An Optician's view of Costco Eyeglasses

Getting the best value for your money when it comes to eyeglasses, sunglasses, eye exams, and contact lenses.

Postby Levain B » Sat Nov 23, 2013 5:11 am

<Moved from the main Costco eyeglass thread>

I'm a licensed optician :geek: , my father is a professor of Optometry at UC Berkeley, and I have worked in the optical field for 25 years. I also own and manage an wholesale optical lab, where we make lenses and eyeglass frames, as well as retail stores. I routinely deal with Costco doctors in the northern California area, fill their prescriptions, and hear stories form my patients about their experiences buying glasses, and getting eye exams form Costco. Those stories are mostly average, some good more bad, but overall nothing that's the end of the world. I'm not here to toot my own horn, and will not be soliciting your business for myself, my interests are in the area of education in this case, my education and possibly your education, about what I do all day. I'm not above claiming that I am an expert, especially in the area of making and fitting glasses. I grew up in a small town making glasses there, and have made glasses for many movie stars in the big city. In my career, the people I have met have spanned all sorts of types of personalities and their eyeglass prescription challenges, there is almost noting in optical I have not seen, but am always pleasantly surprised by a new challenge.
I want to thank all of you for your comments regarding your experiences at Costco. Your honesty and information sharing has helped me better understand what people in our industry would consider the low end market.

Clearly many of you are price conscious, perhaps for reasons of having a personal value for frugality, or some of you simply just can't afford "expensive" glasses. I'm not here to judge anyone, I will never know any of you personally, and therefore no personal opinion, but I think after benefitting form learning so much form you about your experience, I feel compelled to contribute my professional and experienced opinion about buying glasses at Costco. I'm also not the type of person to judge people by the size of their wallet, that just wasn't how I was raised. If you get that vibe from me, I apologize in advance. On the other hand, I am not responsible for how you feel, that's on you. I hope you learn something here and I certainly am here to learn form you.

