When you’re considering going to a new eye doctor, you need to consider many factors, including convenience, costs, and the scope of services offered. A budget eye care center may be adequate and save you money. On the other hand, if your prescription is complex and you already have an eye disease, a boutique eye doctor may better serve your needs. For the purpose of this comparison, American optical chains such as Walmart, Sears, JC Penney, Costco, Pearle Vision, LensCrafters, America’s Best, Target and others are defined as budget eye doctors. Local independent optometrists and ophthalmologists with attached optical centers are considered boutique eye doctors.
LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, and optical branches of Target and Sears are all owned by the same company, Italy-based Luxottica, which controls 80% of major frame brands. All lenses are made at huge factories called wholesale optical labs, not at local optical shops. So the fanciest boutique shop may be using the same exact optical lab as the budget vision center in the strip mall. Like lenses, most frames are made by the millions, in huge factories located across the world. Frames are generally consistently priced, while nearly all local optical outlets markup lenses to reflect local market competition. The responsibility is on the consumer to shop around for the best price and service.
Walmart vs. Costco
Walmart is the nation’s largest producer of finished prescription eyewear. It’s the only product the mega retailer manufactures start-to-finish in-house. In 2015, the company invested $10 million to upgrade the manufacturing equipment at their Fayetteville, Arkansas optical lab. Walmart first entered the optical business in 1991, and was known for its affordable prices on lenses, especially compared to other big box stores and optical chains. In 2000, Walmart started offering premium lenses such as Carl Zeiss, Nikon, and Seiko. Basic eyeglasses start at $38 and come with a one-year warranty at no extra cost. When you go to Walmart, you’ll receive a refractive eye exam to obtain your eyeglass correction.
Costco is a membership warehouse club founded in 1976, dedicated to offering its members the best possible prices on quality brand-name merchandise. Their optical departments carry a wide range of contact lenses, brand-name designer frames, and sunglasses with the latest high-definition lenses. If you need an exam, you have to call an Independent Doctor of Optometry at or next to Costco Optical to schedule an appointment. Their prices are comparable to Walmart and they accept most vision insurance plans.
Budget vs. Boutique Eye Doctors
Both budget and boutique eye doctors generally provide personalized service, stylish frames from top designers, and prescription contact lenses. The difference is typically in the scope of clinical care provided and eyewear prices. Whether you visit a neighborhood eye doctor or go to a national optical chain is a matter of personal preference, budgetary concerns, and your unique eye health needs.
In addition to offering a wide selection of glasses, contact lenses, and sunglasses, boutique eye doctors typically offer state-of-the-art retinal imaging and dilated eye exams to help diagnose common eye problems and more complicated ocular conditions. From red eye and digital eye strain to cataracts and glaucoma, boutique eye doctors provide all the services needed to ensure optimal vision health. Many people receive a comprehensive eye exam performed by an ophthalmologist or optometrist and order their eyeglasses somewhere else. The medical part of the exam is typically covered by health insurance plans, while the refractive exam may be covered for individuals with an ancillary vision plan.
A 2016 article on Kiplinger detailed the huge price disparity between a boutique eye doctor, online retailer, and budget vision centers. In the past, the author forked over hundreds of dollars at the eyeglass “store” within his optometrist’s office. His new ophthalmologist did not pressure him to buy glasses at her practice and recommended Costco. He obtained a quote for the eyeglasses he liked at another large ophthalmology practice. The quote for a mid-level frame was $174 and the lenses cost $521 after a $50 discount for a grand total of $695.00. The same eyeglasses cost $295 at Warby Parker, $189.98 at Costco, and $449 at BJ’s Wholesale Club, although an end-of-summer sale reduced the BJ’s price down to $182.60.
The truth is even among “budget” eye doctors, the cost of eyeglasses and contact lenses can vary greatly, so shopping around is advised. Costco received top marks from Consumer Reports, with savings of up to 40% compared with walk-in optical chains. Sam’s Club and Walmart are also good choices for budget-conscious shoppers, however, independent optometrists and opticians scored better on selection and merchandise quality.
If you don’t have any eye health concerns and simply need to update your eyewear prescription, you might want to consider an online only retailer like Zenni. By law, your eye doctor must provide your prescription if you ask. You are free to take the “prescription” anywhere and aren’t obligated to use the optical center adjacent to your eye doctor’s office. Another cost-effective option is to use the EyeQue Personal Vision Tracker to obtain your refractive error numbers that go into making lenses, and then buy eyeglasses wherever you wish. Just keep in mind, only a comprehensive eye exam can uncover potential eye health conditions.