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The world of online bespoke services will kit out anyone from head to toe and beyond. The vast collection of personalization websites will set you up with everything from shoes and suits to luggage and automobiles. Simply visit the service’s website, select your preferred preferences and sizes and wait for your one of a kind item to arrive at your door.
In a coronavirus era in which shoppers sometimes found themselves unable to leave their homes, these services offered an individual shopping experience closed malls and other shuttered brick and mortar stores couldn’t provide. That means there’s no way these online bespoke services are going anywhere anytime soon.
There’s one realm of internet personalized shopping that stands out from the rest — a way of buying what is essentially a medical device. Clothing, cars and suitcases are essential tools of life in many cases, but eyeglasses qualify as a tool intended to aid the functioning of the human body. You won’t find too many folks ordering up a custom fit brace or some other piece of essential medical gear without showing up in a doctor’s office somewhere. Still, you can buy glasses without involving an optometrist.
That lends some risk to this kind of bespoke service. If you receive a shirt that doesn’t fit, it’s an easy fix to return it and receive another. Glasses require a prescription, precise manufacturing and careful testing as a bad set of specs can damage your eyes.
There are a lot of places to buy glasses online such as Warby Parker, which helped spark the trend of buying glasses online via mail order. Their model invites you to stop into a showroom and try on frames, if possible. However, in the years since Warby Parker came onto the scene, we’ve seen many other companies rise to offer truly customized frames. Customers can now control everything from the colors to the material and style to built unique-to-them glasses that are truly one-of-a-kind.
To explore the true online bespoke experience, we tested three services that conduct their entire operation online. In each case, we tried out the product and spoke to the faces behind the eyewear.
Background: The GlassesUSA website offers designer frames with traditional, bifocal or sunglass lenses, from less than $100 and higher. The companies free app, Prescription Scanner, reads the Rx of your current glasses and sends it to GlassesUSA for ordering. Alternatively, the buyer would have to bring a prescription to the site as he or she chooses their frame shape, size, color, etc.
According to Arie Tom, Senior Vice President of Marketing at GlassesUSA.com, the company looks to balance quality with reachable prices.
“Given that our business model is direct-to-consumer, we have full control of every aspect of the sales cycle and value chain,” Tom says. “We’re able to cater to our customers’ specific needs, and we personalize their journey from A to Z. Tailored service usually means higher implied costs, but thanks to our business model that cuts out the middleman we are able to eliminate unnecessary costs usually associated with traditional retail.”
Tom adds that the pandemic didn’t change the eyeglasses business as much as it changed consumer behavior overall. While in 2019 76% of US adults shopped online, of all the prescription eyewear that was sold only a mere 9% was through an online retailer. Due to the pandemic, this percentage definitely saw a spike and lots of customers had to shift from offline to online.
“We saw a strong uplift in new customer sales and general increase in sales as well and this trend still continues today. To cater to these new first-time online eyewear buyers, we made a rapid turnaround and launched a quick start guide on our site that guides these customers every step of the way.”
Results: With the company’s cooperation, we ordered up a pair of test specs from GlassesUSA. Though we knew the Rx in question going into the process, we used the prescription scanning app successfully to transmit the numbers. We chose a simple set of frames with bifocal lenses, no coating.
They arrived in less than two weeks in immaculate condition. They fit well, as advertised and looked all right on this writer’s mug. The left lens was spot on and crustal clear, though, the right was a tad weak. The glasses are solidly made and very close to spot on with the RX, though they could use a minor adjustment on that right lens.
Background: The Zenni business model focuses intensely (no pun intended) on keeping costs down. The company’s own research indicates that the industry average hovers around $270 per pair, while Zenni keeps their package cost at about $40.
Sean Pate, Brand Marketing Officer at Zenni, explains that the company’s business model was designed to achieve their customized products by eliminating all the wasted costs passed onto consumers within the standard production process of prescription lenses.
Zenni kept those simplifying principles in place during the pandemic and saw its business pick up over recent months.
“The year started with a production scare as our Chinese manufacturing plant was shut down for 2 weeks after the initial COVID outbreak there,” Pate says. “We reopened quickly, and that has allowed us to keep up with the overwhelming demand for inexpensive prescriptions and also protective eyewear — specifically blue light blocking lenses. Our Blokz product line has experienced a massive boost, growing over 65% to date.”
Results: As with GlassesUSA, we gave Zenni a try, ordering one inexpensive frame with a progressive lens Rx. The entire bill was easily less than $100, shipping included. That’s a fraction of what similar eyewear would cost at any real-world store. The site’s email service kept us updated almost day-to-day with the status of our order, and it shipped within a week.
In this case, there was a problem. The lenses didn’t function well at first sight, so we took them to two local, brick and mortar optometrists to test the delivered strength against the prescription. The lenses were significantly off the intended numbers.
So, that presented an opportunity to test out Zenni’s customer service arm. Once alerted to the problem, that department was attentive, helpful and effective. Offered a choice between a refund and another shot at the glasses, we chose the latter. An extensive Q&A session ensued with Zenni to confirm all Rx numbers before the company took another shot at grinding the lenses.
The resulting, reshipped end result was an improvement over the first attempt. Unfortunately, the clarity was still less than ideal and not what most wearers would like to use as everyday glasses. In the end, Zenni is one of the most affordable options available but struggled to fulfill the order.
Background: While it’s a service that focuses first and foremost on children’s glasses, Fitz Frames uses its virtual fitting process and 3D printing to create single vision eyewear and sunglasses for anyone they can fit.
You must bring a prescription into the process. The menu of colors and styles is nowhere near as vast as some competitors, but Fitz offers the advantage of frames built specifically to fit the face in question because the company 3D prints their eyeglasses on order.
A free app allows you to put anyone’s mug onscreen to see how each style and color combination looks. The app also offers measurement AI to make sure the final pair fits the child or adult face.
FItz founder Heidi Hertel says the company wants to make the online bespoke buying process easier.
“We can make more of the online buying experience convenient,” Hertel says. “With 3D printing, we can specialize. You pick what you want when you want — and you know it’s made specifically for your face.”
As the Fitz matures, Hertel says they’ll look to add progressive lenses and protective eyewear for children and adults.
Results: We ordered a pair of single vision sunglasses from Fitz, going through the complete virtual fitting progress and sending in a preexisting prescription. The total cost was less than $100, and the 3D-printed result arrived within one week.
The glasses ship with extra ear stems in case any break or the wearer needs to make an adjustment. They snap on and off easily with 3D printed connectors. The frames feel tough enough to survive, but the right lens seems maybe one notch weaker than perfect. However, the difference is not severe enough to warrant a return.
Verdict: The world of online bespoke eyeglasses came a long way from its infant steps a decade ago. Now, you can get the same designer styles for glasses and sunglasses from single vision to progressive — and all at significant savings that vary from site to site. However, the long-distance manufacturing process can result in lenses less fine-tuned than you can get in a local, walk-in clinic.
The final view comes down to how much you value lower price and the convenience of home shopping and delivery.