Twenty years ago, it was pretty much impossible to buy a pair of prescription glasses for less than a few hundred pounds.
Since then, the competition among opticians has changed the market — and the prices charged — beyond recognition.
First came the chain opticians such as SpecSavers, Vision Express and Boots Opticians (which swallowed up Dollond & Aitchison three years ago).
More recently, the competition hotted up further, with opticians at Tesco and Asda.
It’s a big market — 68 per cent of adults need glasses or contact lenses and, last year, according to the industry’s trade body, the Optical Confederation, UK opticians performed 21 million eye tests.
A typical consumer also spends £150, according to research. But some supermarkets offer even cheaper deals. At Asda, for instance, customers can get designer glasses for just £70.
Are these kinds of offers too good to be true? Good Health decided to put five of the biggest players to the test — so I went to see what kind of prescription reading glasses I could get for £70 from supermarkets and High Street chains.
I am long-sighted, with a fairly high prescription — my reading glasses are around +6. My quest was simple: once I’d paid for my eye test (some opticians charged nothing, others varied, up to £22), what would be the glasses I could buy?
In addition, how good would the frames be, and how thin the lenses? Lens thickness does matter, because the higher the prescription, the thicker they tend to be (unless you pay extra for thinner high-index refractive lenses), which is not very attractive. Crucially, is £70 enough to buy a pair of decent specs?
For an informed and impartial judgment, I asked Dr Sneh Khemka, medical director of Bupa International (and previously an eye surgeon at Moorfields hospital in London). Dr Khemka himself wears a pair of £500 glasses.
He was asked to grade the quality of the frames and lenses — and to measure how well the final lenses corresponded to the prescription given by the ophthalmologist, who carries out sight tests.
Worryingly, not one single pair of glasses he tested was a perfect match for the prescription drawn up by the shop’s in-house ophthalmologist.
While the discrepancies were not large enough to greatly affect my vision, if the lens veers too far from your prescription, you’ll end up with a headache.
Then, taking into account other factors such as the cosmetic look of the lenses and the quality of my vision, we asked Dr Khemka to come up with an overall score for each pair of glasses. The results were surprising . . .
Own-brand ‘Marcus’ wireframe, with 1.6 index lenses, anti-reflective and anti-scratch coating, £69.
When I arrived I was ignored for five minutes, then told to sit down behind a pillar and ignored for five more. On finally being seen, everyone was friendly and efficient (though they didn’t apologize for the wait). The eye test costs £5.
The £69 range of frames come with free, thinner (1.6 index) lenses. The ‘index’ tells you how much the lens is able to bend (‘refract’) light rays; the higher the index, the more effectively the lens bends the rays, so the thinner the lens can be.
The standard lens index is 1.5 but for someone like me, with a high prescription, a higher index of 1.6 is important, otherwise, I’d end up with heavier lenses that would make me look bug-eyed.
But, if I want 1.6 lenses, I cannot afford the black plastic frames I want — so I end up buying a metal frame. They feel comfortable but I’m not sure they suit me.
DR KHEMKA’S VERDICT
Frame —Good construction material, light and fits the shape of your face (i.e. the lenses are at the correct angle to your eyes and the glasses aren’t likely to slip). 7/10
Lenses — Even using ‘thin’ 1.6-index plastic, the lenses look a little thick which, aside from not looking attractive, can lead to them feeling heavy and slipping down the nose. The anti-reflective coating does not seem the best. The lenses almost correspond to Vince’s prescription — but not quite, though the quality of vision is still good. 7/10
Overall rating — The lens and frame don’t really fit together well, which makes them less cosmetically pleasing. 6.5/10
Own-brand black plastic frames, 1.5 index lenses, with anti-reflective/anti-scratch coating, £54.
Unlike everywhere else, the lab was on view in the middle of the shop. After my eye test, which cost £22, I was given the hard sell — the saleswoman wanted me to spend £200 or more. Only when I mentioned my budget did she reluctantly take me to a small corner of the store where an ‘all-in’ price was on offer.
