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What Zenni Optical means for Optometrists, Ophthalmologists, and Opticians

Updated on February 10, 2014
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The business end of eye care

Every year, I go to optometric trade shows, where optometrists and ophthalmologists are shown the latest frame styles with which to stock their sales floor, and the latest lens technology to install in the latest frames.

There's talk of quality, of branding, and of potential mark-ups and profit. It's the business end of eye care. For private practices, eyewear sales can translate to over 70% of business profits. For large corporations like Pearle, Lenscrafters, America's Best, Walmart Vision Center and Visionworks, the doctor sees none of the profit from eyewear sales, but sales mean huge money for the company.

Zenni: curiously absent from the discussion

Curiously absent from discussion on any scale is Zenni Optical, the behemoth California mail-order company that, for as little as $7, will make a pair of glasses for anybody who orders them and ship them directly from their plant in China.

When it is discussed by eyecare professionals, they take a quiet, superstitious, even wishful tone as they bandy about words like "cheap," "low quality," and "not within tolerance." The only indicator that Zenni is taking a bite out of in-office spectacle sales in the eyewear market are continuing ed courses obliquely titled "what to do when a patient asks for their pupillary distance?"

Indeed, I've heard of doctors getting tired of patients asking for their pupillary distance, also known as the PD. "I'm thinking of charging $10 for a PD," one of my colleagues said, as though that were the problem and not the loss of $300 in spectacle sales.

Zenni Optical advertises the best reason for $7 prescription eyewear

The problem is not that the quality is bad, but that the quality is good.

I work a specialized practice that does not profit from the sale of glasses, so I have no interest in guarding the optical side of my business, or in promoting mail order houses like Zenni. And so, at that, I'm going to give you my opinion of Zenni Optical: it's not pretty.

That is, it's not pretty for people who profit from eyewear sales.

In the past four years, I've purchased about eight pairs of glasses from Zenni Optical. All have been within tolerance. The optics of the lenses are fine, if not thrilling. None have fallen apart. The plastic/zyl frames begin to yellow in about a year; the coating on the metal frames has chipped in about the same time. Yet, they were under $10, and in a year, just as the gold is chipping from the metal frames, it's fun to go back to their site and order a fresh, new pair of glasses at a tenth, or even a thirtieth, of the price of my neighborhood optical. This is not precision eyewear, but it's precision enough for a year or two. That should be enough to be a huge threat to the industry.

VodCasts like "The Diva" favorably review Zenni Optical.

Choices of economics and quantity

I've pointed friends toward Zenni, many of whom simply don't want to spend money. They're thrilled. One could argue that I've just done a huge disservice to friends in the optical business, but I've also wanted to use them as test subjects, as I have been curious as to the quality of a pair of $75 progressives (just fine, it turns out), or a pair of $30 prescription sunglasses (again, fine).

The only downside I've found has been after a mistaken prescription on my part. A patient ordered Zennis, and was out $20 when the Rx ended up being off. Unlike a traditional optical, he had no recourse for a re-make, though allegedly Zenni will allow returns and give a 50% refund in the form of a customer credit.

Word is getting out: glasses are cheap and it's easy to obtain many pairs at once.

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The Zenni Optical Five States of Grief

The awful truth is that I graduated optometry school in 2003 with $120,000 worth of debt. Graduates this year carry even more debt at higher interest rates. The value of optometric services is continuously cut by insurance providers and government bodies; some optometric chains even offer "free exams," making the value of an optometrist's services exactly zero.

Frames and frame sales are bread and butter. The thought of that going away is so horrifying, we optometrists immediately go through four of the five Kubler-Ross stages of grief on the spot, like Mrs. Patmore being introduced to an electric icebox:

Denial: "It won't matter. People don't want to buy glasses online. They can't try them on. They want my expertise. My expertise is valuable. They want to come to me if something is wrong. The quality sucks."

Anger: "Why are they asking for their PD? I'm offended! How can it be legal for Zenni to operate? Why are they shopping there? On their head, be it! How can this be?"

Bartering: "Maybe if I attend a CE class on up-selling patients AR coating I can recoup my losses."

Depression: "my sales are down."

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What does acceptance mean?

As I see it, acceptance would mean accepting one or more of several terrible conclusions.

