Online specs an eye-opener

When a Johannesburg resident was presented with a quote for R4 800 to supply him with new prescription glasses, he turned to the web for a solution. Here he found what he was looking for at just R700, including

The R4 800 quote is from a leading South African company, Spec-Savers. Contacted by the Mail & Guardian for comment, chief executive Bryan Dowley has ordered a pair of glasses from the same website,, to make his own assessment of the quality of the spectacles.

The Johannesburg resident required prescription lenses, but each lens was different.
The frames were not of any major brand and were a simple black plastic design.

After receiving the Spec-Savers quote, he visited, where he bought a similar product for a fraction of the price. With shipping, the order came to $102, less than R700.

“It’s clear from looking on a number of sites that the entire range of glasses, from entry level right up to the most expensive brand names, is significantly cheaper online,” he said. But Dowley insists it is very difficult to draw comparisons unless comparing “apples with apples”.

Large price difference
Spec-Savers’ base lens price is R150 a lens and it offers free frames. Dowley claims that if there was no regard for either the cosmetic appearance and/or the visual experience through the thick base lenses, then the script, which was quoted at R4 800, could have been dispensed for R150 a lens.‘s entry-level glasses start at £6 (R66,50) for single-vision glasses that come with standard prescription lenses and the essential coatings—UV, anti-scratch and anti-reflection—included in the price. No other glasses retailer, it claims, offers such incredible value.

Currently Spec-Saver’s entry-level single-vision spectacle price is R615 and it is inclusive of an eye test, clear single-vision lenses and a free frame. It is a cash offer. Spec-Savers also has automatic replacement cover included in its pricing that covers 80% of the replacement cost in the event of accidental loss or damage. The large price difference when purchasing spectacles online is not unique to the South African market.

Peter Townshend, a resident of the United Kingdom, has twice bought glasses from as it is far cheaper than spectacles bought on the high street in England. He also buys contact lenses online for a “fraction of the cost”.

Townshend says he requires a fairly normal prescription for shortsightedness and a mild astigmatism. “My first pair cost £8 [R88,34], my second pair (rimless) cost £15 [R165,63], including delivery. The cheapest I have found on the High Street was about £45 [R496,89].”

A difference in the pricing model
But Dowley believes that one also needs to contrast retail stores and websites. There is a difference in the pricing model of websites compared with retail outlets.

“Just like any other commodity available on the web, web pricing is generally better than through a retail outlet.” This, he says, is because of dramatically lower overheads as the result of no high rentals, no cost of holding stock and greatly reduced staff overheads.

“For example, the Spec-Savers model strives for rental as 15% of turnover and salaries as 25% of turnover. That’s an immediate 40% differential to websites.”

Then there are other factors such as redundant stock, rates and contributions to mall marketing budgets. director Tony Russell agreed that the majority of the price paid by customers at an optician is for the costly overheads that go with running a retail chain and that it actually costs “very little” to produce the lenses.

A further problem, he said, is that the line between the optician’s service and the lucrative retail opportunity that goes with it have become blurred.

“The value of an optician is now linked to the glasses, not to the eye test, which is the wrong way round.” said that varifocal lenses from high-street opticians can cost up to £500 (about R5 542). “It’s simply not necessary for them to charge what can only be described as extortionate sums.”

Consumers shouldn’t have to pay luxury prices
Russell said consumers should not have to pay luxury prices for a necessity and they don’t have to if they buy online. “You can get what you need while making substantial savings and without cutting corners on quality.” said buying glasses needn’t be a painful process. All you need is a copy of your prescription, which must be less than two years old.

If you have never worn glasses before, you may want to try on a few pairs at an optician to ascertain the correct size for the frames, but if you are renewing your glasses, you can simply check the measurements, which are usually printed on the arm or bridge of your current pair.

“Very few of our customers find that their glasses don’t feel right but if they do, we are happy for them to return them to us for minor adjustment,” said Russell.

The Competition Commission has received complaints in the past regarding networks of optometrists and managed-healthcare arrangements, but has not investigated the specific reasons for significant price differences in eyewear.

“The investigation we have done suggests a significant number of optometrists active around the country,” said the commission’s spokesperson, Oupa Bodibe. “This suggests that structurally at least there should be effective competition. However, there may be localised market power, particularly in less dense and rural areas.”

Bodibe said that, as with many healthcare products and services, there is an asymmetry of information between the provider and the patient, which often puts the patient at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving a fair price.

While waiting for the arrival of his purchase, Dowley stands firm on Spec-Savers’ quality and pricing. “We still think that, in most incidences, our customers would like to touch and feel and get hands-on advice.

“I am confident that our retail pricing is highly competitive compared with independent retail practitioners.”

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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