From factory to you: Why some spectacles cost more than others, what goes into making your glasses, and what optical stores consider when filling their shelves with frames.
You could get a pair of glasses online for under $10. Our glasses package starts at $60. A mall store may offer theirs upwards of $300. Why the difference? Besides the better-known reasons like rental costs differences and higher cost of branded products, we explore what makes some products cost more (or less).
Click to skip to:
[ Gimmicky pricing ]
[ Conclusion ]
Optical Store Prices
If you’re someone who diligently checks the prices or searches around in order to find the best value, this article is for you! Or if you are looking for a bedtime story, I guess this is also for you, since it’s quite a detailed post.
We were inspired to write this as we had a customer who texted us about how another store was selling ‘the exact same’ product at ‘half the price’. So we sent someone down to buy a few frames. Plot twist: it isn’t the same product – expectedly – and the price came with conditions that had to be met (the gimmicky stuff, you know).
People who don’t see the value in a product often would then find other issues to justify the ‘bad purchase’. Which leads to the customer being dissatisfied – something we try very much to avoid. We want people to be happy with their purchases here.
So we decided to write this, to better explain optical store pricing strategies and answer the question “why do some glasses cost more than others”, and to better help people compare not just the prices, but the value of what they have purchased or are intending to buy.
Is it branded?
Branded eyewear come with a brand premium – and that’s fair, since brand owners and suppliers have to fork out a sum to get the brand to where it is today, such as getting products featured on fashion runways, collaborations with celebrities, and so on. You get the prestige of the brand when you buy such a product.
We focus on quality non-branded frames simply because it has a better value proposition for the customers we are serving. This is something we focus a lot on, and what we are known for as reviewed by trusted websites. Pairing the most common lenses to the frame into a complete glasses package simplifies the buying process for the large majority of spectacle wearers, although we also carry branded lenses. Hence, a titanium frame with multicoated lenses that come with UV protection can go for under 100 dollars – a fraction of the price you’ll pay at large chain stores selling branded goods.
While it’s easy to see the proposition here, the problem with non-branded frames is that there is no ‘price-anchor’. We can estimate how much a Masunaga frame paired with Hoya lenses might cost, but what about an ultem frame that is lightweight and flexible, paired with basic multicoated lenses?
And this means that any optical shop selling ‘unbranded eyewear packages’ can be deemed cheap. Or expensive. It’s all a matter of perception, depending on what one is comparing to.
The slippery slope of pricing
If we only looked at and compared prices, it’s a slope all the way down, and it never ends.
You see a package deal, let’s say at Otago Optical, offering a complete pair of glasses at $60. This includes the frame and lenses. But hey, what if you got yourself a frame from another shop at $15, and then do the lenses for maybe $40 – wouldn’t you then save $5?
Oh wait, but somewhere is offering $30 for the whole set of glasses if you buy 3 sets at a go – but do you need three pairs of glasses? How about sharing with a friend? But what about that other store offering a trade-in discount – should you sacrifice your current glasses for that $50 off?
But dang, you then see a similar frame on Shopee or Lazada for half the price! It takes a little longer to arrive, but maybe it’s worth the try? Are you gonna take the plunge?
Making your choices more difficult is the wide variety of frames available; unlike more comparable goods like contact lenses and brand-name sunglasses that can easily be compared.
No two frames are the same
Going back to one of our customer’s feedback about the exact same product being sold at half price, some frames can look similar, but it’s a case of same same but different. We will elaborate about this further down the article (click here to jump there).
That being said, it is not impossible that an exact same product can have widely varying prices. Some optical shops may choose to focus on a niche area, and that can drive prices up or down.
For instance, a shop specialising in myopia control with various equipment to test and monitor myopia progression as well as a full-time optometrist to attend to patients would naturally charge more compared to a shop with a very basic set up, even though they may be selling the same lens. The premium can also be charged into the prices of the frames.
