In the same way that people are increasingly buying their clothes, gadgets and groceries online, more and more people are cutting costs by buying their spectacles online too. But the difference is that they are risking their eyesight in the process.
However as Professor Roger Anderson, an expert in optometry and vision science at the University of Ulster, points out, this isn't the first time that problems have arisen because of the way we buy our eyewear.
"There is a very strong sense of déjà vu about the problems associated with the recent rise of internet spectacle sales," points out Professor Anderson. "In 1984 (long before the existence of the internet) the Thatcher government removed opticians’ monopoly on the supply of spectacles.
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“A large number of unregistered ‘bucket shops’ opened overnight, encouraging the public to bring their prescriptions to be made up more cheaply. The quality and accuracy of what they produced was very poor and, secondly, it was almost impossible for the patient to determine if the problem lay with the dispensing or prescribing.
“We seem to be back in the same situation today, but even worse in that the dispensing isn’t even conducted face-to-face.”
Seeing is believing
There are several reasons why buying glasses online is a risky business.
Firstly, it’s always best to purchase your glasses from the same place that your prescription came from.
“This means that if you don’t get on with the spectacles for any reason, there won’t be any problems deciding where to go for assistance,” points out Professor Christine Dickinson, a qualified optometrist and Life Fellow of the College of Optometrists currently based at Manchester University.
“Otherwise, you won’t know whether it’s the prescription or the spectacles which you are finding it hard to get used to.”
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A good fit
While the hefty discounts offered by online retailers might sound tempting, you could well find yourself forking out for glasses which simply don’t fit. No two heads are the same, and when qualified opticians work out your prescription, they also take other measurements.
Additionally, a good optician will adjust individual parts, such as the ear pads and ear pieces, to ensure a perfect fit – something which isn’t possible when you’ve purchased the glasses online.
It’s all too easy to underestimate the importance of finding glasses that fit. “Spectacles should be thought of as precision pieces of engineering that interact with a human being,” points out Professor Tim Wess, head of the School of Optometry and Vision Sciences at Cardiff University.
“So fit is incredibly important for good eyesight. An optometrist will measure the distance between pupils and also identify where the patient is looking through a test pair of spectacle frames before new frame and lenses are fitted. This is especially important for lens types such as varifocals.”
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The hunt for the perfect pair
Unfortunately, avoiding online eyewear retailers isn’t a guarantee you’ll find the perfect pair of glasses. Always see your optician if you notice optical floaters or suspect your prescription has changed.
“If you can’t read a book at arm’s length then it’s time to visit the optician,” says Professor Tim Wess.
“Some changes in eyesight are so slow and progressive that we don’t appreciate how wearing spectacles can help because we get used to not seeing as well. But sudden changes in vision can sometimes be due to the onset of conditions such as glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy, and that’s why regular eye health checks are essential.”
However, as Professor Anderson pointed out, finding a reputable optician isn’t always easy.
Check that the staff are registered and regulated by the General Optical Council - members of the public can check this on the GOC website.
If you’re searching for an optician in a specific area, request a list of local practitioners through the website.
Once you’ve got your prescription, tell the optician what kind of price you’re looking for and what kind of style of glasses you like, as well as any lifestyle choices, like what sports you play.
But bear in mind that while those Dior-framed glasses may well look considerably more stylish than your previous NHS pair, the price tag will probably be significantly less easy on the eyes.
“Some spectacle frames are very simple in design and construction, so these can be relatively cheap yet perfectly serviceable,” points out Professor Chris Dickinson.
“Some designer frames are expensive because of their designer label rather than because they are of higher quality.
“Remember that when it comes to lenses, more complicated prescriptions and lens designs will certainly be more expensive. But a good practice will always have available a range of frames and lenses to suit all budgets.”
In summary, when it comes to glasses, never underestimate the importance of the right prescription, expert advice and the chance to try before you buy. And remember that in the majority of cases, the seemingly tiny price tag that comes with the pair of glasses you spotted online will most likely turn out to be an optical illusion that’s best avoided.