Lets start off by talking about what all of your #1 concerns are, PRICE. There is a perception, that because Costco is a volume business, they benefit from buying more lenses than your average private practice eye doctor in bulk, from their suppliers. That said however, Eye doctors also buy in bulk as buying groups that are far bigger than Costco. Doctors tend to buy much higher quality product. They are able to offer product at a quality level that Costco doesn't offer, because their patients are willing to pay for better optics and frames that last longer and are re-usable. Independent eye doctors, however, are also changing to recognize that some of you can't afford to buy higher priced glasses, and some of you don't value having good eyesight. Some of you have never had a good eye exam before, and think your previous glasses are "pretty good" only because you have never experienced "Awesome eyesight" through a pair of glasses.
What I'm saying in plain english is that for some of you, the optics you are getting out of the lenses Costco has to offer are not optimal. "You get what you pay for" couldn't be more true at Costco regarding glasses. Their lenses are often times "second quality", meaning they were determined to have a defect at their factory of origin. They are made so quickly and so automated often mistakes made aren't caught. I remember one gentleman who came into an office where I was working and said his Costco glasses "Just didn't feel right." He was wearing a progressive (hidden bifocal), and the mistake made in his lenses was so horrible it took me 5 minutes to figure it out. I had never seen something like this, a progressive bifocal cut upside down! The man's distance vision was actually his near visin for reading, and only in one eye. Pretty wild stuff. Would you pay 200$ for that, or 300-400$ to have t done right the first time? Remember when I said some people don't have a value for good vision, or don't know the difference? Can you believe this man had been wearing these for over a year? Everyone truly is different. This guy wasn't bothered enough by being blind in one eye until a year later. Incedentally too late for Costco to fix it!
That story is an exception however not the rule. The rule is usually the glasses are made close enough to correct, but the lenses themselves are not of the quality that makes better optics. The coatings usually come off sooner than later, and Costco doesn't warrant them. the frames are cheap because they are "Discontinued." Yes they may have cool name brand stamped on them, but rest assured those frames you paid 40-129$ for Costco paid 99 cents for, because they are the leftover frames that no one bought at the eye doctor 3 years ago. Or, they are brand new, but of very low quality. Some frames are so bad, 49$ would be akin to putting that kind of money into a gum ball machine toy, really!
If fashion isn't your thing, then certainly Costco is right for you, most of their styles are over 3-5 years old. On the other hand if you need to dress to impress for your job, or just to feel good about yourself, Hmmm yeah Costco is the Kmart of fashion eyewear, and that's a fact. You might buy a Calvin Klein there, but it's a 5 year old style, you can bet on it!
As for the doctor at Costco, they should be licensed to practice optometry in the state they are in and I suspect 99.9% of them are legit. They are like every other OD eye doctor in the sense that they diagnose eye disease, and prescribe eyeglasses, Contact lenses, and occasionally eye drops or medications to help with problems related to eyes. You should be aware that when you pay 49$ for the eyeglass exam without the dilation, they are not checking the health of the inside of your eye. Unlike an MD, and OD can actually see all sorts of stuff going on inside your body, just form looking at the inside of your eye. They can see the health of your arteries, if you have high blood pressure, certain cancers, certain nerve disorders like MS, the list is long of what an eye doctor can catch in the early stages. getting an Eye exam every 1-2 years is a great idea, for your general health. However, if you don't let the doctor dilate your eye to look inside, you miss out. My advice would be to pay the extra few bucks to have the health of your eye checked.
Sadly that brings up another topic. Costco Eye docs are very busy! They cater to a population that wants a fast cheap eye exam. In that environment, doing a thorough job isn't always humanly possible. Obviously some doctors are better than others. Eye docs at Costco make their money on volume too. If you think having a doctor take the time to do things correctly is a good, Costco is not for you every time. Another interesting thing no one is talking about here is the price of the eye exam. Did you know in private practice, some eye doctors are less than Costco, or only a few bucks more, for a far more in depth and detailed eye exam? That 49$ "Eyeglass eye exam" is called a refraction in our industry. I know private doctors that only charge 29$ for this. On the other hand, I know that for the 89$ dilation eye exam some private eye doctors charge anywhere from 69-199$. The competence of a doctor at Costco varies like it would anywhere else. You get good ones and bad ones. However, Costco doctors are under more pressure to sell exams faster. It simply a human reality that these exams will not be as good, it's common sense. Shop around, you may find a local independent eye doctor who is more affordable, and will take more time to make sure your exam is done right. Don't let the sticker shock of the first call you make stop you. Call around, you will find the price varies widely for an eye exam in private practices in your area.

Finally, I wish you all happy eyeglass shopping. One of the most important part about a pair of glasses is the optician that fits them! This person checks the Rx to make sure it is done right, adjusts them to be straight on your face and not fall down, and makes sure you are seeing and reading as you should be, all before you take them home. An optician can also trouble shoot problems you are having, and determine if they are the doctor's fault, optician's error, or the lab's error. YOU NEED A GOOD OPTICIAN IF YOU WANT TO SEE YOUR BEST. Costco is usually legally required to hire a licensed optician who should be onsite at all times. However, they then can have cashiers working underneath them with no training. In some states the optician needs no training either, just to pass a certification test that they can pass by reading and learning a book. California is one state where an optician is required to have no experience to sell and fit glasses. Buyer beware!
Costco is a great place if you need a pair of budget glasses. It's also a great place to put 200$ into a gum ball machine quality pair. Would you put 150$ into a gumball machine for fugly glasses that were 5 years ago fashion? If your answer is yes GREAT! With my blessing.
My professional advice would be if you want to save a few bucks get your eye exam at Costco, get your Rx, and then go drop real money on a good pair of high quality glasses that will last you a long time, form a certified independent optician. The lenses will be better, state of the art technology, the frames will be current, look better and fit right, Private optometrists, and the cashier at Costco are the lowest trained people to handle the fabrication and dispensing of eyeglasses. Eyeglasses are an Optician's specialty. Some lenses like higher powers, and progressives can be complicated to fit. Find yourself a professional Optician who is local if possible, and allow them to care for you and your glasses. It's what we do best, and most certainly what we usually do far better than Costco.

