When it comes to getting new frames, is a pricey designer pair really worth the extra cash? Consumers’ Checkbook investigates, and there's good news: Affordable online retailers have changed the vision center game, with wider selections and lower prices than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

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Consumers’ Checkbook

If you’re shopping for new specs, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the choices of styles and brands. But much of this variety is an illusion: The lion’s share of eyeglasses on the market—including those sold under popular designer brand names—come from just a few Italian companies with names you probably won’t recognize: Luxottica, Marcolin, Safilo.

Luxottica not only manufactures millions of pairs of glasses annually, it markets and sells them via more than 7,000 retail stores it also runs. Though the name “Luxottica” doesn’t appear on their signs, when you head into LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Target’s optical department, Sunglass Hut, and many other outlets, you’re shopping somewhere owned or controlled by the behemoth.

When you buy glasses from your favorite designer, they were probably made by one of the big three. Luxottica owns several brands outright, including Ray-Ban and Persol. And other name-brand specs are created by the eyewear giants via licensing agreements, meaning those Coach, DKNY, or Michael Kors frames might all have been churned out by the same factory.

With only a few companies controlling both the manufacturing and distribution of most frames sold, it’s tricky to figure out whether or not you’re getting a good deal. Luxottica frames can cost anywhere from about $300 to several thousand bucks per pair. It’s hard to justify paying that hefty a price for a designer-labeled pair when you can buy a far less expensive model at Target that was made in the same facility and is essentially a copy of its designer counterpart.

The way to assess value is to buy from a store that offers great advice, where you’ll be told whether more expensive frames warrant their higher price tags—or if you’re better off going with a lesser-known brand. Many independent retailers stock a wide variety of frames. Some companies don’t sell any Luxottica products. Warby Parker, for example, offers $95 single-vision glasses in funky, fashionable frames.

To help you identify retailers that employ staff who can help you pick the right pair at the right price, the nonprofit Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook collected ratings from thousands of local consumers on vision centers and found big differences in quality. Several stores received “superior” ratings for overall service quality by at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers, while others got such favorable ratings from fewer than 50 percent. In general, chains and franchise operations were rated lower than independent firms. But there was variation among each type of outlet.

Through a special arrangement with The Seattle Times, you can access Checkbook’s ratings of local vision centers for quality and price, free of charge until July 5 by using this link: www.checkbook.org/SeattleTimes/Vision.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers collected prices on 18 models of eyeglasses (with single-correction lenses) and found that some local outlets charge twice as much as others. For example, for a pair of Ray-Ban RX5286 eyeglasses, prices at surveyed stores ranged from $188 to $419. The best news: You don’t have to pay more to get great advice and service: Checkbook’s shoppers often found low prices at the highest rated stores.

Checkbook researchers collected prices for six brands and models of contact lenses and found even larger store-to-store prices differentials. For a one-year supply of Focus “Dailies” daily disposable lenses (plus exam and fitting), prices at local stores ranged from $393 to $826. Among local vision centers, Checkbook found that Costco and Sam’s Club offered the cheapest prices for contacts, but lower-than-average prices were also found at some independent stores.

You can save a lot by buying from some online-only retailers—but not all of them. Checkbook shopped for glasses and contacts at a sample of internet stores. For eyeglasses, prices at almost all of the online retailers were substantially lower than local stores—several online stores offered prices that were less than half of those at local outlets. Online sellers not only had very low prices, but also carried a much wider selection of frames than any of the local outlets.

An obvious disadvantage of buying eyeglasses online is that unless you’re replacing frames you like with an identical model, you can’t try on various pairs to see how they’ll look on your face. Some sites let you upload a picture of yourself so you can try on glasses virtually, but most shoppers will find it’s still easier to compare options in-person and in-store. Fortunately, generous return policies are the norm among online sellers, so you can exchange glasses easily if you’re not completely satisfied.

For contact lenses, Checkbook found that several online contact lens sellers offered prices that were at least 20 percent lower than the average prices at local stores, but some online sellers’ prices were only a little bit better than the average costs found at local outlets. The lowest were offered by FramesDirect.com and ContactLensKing.com, but even these two had higher price tags than local discount leaders Costco and Sam’s Club.

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Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings of vision centers free of charge until July 5 at www.checkbook.org/SeattleTimes/Vision.