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Musings - Should you buy cheap glasses online

An online horror story

E-commerce has been on the rise, partly fuelled by the pandemic. Being no stranger to it, some time in March, I bought some products on an online site with about a 3 week delivery estimate. Here we are in June, with delivery still in progress, and yet nothing can be done because "the parcel is not missing, it is being updated with delivery information", with an indefinite wait for it to be delivered.

As long as they update the status - it must have made its way to the moon and back by now - I would not be able to apply for a refund.

It is not the first, and certainly won't be the last horror story with e-commerce.

Learning from experience

These two and a half years has been a challenging time for logistics, and unfortunately this affects businesses as much as consumers. Hence when running our optical shop, we have made the effort to be more resilient, by keeping our own stock of lenses and machinery to be able to deliver glasses quickly, as my parcel makes its way to Jupiter and back.

This means a higher cost - of the machinery, maintenance, skilled labour, storage and wastage, etc.

But the convenience to consumers and reliability of service (i.e. the value to you) is worth much more than the cost, we bet.

Why buying glasses online works in some countries

The main challenge with buying a pair of spectacles online is getting the 'power' right.

In some countries, wearers visit the optometrist for an eye check, and get a prescription ("script"). This script can then be used to buy glasses, either in a brick and mortar store (usually more expensive) or online (usually cheaper).

In Singapore, however, the eye check service is often ancillary to the purchase of the eyeglasses. This one-stop shop method brings about a couple of great benefits for consumers; it saves an additional trip to another service provider, and any issues with the glasses can be quickly and easily resolved.

The problem in Singapore

Since we don't have the get-a-script-then-get-the-glasses norm here in Singapore, glasses ordered online are often done without a proper or valid prescription, and probably with the order entirely fulfilled overseas.

Some providers have begun using online vision testing or the likes. If these were good, why would we bother with a full 6 meter vision-testing distance or having courses for optometry and opticianry. Sometimes "to each his own" and letting consumers have a wide variety of choices is great, but how can a self-service check even be acceptable by modern first-world standards?

For something as individualised as glasses, the answer is clear - best to get it from your trusted optician, whom you can physically see (maybe after getting your vision corrected).

Why and how we go online

Buying online is convenient and easy, most of the time. But another reason that drives consumers online is a bad offline experience - say, buying from an optical shop and finding out later that we've overpaid by a lot for some basic product with an out-of-this-world claim.

Which is why I encourage people to learn more and make informed decisions. Businesses, similarly, should help consumers to make the right choice. This is especially so for brick-and-mortar stores, where information may not be readily available on the ground.

We list our products and prices online, to help our customers browse at their convenience, and to ensure that they are comfortable with what we have to offer even before stepping into our store.

Being a 'good' business can be a premium - not in terms of the amount of money 'chopped' off the customer, but in the reputation and goodwill of the brand, in a long-term way. We are affordable, but we are not the cheapest; and may it stay this way.


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