Buying glasses

Shopping for glasses and blinded by your options? We cast our eye over the specs market.

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Buying glasses can be a pricey business. If you’ve got your eye on a pair of designer specs with all the bells and whistles, it’s easy to pay upwards of $1000. We focus on what you need to consider before shelling out for new eyewear.

Eye exams

The first thing you need to pay for is your eye exam. When you get your eyes tested, an optometrist checks eye function and for any health conditions that could cause loss of sight. The test should take about 30 minutes (see “What to expect at your eye exam”).

Of the five optometry retailers we surveyed, standard costs for an eye exam for an adult ranged from $55 to $75 (see our Table).

Some offer free or discounted exams to selected customers. If you’re an AA member, you can get a free examination at Specsavers every two years. Otherwise, it’s $60.

OPSM offers a free exam to Southern Cross Health Society members. Otherwise, its standard charge is $55. For gold card members and children the eye exam costs $45.00.

First-time customers at the Bailey Nelson optometrist chain can get a free standard eye exam, but you’ll have to rely on a store being in your region – it has six stores in the North Island and two in the South.

Cost of glasses

For a simple product, the cost of glasses can seem eye-watering.

When you buy from a bricks and mortar store, you're not just paying for the frames and lenses, other retail costs will be built into the price. With “designer” specs – think Prada, Versace – you're also paying extra for the logo.

If you’re shopping by price and don’t care about having the designer’s tag on your eyewear, make this clear to the store.

The materials used in the frames will influence what you pay.

Specsavers, which advertises heavily on price, offers glasses from $69. However, choices at this price are limited. Just 38 of the thousand-plus glasses it advertises retail for $69.

Most of its specs range from $99 to $299 plus. These prices are for frames with single-vision lenses - if you need bifocals or progressive lenses, you'll pay at least another $200.

Dresden, an Australian-owned retailer with an online shop, and two stores in Auckland, was the only chain in our survey that pipped Specsavers on price. It offers glasses with single vision lenses for $63. While it only has one style of frame at this price (although it’s available in different colours) they come with a lifetime warranty.

The materials used in the frames will influence what you pay. Nickel-copper alloy and nylon blended plastic frames are the cheapest options, with stainless steel and acetate plastic mid-range.

Nylon frames are generally cheaper than acetate frames, but not as durable.

Plastic cellulose acetate frames are made from cotton-based plastic and are good for people with sensitive skin. The downside is they are likely to be less durable than metal and their colour can fade.

Metal frames are a popular choice. They’re usually made from Monel, a nickel-copper alloy, which is cheap and easy to work with but can cause allergic reactions. If you’ve got sensitive skin, stainless steel is a better option, although it’s more expensive.

Titanium frames are the most expensive metal option. They’re flexible, lightweight and hypoallergenic, and won’t rust. But they’re harder to adjust and repair.

Lens coatings

Once you’ve found the right frame, you’ll probably be offered various lens coatings. All good quality lenses have a scratch-resistant coating, but the other options will usually cost you.

An anti-reflection coating reduces glare and reflections. It’s useful if you’re driving at night or are regularly in environments with a lot of artificial light.

UV protection shields your eyes from ultraviolet rays. High-index, progressive and polycarbonate lenses are already UV resistant. The protection extends to the eyelids and lid margins, where sunblock can’t be applied.

A blue light blocker absorbs blue light and reduces glare. While blue light comes naturally from the sun and helps regulate your body clock and aids your sleep, it’s also emitted from sources such as smartphones and your household lights. While it could affect you getting a good night’s sleep, there’s little evidence blue light negatively affects vision said Kristine Hammond, University of Auckland School of Optometry and Vision Science teaching fellow.

Buying online

Buying online can appeal as there’s a huge range of options, with some at rock-bottom prices. We found frames priced at $9 at online store Clearly.

To make sure you get a suitable pair, you’ll need:

  • a copy of your prescription
  • your eyewear measurements (if you’ve got an older pair, the measurements will be noted down the arm)
  • to ensure the glasses suit you and your prescription.

Buying online could be a good option if you have single vision lenses. However, the more complicated your prescription, the more likely you are to strike problems.

If you buy online from an overseas retailer, check its refund policy and keep in mind New Zealand’s consumer laws can’t be enforced overseas.

Glasses you buy from a store here are covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act. That means if they aren’t of acceptable quality, it’s the retailer’s responsibility to fix the problem.

If you’re not happy with the healthcare service you’ve received from your optometrist, you can also make a complaint with the Health and Disability Commissioner (hdc.org.nz).

Extra protection?