It is no surprise to me that someone on a limited budget would shop at Costco. I'm thankful that there is a place that sells glasses that will allow poorer people to see "good enough" inexpensively. However if you have excess budget, and money, for heaven's sake why would you compromise your eyesight to save 100$? It's how you see the world! Everything you experience in life goes right through your eyes. Don't go cheap on that if you can help it. It's worth 100$ to see better, fit better, and last longer isn't it?

i'm curious to hear what any of you think of this! Let me have it!
Levain B

Postby george » Sat Nov 23, 2013 4:34 pm


That's quite a rant against Costco for eyeglasses. I'm confused about some of the things you are saying, and some of them I flat out disagree with. Most of it just seems like your opinion, and not backed up with any facts. I'd love to get more of the facts so that I can better learn what the truth is. Let's go through what you had to say:

You say you own and manage a wholesale optical lab, saying you make products for retail stores and filling prescriptions for Costco doctors. But then you go on to say that Costco has inferior products. Are you saying that YOUR products are inferior? That is the main point I'm confused about.

Your assumption that people who visit here can't afford expensive glasses is very misguided. Most of the readers here are not looking for the cheapest option. What people want is quality at a reasonable price. I agree that getting prescription eyeglasses for under $10 would make no sense if the glasses are terrible. That is part of the reason for the forum here - for people to share their experiences with the various companies and explain whether they think the quality is decent or not, and to compare what the costs are so people can make informed decisions.

So - when you say the #1 concern is price, that is wrong for most people and certainly it is wrong in my case. I want quality glasses, but I don't want to overpay for something that I can get for a fraction of the price. I can speak from my experience as I have recently gone to and purchased glasses from an independent eye doctor as recently as last year, and I've also bought prescription glasses from Lenscrafters, Zenni Optical, and Costco.

Your comment that people who go to an independent doctor are willing to pay for better optics and frames that last longer and re-usable seems silly. I have found that in general Costco isn't a store for bargain basement deals, but in fact a store for good to high quality products at good prices. While the independent eye doctor did have a larger selection of frames, the specific frames I picked out I have also seen at Costco. As for quality of the actual lenses - I would love to hear what manufacturer makes their lenses and why you think they are inferior to what you get from an independent eye doctor. Also, I'd love to see some actual studies to back up the claims. While there may be certain advantages to some materials and coatings based on the lab analysis, like COLTs scores, I have personally concluded that the statement that COLTs scores above 3.25 is associated with a much lower rate of dissatisfaction. I know that the Crizal Avance coated lenses I purchased from the independent eye doctor were expensive and have a very high COLTS score of 4.75. I don't know what the COLTS score is for the coatings from Costco or from Zenni, but I can say that in my personal experience I have seen very little if any difference between the three. In other words, the $5 anti-reflective coating on my Zenni Optical glasses performed just as well in real life (for me) as did my $150 (for the coating alone) Crizal Avance coated glasses. I had no scratching with either after 1 year of daily wear of each, and I found the reported benefits of easy cleaning of Crizal lenses to not be noticeable to me. If you can get eyeglasses for $5 that perform the exact same as $150, would you still want to pay the $150 just because you can afford it? I know that Costco claims that their anti-reflective coating is comparable to the best available on the market, and I tend to believe them. Having said that, I personally couldn't tell any significant difference between any of the three anti-reflective coatings I've gotten.

Even though I got frames I liked from my independent eye doctor, I'm probably never going to bother re-using them. Also, while some people may be very concerned about having the highest fashion frames, I would guess that most people don't care that much, as long as they look decent. If someone really cares about the fashion of their glasses, they probably wouldn't be going to Costco in the first place. If they wanted to save money, they could order the frames online at a discount and then bring them to Costco to have high quality lenses put in them.

