Michelle Minnie was once a practicing optometrist and now a brand manager at SDM, a leading optical wholesaler.

Following a holiday season filled with quality time with family, gifts and shopping, I am faced with an interesting question, “How great is online shopping for eyewear pieces really?” I found myself asking this question after several conversations with friends about their habits surrounding online shopping. It is so convenient to shop for gifts, clothing and many other things wearing your PJ’s, and the perception is, that it is quite easy to return unwanted items.

After asking myself the first question, several more became apparent and this topic started to tickle my interest.

Several online stores have opened their virtual doors over the last few years with competitive prices, which at a glance seems like a wonderful idea. Clothing bought from South African online shops can be exchanged for a full refund, often with no further return charge as long as you haven’t spilled your coffee on it. It’s a low risk exercise. These companies are based in this country, with warehousing here, so it’s all rather quick and easy.

The optical industry is a bit more complicated though. Most, if not all, online eyewear stores are international. Working in the distribution sector, we have recently been faced with many questions surrounding various websites, their pricing, and their ability to place prescription lenses in the product, as well as their repair and exchange policies.

So, what are the pros of eyewear buying online?

  • Your purchase may be slightly less expensive, depending on who you buy from, but remember to take note of the shipping costs.
  • There is a wide range to choose from across several brands, which your optometrist may not stock.
  • The return, exchange and shipping policies sound very good.
  • You can shop in the comfort of your own home.

The cons list is far longer:

  • Eyewear remains a touch and feel item – it is really not as simple as finding the size that works for you, until you have actually put the frame on your face, you don’t know what it will look like. When you buy online, you don’t get to try your frame on, so you don’t really know if it will suit you until you receive it. If it doesn’t suit you, from what research shows, it may be a bit more harrowing to return the frame. Especially if you’ve had your prescription lenses fitted.
  • If you do return the frame and the quality check at the online store deems the piece worn or slightly damaged with a small scratch you may not have noticed, or you don’t have the original packaging anymore, they most likely will not exchange it and there is no proof that you did not receive it in that condition.
  • We tried and tested one website and noted that in one instance shipping took two weeks longer than expected. Living in South Africa and having dealt with items going missing in the post, this had us concerned as to whether the frame was going to reach us after we had paid R3000 for it.
  • If the company doesn’t use expedited shipping to your door, which you need to sign for, there is no proof that you received the item. This poses a financial risk.
  • Despite claims of the product being genuine, unlike your optometrist, you don’t have a direct link to the supplier or distributor, which has a direct link to the company who produces the goods. Deals which seem too good to be true, may just be that.
  • The above being said, if you damage your frame or if the frame has a manufacturing fault, it’s a simple call and visit to your optometrist, who will handle the situation for you. If the frame supplier doesn’t have the ability to replace or repair the frame, your optometrist will fight for you and make sure they can find an alternative solution with the supplier. The strength of your relationship with your optometrist may have a very big influence on how they handle your repair or warranty claim. There is so much to be said for personal relationships with real people.
  • If you choose to have lenses cut into your online frame, you need to understand, that there are various laboratories in the world, all producing different qualities of final product. If the lens cost online seems inexpensive, then it is, most likely that you’re not receiving the high quality lens your optometrist will offer. Keep in mind, that there are many variables and intangibles that your optometrist considers before deciding on the right lens for you, based on their professional findings – this is definitely not possible online.
  • If you added the prescription lenses online and find that you have issues with the lenses, there is no optometrist to contact and chat to.
  • If the online company cannot assist with your damaged frame, or is unable to replace the frame despite it being under warranty, the local distributor will only do so at your cost. In this case your optometrist will not be able to fight on your behalf, as the frame would not have a proof of purchase from their practice.

After a lot of research by our company over the last two years, we have noticed that, where a frame is concerned, you may only be saving 10% or perhaps R400 on a piece that will cost you R4000 online, with nothing but a written guarantee and no representative to fight for you if you encounter problems. The price gap of online to retail has diminished greatly over the last two years, where the online saving is not significantly lower today. Online companies also have costs to cover, after all.

In essence, optometrists are well trained professionals, who will give you advice on filling your prescription. They will spend time advising on all the different aspects relating to the fit of your frame, the best lens choice, based on your own particular visual requirements. This is something an online provider cannot do. Most optometrists and sales personnel in stores are well trained and experienced in knowing which frame will suit your face. They will be able to put a frame in your hand that will be perfect cosmetically, as well as for your script and your personality.

Let your local professional fight the good fight for you when you need them and develop a personal relationship with you, that will result in you wearing a product that feels personalised for you. You will also have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve supported a truly South African owned business venture rather than an international online giant.

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