On the other hand, an optical shop in a neighbourhood area specialising in cheap reading glasses would, expectedly, sell cheap reading glasses, perhaps in larger volumes by having a 2-for-1 offer. Since they sell in larger volumes, they may be able to drive costs (and thus retail prices) down.
More price strategies
The use of gimmicks isn’t uncommon in the retail industry either – besides the typical offer when you get more than one pair of glasses, there are also trade-in offers, frame at a low price with purchase of lenses and vice versa, bring-a-friend discounts, memberships, coupons, and so on.
Such pricing systems are usually complicated, leading to some consumers paying much less, and others paying much more. We don’t like these because it leads to a more difficult buying process for the customer, and ‘punishes’ those who do not ‘follow the offer’ - such as if you just want one pair of glasses instead of two, or if you prefer to keep your current glasses rather than trade it in.
What goes into the cost of a pair of glasses?
Understanding what goes into making a pair of glasses may make you think twice about the price levels of spectacles these days.
The journey of the frame to you
We only elaborate on frames, as lens options tends to be more clear-cut (branded VS non-branded, sorted by functions).
The manufacturing of a spectacle frame starts out as a design – taking into account factors like the styles that are trendy or are in demand, the intended market, as well as the material properties versus the design. For example, if we wanted a thinner style, we might use a stiffer material to ensure that it fits well if the design is more sporty looking, as it is more likely that the end consumer will correspondingly lead a more sporty lifestyle.
The advancement of technology, especially in 3D drawing and 3D printing, has allowed processes to be more efficient, as designs can be more easily visualised, and test-printed so we can ‘have a feel’ of it.
For the production, there is a need to source for and compare materials and parts, as well as to consider the processes required, such surface treatment of metals. A test run may be done, with quality checks and testing, such as whether the materials and functionality are performing up to standard, and to identify and correct any potential issues or flaws.
Throughout the production, manpower requirements are intensive, hence the management of manpower is essential, together with the logistics of getting everything in order, at the right time.
Even after the frames arrive at the retailer, less damages and parcels lost in transit (yes, these are a thing for us too), manpower and expertise is needed to get images of the products online, e.g. onto a website, like what we do for Otago Optical – listing all our styles online for consumers to browse at their convenience.
You’ll realise through the above, that spectacle frames aren’t just pieces of metal and plastic. While the raw materials can cost just a few dollars, the entire process can multiply that initial cost very quickly.
Same same but different
Let us also explore the little intricacies of options on an optical frame that would increase or decrease the manufacturing cost:
Single turn nosepads-arm (left) VS double turn nosepads-arm (right).
To bend the metal rod once takes half the time. Double turn nosepads give a larger leeway for adjustments.
Drill and put a pointed-tip tapping screw directly (left) VS drill a hole, thread the hole, and put in a flat-tip screw (right).
Triple the timing!
From left to right: Basic easily-spoilt plastic nosepads VS silicone-wrapped plastic nosepads VS metal-core nosepads VS silicone-wrapped metal-core nosepads
There are even full-metal nosepads. It's all about the cost!
Direct/exposed screw (right) VS hidden/recessed screw.
Better aesthetics, but an extra step to drill the recess.
Thinner rims (left) VS thicker rims (right).
Using a lighter material (such as titanium) means that a thicker design can be achieved without making the frame excessively heavy.
The use of better materials or ion-plating a protective layer onto the metal surface can help resist corrosion and colour changes (left) and removes the need to use a plastic-sleeve design (right), the former being more aesthetically appealing for certain frame designs that aim to look sleek/professional/office style.
These are the little secrets that consumers are often not aware of.
But do take caution not to simply base the value of a frame on just one of the factors above. We often have to find ways to bring costs down to the budgeted level, or work around a less-easily available size of screw at the time of production. Hence, an expensive-looking nosepad does not mean the frame is good, and a plastic sleeve does not mean the frame is bad - it could just be to match the overall look and feel of the frame too. Look at the frame as a whole instead.
