Shopping for eyeglasses isn't easy, especially when frames can cost well over $200 a pair  -- even without the fancy add-ons and logos. But a Consumer Reports survey found that a great pair of eyeglasses doesn't have to break the bank.

The magazine surveyed more than 30,000 of its bespectacled readers about their most recent purchase of a pair of glasses and found that Costco topped the ratings of eyeglass retailers, which included large chains, independent local optical shops, and private doctors offices.

"A new pair of glasses can cost you a pretty penny, especially when you add on higher-quality lenses, designer logos, or fancy coatings,” said Jamie Hirsh, associate editor for Consumer Reports Health. "We surveyed our readers to find out not only how much they paid at the eyeglass retailer, but also their overall experience including things like frame selection, customer service and employee expertise.”

Strongest showings

Costco Optical earned the highest score for overall satisfaction among chains, and also beat out most of its competitors for price -- a pair of glasses cost a median of $157 compared with a median of $211 at independent optical shops and $212 at eye doctors' offices. Costco was also the only retailer that stood out for lack of problems, such as loose lenses, distorted or blurred vision, or damaged frames in the first few weeks after purchase.

However, Mary of Madison, WI, is not at all happy with her experience at Costco. She tells that 14 days after ordering her glasses, she had not received them, even though she was promised delivery in seven business days. "Not only do I not have my glasses," she writes, "the optical department isn't sure where they are. My biggest complaint is that they do not call me to let me know what is going on. I continue to wander in a no-man's-land."

With the exception of price, doctor's offices and independent optical boutiques typically scored high marks across the board, particularly when it came to employee know-how, service, and the quality of the finished glasses. Independent boutiques are also the place to go for great frame selection.

Eighty-three percent of readers who purchased their glasses at an indie shop were highly satisfied with the variety of frames available, compared with 68 percent at the big retailers.

Some chains were subpar

The one overarching reason respondents gave for choosing to get their glasses at a chain store was price. However, Consumer Reports found that LensCrafters (the most frequented chain in the survey) charged a median price of $244 per pair of glasses, even with coupons, which some 60 percent of LensCrafters customers said they used. LensCrafters customers enjoyed faster turnaround and above-average follow-up service, though.

Customers at Pearle Vision, which is owned by the same company as LensCrafters, also paid more than those who shopped at an independent shop or doctor's office, at an average of $228 per pair.

Three eyewear chains -- Visionworks, America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, and JCPenney Optical -- stood out for below-average ratings in most purchase factors including inferior-quality frames and subpar service during and after the purchase. Respondents still reported pretty high satisfaction overall, but as the ratings show, there are better choices.

"I went to America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses to get my daughter glasses," Lee of White Bear Lake, MN, tells "The sign there said ALL frames $69 are two for $109.95 and included plastic lenses. When my daughter picked out two $69 frames, I asked the store manager how much they would cost. She said even though she picked out $69 frames it would be an additional $132.00 because they required polycarbonate lenses."

According to Lee, the sign said all $69 frames were two for $109.95 and all included plastic lenses. But, she says, she was told that polycarbonate lenses were mandatory with the $69 frames she chose. "I feel their advertising should disclose this additional cost or they should honor their printed ad," Lee concludes.

How to choose

Shoppers looking for a deal without sacrificing good vision correction should keep a few things in mind when considering an eyeglass retailer:

  • Know who excels at what. Independent stores, Empire Vision Centers, and, LensCrafters are good options for urgent matters, such as replacing a lost or broken pair of glasses quickly. If quality, service, and selection are paramount, try a doctor's office or independent. Either way, find out what follow-up service is provided and what recourse there is if there are problems, such as a faulty prescription or frames that break.
  • Spring for only what's needed. Glasses come in a dizzying array of lens types and coatings so don't hesitate to ask questions.
  • Don't be a slave to brand names. Brand names could cost hundreds of extra dollars, but designer frames usually aren't made by those designers. They're made by manufacturers that license the brand names. Those same manufactures also make high-quality non-designer frames that can have a similar style for a fraction of the designer price.
  • Look for coupons. One-third of readers who visited an optical chain used coupons, and at chains like JCPenney Optical and LensCrafters, 62 percent of respondents had used one. Some health insurance providers will also cover a portion of an eyeglass purchase. About 43 percent of respondents said at least part of their purchase was covered by insurance.

If cost and quality are paramount, Consumer Reports recommends going to Costco or another highly rated chain. To see how independent stores, doctors' offices and 18 eyeglass chains did in Consumer Reports survey in terms of quality, selection, price, and customer service, pick up the December issue of the magazine now on newsstands.

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