There was a choice of around 20 frames — I opted for a £29 frame which included free ‘standard’ (i.e. thick) lenses — I couldn’t afford thinner lenses; I paid £25 extra for anti-reflective coating. As I left, the assistant tried to sell me pointless-sounding insurance against the cost of glasses repair. After all of this the glasses feel too loose.
Frame — at 8mm, the lenses are so thick and heavy that the slight difference in Vince’s eye prescription (one eye is slightly worse than the other) has led to the frames being lopsided. 5/10
Lenses — I am not happy with the eye test. The prescription is out of line with the others. Vince’s right eye has been measured at +5.5, whereas nearly everyone else has put it at 6.25. He might end up with headaches. 5.5/10
Overall rating — these give you the worst vision of all. The lenses are so thick they don’t sit comfortably in these frames. 5/10.
Jeff Banks frames 1.67 index lenses, anti-reflective, anti-scratch coating, £70.
The shop, at the back of the supermarket, looked a mess, with boxes of customers’ glasses piled up in front of the displays. The shop assistants exuded an air of indifference and confusion. But how will the glasses fare?
My eye test, which cost £15, was carried out by a friendly, professional ophthalmologist — and the pricing looks tempting. For £70, Asda will sell me a pair of designer glasses (Jeff Banks, Nike, Conran and others) with thin lenses and all the coatings.
There is a choice of 200 frames. Additionally, because my prescription is so high, I was upgraded to a 1.67-index lens (the thinnest of any of the opticians) for free. And these are my favorite: stylish and comfortable.
Frames — excellent, sturdy frame made from a good-quality material. Good anti-reflective coating. 8.5/10
Lenses — these sit well within the frame, though they could be even thinner. Well-constructed spectacles. 7.5/10
Overall rating — a good pair of spectacles, giving you the best vision of those tested. 8.5/10
Own-brand Brink Mohawk metal and plastic frames, 1.5 index lenses — plus free second pair, £65.
The sight test was free and took place around the corner from the shampoo aisle. Tesco’s crazy pricing structure means I cannot afford thinner lenses yet I am given a ‘free’ pair of glasses I didn’t want. Daft.
When I said I was on a budget, the assistant still steered me away from the £15 range — ‘they won’t last long, they’re quite delicate — and I settled on a £65 frame with ‘free’ 1.5-index lenses but no anti-reflective coating. The glasses feel comfortable, but it’s not a style I’d have chosen with a higher budget.
Frame — well-made, with sturdy, hyper-flexible hinges. I could easily have thought they were £300 frames. 9/10
Lenses — the most accurately-made lenses, with the best prescription. But thick lenses make your eyes look huge. 6/10
Overall rating — with a thinner lens [£40 extra], this would be an extremely good pair of glasses. 7/10
Own-brand tortoiseshell ‘elder’ frames, with 1.5-index lenses, no anti-reflective coating, £49.
Boots are more expensive than some of their High-Street rivals. I was advised to opt for thinner lenses — but couldn’t as this would take me over budget, even if I select the £25 frames (which are ghastly).
So I opted for a £49 frame with 1.5 index — i.e. thick — lenses and no anti-reflective coating. And there are only 12 frames at this price. The eye test costs £10, using a money-off voucher on the Boots website. The glasses? They’re clunky and leave me looking like Syd Little.
Frame — good quality lightweight frame, with sturdy hinges. But the design of the nasal bridge may mean they slip down your nose. 7/10
Lenses — although they have no anti-reflective coating and the lenses are not thin, they don’t look as thick as they might. And the vision is good. 7/10
Overall rating — not bad for the money. 7/10
‘I’m pleasantly surprised at the good quality of some of the frames,’ says Dr Khemka. ‘The Tesco and Asda frames stand out as excellent, and most of the other ones are fine. Spectacle frames are very often a complete rip-off. You can buy them for £30 or £40, but they’d sell for £300 if they had a designer label.
‘For someone with a high prescription, spending a bit more for a thinner lens is a good idea. But what this experiment has shown is that the vast majority of glasses-wearers can get a very good pair of spectacles for £70, and there’s no point in spending much more.’