First, it is possible that glasses are worth $50 at most, and a practice will need to slash prices 75% and see four times as many patients an hour to recoup loss.

Second, it is possible that eye care practitioners can no longer count on eyewear sales for significant profit, and with the exam worth nothing it leaves them working for a pittance.

Third, it could be that corporate optical, with high volume, is best poised to compete with online retail, meaning that middle-class private practice could mostly vanish. High-end boutique optical will continue to be a profit machine, but the free market can support only so many.

Fourth, withholding a PD or lecturing patients about the "dangers" of online sales are more likely to upset patients than bestow expertise. A how-to video on Youtube and a millimeter ruler makes even your PD-reading skill obsolete, like it or not. It's certainly not worth $10.

Fifth, those in ocular disease management and diagnostics, ocular rehab, low vision or specialty contact lens fitting stand to do better than those simply fitting glasses and contacts.

A young woman expresses her Zenni fandom with a haul video

Don't deny the forces at hand.

What does no good is to deny the forces at hand. Baby boomers are supposed to be shy about purchasing internet eyewear that they can't try on, except that they're not. Millennials are even better at it, and post haul videos to YouTube explaining how little they've just paid for stylish eyewear. Many people favor price over quality, and parents with kids who rip glasses off of faces, or people like me who lost a pair of glasses in Las Vegas, like NOT having expensive glasses.

I have no solutions, but what's missing is the discussion. We dismiss Zenni and online competition, not out of honesty but out of denial because of what it means to our personal and financial security. Unfortunately, professionals at our conferences seem so busy dismissing online competition that we're not clearly discussing the tidal change it's bringing to the profession, and realistic steps to move the business forward.

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      Michelle 3 years ago

      Curt, I would appreciate knowing in which State you are licensed?

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      Ryan 3 years ago

      Does Curt ever state being licensed? Maybe he is a vendor?

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      Todd 3 years ago

      Interesting opinion piece, but without concrete stats, I don't know what kind of dent Zenni is putting in market share for sure. Curt, it would be interesting bringing your concerns to the attention of your state professional organization.

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      Roger 3 years ago

      I don' t think the writer of this article really knows much about the optical side of the business and actual costs involved. If he was he would know the cost of designer frames to the retailer is $100, and the cost of good quality progressive lenses is also over $100. That's cost to the retailer, before they are edged, finished, adjusted, etc. So if a patient want Gucci and Varilux, even at wholesale cost it will be over $200 for the glasses. It isa not unreasonable to think an optician be paid for their job and make a profit. Yes, some people don't care and will wear Chineses frames that turn the sides of there head green from the metal - but just like people don't all wear the cheapest possible jewelry, shoes or watches, most people want decent quality and some even want designer style. Mercedes doesn't worry about Kia either.

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      Mary C. 3 years ago

      This article is both wrong and right. It's definitely gloomy. $5 frames have been available to professionals for decades and online glasses have been around for over ten years. The apocalypse hasn't happened.

      Where Curt may be correct is that ten years ago, Barnes and Noble was doing quite well, too, because people were reluctant to shop online. That's really changed. The $5 frames we could get $99 for in office (less the cost of finishing), but that could still be a markup of 10-15x back then. Now the patient can almost get their low-end frames at cost.

      I really like Roger's Kia/Mercedes analogy above, but for the fact that more people drive Kias and not Mercedes; I wish I could build my practice around Mercedes drivers but its not always possible.

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      Carter 3 years ago

      I caught this article on Facebook, and I'll copy my thought from there: We don't want to be like the hardware store on Main St., watching the Walmart being built and saying, as we brush it off, "I'll be fine. People value my expertise, service, and that I'm a member of this community."

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      Jan 2 years ago

      Am so glad there is Zenni. Buy 3-4 pairs a year. Train horses, ski, and am generally rough on eyewear. Ran into a friend of mine who had her friend, an optician, with her. Both commented how much they loved my glasses, the optician friend actually asked to see the brand. Told her they were from Zenni. She gulped, became silent, and left to browse elsehwhere in the store. Obviously upset with me because I told her I loved the convenience and price. She had nothing to say except that she was well aware of Zenni and the reality that many feel as I do. Always had wonderful service and good vision. My own eye doc has checked mine every time I get an exam and always right on. It is apparent the market is changing.

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