Cheap glasses for the short-sighted

THERE'S nothing blurry about the opinion of the city's independent optometrists: if you buy cheap spectacles, you'll get an inferior pair of glasses.

Many smaller, higher-priced optometrists say they are appalled by the quality of cut-price spectacles being sold by big-buying chain players, including Specsavers, Big W and Costco.

Can you see the real cost behind these glasses? Can you see the real cost behind these glasses? 

They say complex, finely tuned medical aids have been reduced to nothing more than retail items and consumers are potentially damaging their health by using them.

But are these comments short-sighted? After all, the outlets offering cheaper glasses mean consumers who might not otherwise be able to afford spectacles can buy them.

A pair of glasses from a small, independent optometrist could cost $500, including frames and lenses. By contrast, British chain Specsavers, which launched in Australia two years ago, promises complete glasses for $59 or two ''designer'' pairs for $179 or $199.

Eager to cash in on the spectacles market - estimated by market-watch group IBIS World to be worth $860 million a year in Australia - discount chains such as Big W and Costco now offer in-store optometry assessments and cut-price glasses.

Shirley Loh, the professional services manager of the Optometrists Association of Australia, which represents independent optometrists as well as chains including Specsavers, said a 10 per cent surge in the number of people who had their eyes checked last year was partly due to awareness campaigns, an ageing population and greater consumer options.

In general, she said, wider consumer choice was good, but ''glasses are really quite complicated pieces of equipment and people forget about that. It is a really technical area, even though they might look the same on the surface.''

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Consumers who bought cheap glasses might not be able to put their finger on what was wrong with them, but optometrists could see more distortions in poorer-quality lenses, she said.

However, Specsavers managing director, optometrist Peter Larsen, defended the company's products, saying all Specsavers lenses met or exceeded Australian standards. A spokeswoman for Specsavers, Heather Potter, said the company put its lenses and frames ''through rigorous quality testing''.

''People in Australia have been paying far too much for glasses for far too long,'' she said.

The independent optometrists felt threatened by Specsavers, she said, but all the Specsavers franchises were co-owned by optometrists and a lot of effort was put into customer service.

''Obviously our intention is to provide an excellent customer service that people are happy with so they keep coming back,'' Ms Potter said.

She said the chain's success, with about 61 stores in Victoria, spoke for itself.

But Matthew Smith, the manager of Eyes On Optometrists, a group of six independent optometrists, said the booming retail competition in optics had taken the emphasis away from eye care. He said the cheaper chain stores treated people as ''prescription fodder'', and treated eye tests as ''the means to the end - the end is getting them to buy the product''.

Consumer Affairs Victoria recorded fewer than 50 optometry-related complaints in the year to June.

But Mr Smith said many people came into his Collins Street shop asking for repairs on the cheaper glasses they had bought from chain retailers. ''We are having to spend a lot of time fixing their product. It is becoming a bit of a nightmare.''

One disgruntled customer, who asked not to be named, said she was a ''refugee from Specsavers'' who bought three pairs of glasses there - multifocals, optical sunglasses and reading glasses. ''They offer all these cheap deals, but they're not that cheap,'' she said. Extra features cranked up her bill to nearly $1400, and it took six months to get the glasses, she said.

But the real problem, she said, was that she could not see properly while wearing them. ''It was just completely blurry.''

After taking the glasses back for several refittings, and having her prescription changed three times, she simply gave up.

''I just thought, 'Right, I'll cut my losses and go somewhere else.'''

Specsavers' Ms Potter said she was unable to comment on a specific case, but confirmed it usually took no more than 10 days for glasses to arrive.

Ms Potter said additional features and more complicated prescriptions did cost extra, but it was up to the customer to decide how much they wanted to spend.

Kara Blair, 27, said Specsavers' cheaper prices meant she had access to glasses she would otherwise be unable to afford.

Ms Blair was spotted picking up two pairs of glasses for $199 at the chain's Little Collins Street outlet. Ms Blair said if inexpensive glasses were not available, she would not be buying any at all.

''They said my eyes would get worse over time. I would just wait till they got really bad and then I'd have to buy them,'' she said.

Should we all give up and buy $20 glasses from the chemist?

Mr Smith said spectacles sold at pharmacies were ''just magnifying lenses'' and could not cater for specific problems such as astigmatisms or different pupil distances.

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