OPSM offers an eyewear protection plan it says has “clear benefits.” At $44.95 for 12 months, the plan covers the cost of repair or replacement of your glasses if they’re accidentally damaged or stolen.

However, if you have contents insurance, you’re likely to be paying for protection you already have.

The OPSM plan states the company will repair or replace your glasses up to the price you paid, to a maximum of $3,200. If you want cover for two pairs of glasses, you’ll need to pay two premiums.

The plan doesn’t provide any cover if you’re a little careless and lose your glasses, or if there’s cosmetic damage.

If you make a claim, you’ll pay an excess of $30. That may be less than what you pay if you claim under your contents insurance. Check your policy. For example, AA Insurance has a $100 excess for eyewear while State Insurance doesn’t charge an excess if you’re over 55 and only claiming for your specs.

If you have an expensive pair of glasses, or a complicated prescription, the protection plan may be worth it. But before you sign on the dotted line, read the lengthy list of exclusions, and your current contents insurance policy, to decide whether it’s right for you.

What to expect at your eye exam

Optometrists conduct more than a million eye exams on Kiwis every year. They’re regulated by the Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians Board. Your optometrist should talk to you about what tests, treatments and procedures are appropriate.

A comprehensive eye exam should include:

  • questions about your medical history, such as your age, general health, and whether you have a family history of glaucoma, diabetes or heart disease
  • an internal eye health check of your retina, optic disc and blood vessels
  • assessment of external eye health with a slit lamp
  • a colour perception check (some diseases affect how you see colour)
  • glaucoma assessment, including an eye-pressure test
  • checking your visual functions, as well as your eye muscles to see that they move and coordinate properly
  • visual field tests to check for blind spots or brain damage
  • assessment of your pupil function and response.

Is it worth getting extra tests?

For $85, OPSM offers its Essentials Plus Package – a standard eye exam with an “Ultra Wide Digital Retinal Scan”. The company said it’s four times wider than a standard scan. It advertises the package as “our recommended level of eye care for everyone”.

...you shouldn’t need to pay for extra tests unless your optometrist believes you have a medical need.

We asked OPSM why the plus package was recommended. A spokesperson said that the plus package gives a better picture of the retina, and enables the optometrist to see parts of the retina you may not reach with the standard test.

However, you shouldn’t need to pay for extra tests unless your optometrist believes you have a medical need. For most people, the standard test will do the job.

Requirements for standard eye tests are set by the Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians Board. Any additional tests should only be recommended when there’s a clinical need, said Andrew Sangster, Councillor at the New Zealand Association of Optometrists.

Optometrist Q&As

Can I get a copy of my eye exam results?

Yes. The Privacy Act gives you the right to access your personal health information. As a health consumer, you also have the right to be informed about the results of any tests, options for treatment, and the benefits and costs of these options.

What should I do if I have problems with new glasses?

It's not uncommon for people wearing new glasses to strike problems. Your optometrist may need to make minor adjustments to the findings from your eye exam to reach a prescription that's right for you. This is referred to as your "dispensed prescription".

Who has to pay for repairs if glasses are faulty?

Glasses are covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA). Where glasses aren't of acceptable quality, it's the retailer's responsibility to remedy the problem. However, if you're buying glasses from an overseas website, the CGA won't apply: you'll need to carefully check the retailer's trading history and returns policy.

Can I use over-the-counter reading glasses?

If you only need glasses for reading, ready-made hobby or reading glasses may be an option. But you should get an eye test first to identify any problems.

Is the cost of glasses subsidised?

With the exception of children's glasses, the purchase of prescription glasses isn't subsidised by the government. If you want to keep costs down, fitting new lenses to second-hand frames can be an option. Your optometrist may also have end-of-the-line-frames they're prepared to sell off cheaply.

What training does an optometrist have?

Optometrists trained in New Zealand complete a Bachelor of Optometry at the University of Auckland. All optometrists have to be registered by the Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians Board. Only a registered optometrist can prescribe glasses or contact lenses. You can check an optometrist's qualifications and date of registration at www.odob.health.nz.

Who deals with complaints about optometrists?

Complaints about the care you receive from an optometrist can be made to the Health and Disability Commissioner. If your complaint is about a product or service, you can go to the Disputes Tribunal.

Member comments

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Tim M.
19 May 2019
Very hard to make an informed decision with Specsavers.

There are conflicting offers every time I go in which means it’s hard to compare like for like. Then when you make a decision the hard sell starts and it turns out the glasses you wanted are not suitable for your needs and you need to spend several hundred dollars more. This is based on at least 4 visits by myself and my partner.