There can also be ways to keep within expected costs without compomising on quality - such as by intentionally limiting colour options, usually to the popular choices, or using the same type of arms on different fronts, to produce multiple designs. These help to drive economics of scale.
There is a delicate balance of cost VS the final product – one little detail or decision can determine if the final costs exceed the budgeted amount, or if a series is produced that isn't up to the quality expectations.
Different business, different stock
So, seeing the above, we realise that while some frames can look the same, the manufacturing can be very much different. There will be some shops that sell similar styles at lower prices, just like how I have styles that look very similar to what others offer, but at half the price. This isn’t something new and shouldn’t be unexpected.
It all boils down to each individual store’s pricing and stock strategy, if they want to focus on a niche area, and so on, as we have also mentioned earlier in this article.
Optical Frames VS Fashion Frames
A spectacles frame that goes through the full process from design to retail can cost significantly more than a frame that is a ‘balance stock’ from a large distributor’s million-piece order that is targeted at night market consumers. Some of these balance stock are sold at or even below cost, since the profits have already been made from the initial large sale.
Frames that are properly designed and made for optical shops go through stricter manufacturing processes and have better quality – needless to say that this is because the frames are meant for every day use, are sold at a premium compared to ‘night market’ stock, and need to go through the glazing/edging process of fitting lenses, etc. This is also due to the majority of consumers who want frames that are lightweight, flexible, comfortable, etc.
Getting What The Consumer Wants
The prices can also differ depending on what the shop specialises in. For instance, our consumers come from all age groups, and hence we do have a decent volume of progressive lenses. As we are closer to the city centre, we have the ‘office-crowd’ segment who tend to look for better quality frames such as lightweight titanium frames, with a more modest design. We also have a younger crowd who are used to browsing online before making a purchase. Thus, we are able to offer a lower price on these better quality frames as well as progressive lenses, and stock more designs that cater to these segments.
If one were to open an optical business in Tekong, surely no one would be able to win them on their pricing for black-coloured plastic frames, a.k.a. NS glasses. Wouldn’t be stocking the thin minimalist ‘korean-style’ frames in that case!
There can be various methods of pricing and selling. We work with a standard glasses package with the most-demanded lens options as add-ons, and an ala-carte style for all the other lens options. Some shops choose to price either the frame or lens higher, and the other lower. This can cause a big difference in prices when a consumer compares an individual product between shops (e.g. the frame but not the lens).
In addition, some online stores may fulfil the order through partner shops, while others fulfil the order from their overseas factory. This brings about a few disadvantages for the consumer, which is difficult to put an amount of cost on, making it pointless to compare prices. How much are the disadvantages worth to each individual?
Bigger Players Advantage
Some optical shops and brands, especially bigger players who are able to purchase at large volumes or shops that belong to a group, can shorten the supply chain or even own the supply chain itself. This, unsurprisingly, can reduce costs significantly. Larger volumes can bring about savings in efficiency in not just manufacturing but also logistics. This is a factor that a small optical store would find difficult to compete in.
Bigger players often would have less wastage of stock that eventually does not get sold, as they are able to move stock between outlets (noting that they may also have outlets serving different segments of the market under different brand names). Smaller shops, like us, have to be more prudent when ordering stock, in order to keep prices low for consumers.
Conclusion – What This Means For You, The Consumer
While this article just scrapes the surface about how an optical store functions, it is clear that ultimately, you get what you pay for – which is why you should avoid dirt-cheap pasar malam glasses, unless you're just getting it for a cosplay event.
Optical shops in Singapore will always have a minimum cost that is needed to cover overheads like rental, utilities, manpower, machinery, and so on. Deduct that from the retail prices and you’ll know how many dollars go into manufacturing your glasses, and from there you can estimate the quality.
Also, it should be quite clear that price comparisons may not serve much purpose. Look at the value instead – what are you getting for how much you fork out in terms of money, time, and effort.
Buy happy, don’t lose sleep over it, and enjoy life.