perfect; and that’s simply not something possible at this juncture in the history of online eyewear. Getting a pair of glasses online is, for better or worse, the 2010s equivalent of buying a sandwich at an Automat. Sometimes it will come out just the way you want; sometimes the lettuce may be missing; and sometimes the mayo may have gone bad. It’s a crap shoot where the possibilities range from “acceptable” to “take it out back and shoot it.”

The brick-and-mortar purchasing experience on the other hand, while not necessarily guaranteed to be perfect, at least assures a much higher level of quality control. At a B&M optical, the optician acts as an ocular tailor: Precise measurements are taken for bifocal and PAL fitting heights, sometimes multiple times in order to ensure that they are exact. PDs are measured on-site. Frames are fitted accordingly, and a competent optician will advise a patient on whether a particular pair is too small or too large. Conversely, online optical is the ultimate experience in off-the-rack shopping, with pre-determined algorithms and formulas used to best ballpark where a bifocal should be placed or where a PAL gradient should begin. The consumer only has a generally vague idea of how well, or even if, the frame will fit and function once it arrives.

 So what’s the verdict then? I, myself, am keeping a careful eye trained at online optical; the wheels of progress keep turning, and with many outfits now beginning to hire ABO opticians to help run their operations, we may be seeing a drastic shift in the way that online functions. In the meantime though, I’d like my mayo unspoiled, thank you. ■