Online optical stores

Online optical stores are undercutting bricks-and-mortar retailers by a wide margin, but they can make critical mistakes.
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01 .Introduction


Spectacles can easily set you back several hundred dollars, and if you need multifocal glasses the starting price can be $500 or more. So it’s no surprise that aggressively discounted online deals can be tempting.

But our shadow shop found that if you don't do your research before shopping for glasses online, you can end up with the wrong prescription, or frames and lenses that don’t fit.

  • The risks are worse with multifocal (progressive) glasses, since the online script you fill out may not include all the measurements needed to correctly make and fit the glasses. Read more about multifocal lenses here.
  • Three out of four pairs of multifocal glasses we ordered online had major problems. Read more about the shadow shop here.
  • Experts told us this is less of an issue with single-vision glasses, since they’re easier to manufacture and all measurements are usually on your script. This is also what we heard from CHOICE members while researching this story. Additionally, our UK sister organisation, Which?, recently tested single-vision glasses and found eight out of nine ordered from online stores passed their tests.
  • Australia’s largest health funds, Medibank Private and Bupa, don’t pay benefits for purchases at many online stores, so any savings made could be smaller than you first calculate.

Do try this at home

A number of online retailers allow you to try their frames at home before committing to an order. Two in particular, Oscar Wylee and Sneaking Duck, send you up to five pairs for free, including shipping.


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We ordered multifocal glasses from four online retailers. Our expert optometrist, Professor Stephen Dain from the University of NSW, checked the fit on our shadow shopper. 


Fitting test

To fit multifocal lenses correctly, a number of measurements are needed that likely won’t be included in the online prescription form and also vary depending on factors such as the frame you choose and how you hold your head. Among other things, these measurements determine where your pupil is in relation to the lens’ centre to make sure there’s no distortion.

Another variable in finding the right lens type is how and where you plan on wearing your glasses. Not surprisingly, then, two of the spectacles we ordered weren’t correctly fitted for our shadow shopper. (The fitting for both spectacles could be at least partially improved if you found an optometrist who agreed to correct them, though that would somewhat negate the convenience of buying online.)

  • Clearly Contacts Our shadow shopper had to drop their head forwards to get the best distance vision and the frame impeded the near vision.
  • Zenni Optical The frame didn’t sit symmetrically on the shadow shopper’s face, so near vision was at an angle.
Below standard

We had the lenses tested by the University of NSW Optics and Radiometry Laboratory against the voluntary standard.

  • Zenni Optical’s glasses had a fault in the prescription – one axis, correcting astigmatism, was incorrect. (It may be possible to correct this if the fitting were adjusted, but you’d have to visit an optometrist.)
  • Vision Direct’s glasses failed the robustness test – both lenses cracked through their entire thickness and broke into multiple pieces. This would be dangerous if you play sport or had an accident that broke your glasses. (Vision Direct told us that as a result of our test they’re undertaking an investigation and have upgraded all orders to higher-quality lenses at no cost.)
  • GlassesOnline passed both tests.
CHOICE verdict

Online retailers can be a good option for most single-vision glasses, but they pose substantial risks if you have a complex prescription – especially one for multifocal lenses. Should you decide to give an online optometrist a go, check the store’s refund policy and keep in mind that is can be very difficult to enforce the Australian Consumer Law with overseas retailers.

The four online stores:

  • California based online store Zenni Optical has its factory outside Shanghai.
  • US-owned Vision Direct’s global warehouse is located in Hong Kong and has a distribution centre in Australia.
  • Clearly Contacts is based in Canada and has a distribution centre in Australia. Frames are made in China and eyeglass lenses in Taiwan and South Korea. 
  • GlassesOnline is an Australian company based in NSW.

After sales service

When we contacted the online stores to let them know the glasses weren’t fit for purpose under the Australian Consumer Law, Clearly Contacts and Vision Direct offered a refund but also suggested we take the glasses to an optical store to get them corrected there.

But Finola Carey, CEO of the Optical Distributors and Manufacturers Association (ODMA), told us this extra step might not always pay off. “You can get ill-fitting frames adjusted provided the frames are suitable, and most optometrists and dispensers will use that as an opportunity to show their professionalism. But the frame may be unsuitable for the prescription, in which case there‘d be nothing to do but get another frame and possibly new lenses as well.”



Follow these steps:

  • Go for an eye exam and ask for your prescription; make sure the monocular PD measurements are included.
  • Check which type of frame suits you - but also ask your optometrist if a particular type of frame suits your eye problems more than others. This is particularly important for multifocal lenses, higher power lenses, or more complicated prescriptions.
  • Get a quote, and talk to your health fund to find out if they give a benefit for a purchase at this online store.
  • Make sure all quotes include lenses with anti-scratch and UV protection, and an anti-reflective coating.
  • You can also read our shadow shop of budget optical stores

More about multifocal lenses

There are different qualities and price ranges for multifocal glasses. Compared with cheaper, older-style progressive lenses, ‘free form’ or ‘tailor made’ progressive lenses - which are the most expensive - ensure more natural vision from distance to near and with greater accuracy and sharpness in all areas of your visual field.

With a wider field of vision in all areas of the lens, it’s likely that your eyes will adapt faster to these ‘free form’ lenses.

“You get what you pay for,” says Richard Grills, Chairman of the Optical Distributors and Manufacturers Association (ODMA). “A person who is wearing a modern lens design would absolutely hate older-style lenses because they do not provide the visual freedom of the modern designs.”


How to read your prescription


  • SPH - Strength of lens required to correct your focus. If there is a - (minus) symbol, it means you are short-sighted; a + (plus), or neither a plus nor a minus sign, means you are long-sighted. 
  • CYL/Axis - Compensate for astigmatism. Front surface of your eye is shaped like a rugby ball (toric), not a perfect sphere like a football. 
  • ADD - For reading glasses or progressive lenses. Normally the same for both eyes; only one number may appear. 
  • Prism - Eye alignment problems such as double vision. 
  • Distance/Intermediate/Near - What are your glasses designed for. Distance = activities such as driving and watching TV. Intermediate = activities at arms length, such as computer use. Near = activities such as reading. 
  • PD - Distance in millimetres between the centres of your pupils. 64 is for distance vision, used for single vision glasses and progressive lenses. 60 is for reading glasses. If you're given 33/31, it's a more accurate measurement for right side and left side for the distance vision PD.

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