I'm not sure why you make the assumption that some of us have never had a good eye exam. What do you think makes one eye exam better than another? All of the eye doctors that have done my eye exams for the past 7 years have been licensed optometrists. Just because one was independent from a large retailer does not make him better than the others I saw. In fact, he had said that my prescription hadn't changed from the prescription I brought in from the previous year - with that exam having been done at Lenscrafters.

I'd love to hear what the difference is with your glasses that provides "awesome eyesight". I believe your statement that Costco uses "second quality" lenses is completely false, but I'll give you a chance to provide a source for this claim. After researching these topics for many years, I've never heard such a claim. Please provide some verification. While I suppose it is possible (but hard to imagine) that someone could wind up with progressive bifocals that were cut upside down, I have to say it is ridiculous that a person would wear those glasses for a year without complaining. When I was at Costco, I did try on my glasses in the store and had them adjust them. If my progressives were upside down, I would hope that I would notice or someone else would.

As for the need to do pupil dilation, an eye doctor can see the inside of your eye without dilation, but just not as well. I agree that it is an inferior exam to not do it, but not all independent eye doctors do pupil dilation every year. The doctor at Costco was no more busy than the independent eye doctor I went to.

I can't really refute what you say about opticians, but I think a lot depends on how complex your prescription is as to whether you really need to work with one.

Again, just because I have bought lenses at Costco doesn't mean I'm on a limited budget or that I'm poorer than someone who bought glasses from an independent eye doctor. I just personally don't want to spend $400 on a pair of glasses I can get for $150.

Overall I find your attitude very insulting. If you really want to educate the masses, please provide sources for your information and claims.
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Postby Mango » Thu Jan 09, 2014 6:02 am

I'd like to bump this thread because I'm curious to read the OP's response. George asks some questions I've had for quite some time.
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Postby Adolfo » Thu Jul 21, 2016 11:03 pm

Just ask Consumer Reports. I'm going to Costco not because is cheap, but because the quality against competitors

Postby JerryM » Sun Jul 24, 2016 8:40 pm

I have worn glasses for 59 years. I have had cataract surgery on one eye. I am a retired soldier. The last 10 years I have received annual exams from an ophthalmologist and several times from optometrists. I can get eyeglasses from the VA, military, and through medicare after the cataract surgery. Some years I have had exams from all three during a year. In almost every case my eyes have been dilated.
Until the last few years my eyes have been corrected to 20/15. Now they still go 20/20 - 20/25.
When I have had 2 or 3 exams for the various agencies they are always essentially the same as to the prescriptions.. I would challenge one to prove that the DOD or VA provides second class eyeglasses. Two of my best friends are retired optometrists. Both had careers in the Public Health Service, and kept their education and skills top notch, and after they retired were required by their states to keep their education up to date.

I have asked them at various times as to the quality of the glasses the govt provided, and they replied they were excellent.

Having said all that, cost is of no consequence to me when it comes to my vision. But, I do not buy things because they are the latest, but because of quality. However, I do not consider it to be good stewardship to pay several times what is necessary for a product whether it is an auto or eyeglasses. I have purchased 6 pairs of glasses from Zenni, and they are all perfectly satisfactory in terms of vision, frames, and lenses.
I am persuaded that those who make statements such as the OP, are talking baloney. A local optician told me he gets some of his glasses from Zenni. The progressives I have purchased from Zenni were examined by two opticians, and one optometrist. All pronounced them well done.

I would like to see a test of 25-100 people who do not know the source of their eyeglasses, and have their vision tested at various times and see if they can detect a difference between the $400 glasses and Costco, WalMart, and Zenni. I doubt there would be a significant difference.

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Postby JerryM » Sat Oct 01, 2016 11:58 pm

Hi Levain B,

What are your replies. I would be interested in reading and the evidence you would present.

Last bumped by Anonymous on Sat Oct 01, 2016 11:58 pm.
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