Prescription Glasses On A Budget: How These Startups Are Changing The Game

Prescription glasses are expensive, especially name brands like Ray Ban, Ralph Lauren, and Chanel, but there are a couple startups that have already changed the game for glasses-wearers.

Finding stylish, well-built, and durable prescription glasses has always been easy – as long as you’re willing to pay for it. The big brands like Ray Ban, D&G, and Armani are all recognizable, heavily branded, and expensive, but they’re also all made by the same company.

Luxottica, an Italian company which manufactures nearly all the prescription glasses in the market – with brands like Ray-Ban, Oakley, and Prada under their purview — has about half a billion pairs of prescription glasses in circulation, reports CBS News.

The same manufacturer makes most of the world’s prescription glasses, but each brand under Luxottica’s umbrella is priced differently – according to market conditions and how high a price the Italian company can get away with. This monopoly has pigeonholed many wearers of prescription glasses for years, but two startups are changing all of that.

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Warby Parker was founded in 2010 with the goal of competing with companies like Luxottica, and today they’ve grown from a strictly online brand to a brick-and-mortar prescription glasses retailer, with prices well below the average Luxottica set of frames.

Warby Parker’s frames retail for around $100 to $200, still expensive, but you get what you pay for – the frames are solid, well built, and you can even try before you buy, making sure the fit and look are what you’d expect. According to CNBC, Warby Parker hopes to double its retail presence around the U.S. in 2016, bringing more retail outlets to more cities throughout the country – and putting more of their prescription (and non-prescription) glasses on customers in the U.S.

Warby Parker’s Co-CEOs Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa are hopeful that their online presence will help them choose locations for their new retail stores, minimizing the risk that accompanies such a huge expansion into the brick-and-mortar space.

“We really think of ourselves as experience designers. We’re looking for opportunities to create the best possible experience for customers, regardless of whether they want to shop online or offline,” said Gilboa.

While Warby Parker is more of a boutique brand, a slightly less pricey (and more stylish) alternative to the big brand prescription glasses at Luxottica, they’re still a little expensive for some, and that’s where one of the biggest online glasses retailers comes in: Zenni Optical.

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Zenni Optical started out as a strictly online retailer of bargain-basement, dirt-cheap (but solid and well made) prescription and non-prescription glasses, but in recent years they’ve taken a turn toward competitors like Warby Parker by offering frames that are more stylish and less utilitarian than their previous offerings.

Zenni Optical frames come with tons of customization options: lens coatings, colors, sizes, essentially any design imaginable can be found in the Zenni online store and most of their glasses (with prescription lenses) can be had for around $19.95 with single-vision prescription lenses.

BusinessWire reports that Zenni Optical has teamed up with New York fashion designer Timo Weiland to promote their latest collection, the “The Metropolitan Collection” inspired by the classic wayfarer design. The offering is a clear shot across the bow for Warby Parker, as Zenni pushes into the “fashion eyewear” market. The latest frames from Zenni Optical start at around $39.95 with single-vision prescription lenses.

Luxottica still holds a virtual monopoly on the international business of prescription glasses, but Zenni and Warby Parker are taking them head on in their own ways. They might be competitors, but they’re still small compared to Luxottica, and more competition is only a good thing for wearers of prescription glasses – prices are getting lower, and frames are getting better and better.

[Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Warby Parker]