Getting a pair of new eyeglasses used to mean going to your optometrist, getting a full eye exam and then choosing a pair of frames from whatever modest assortment was on hand.
Not so anymore. Nowadays you can order prescription lenses and frames online from retailers such as Warby Parker, which was launched in 2010 by two Wharton grads and sends consumers up to five pairs of frame to try on at home; Zenni Optical which offers a 30-day return policy; or Glasses USA, which offers a no-questions-asked return policy.
The competition has pushed brick-and-mortar eyewear stores to find new ways to compete. In Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, that means going upscale. Where the online retailers can offer savings and convenience, stores here are finding that their best answer is to offer style, sophistication, and selection that is as varied - and luxurious - as a box of Godiva Chocolates.
Case in point: the window display at Artistic Eyewear, next to Starbucks, is whimsical and devoid of a single pair of frames. Which is an indication that this is no ordinary eyewear shop.
“We only sell exclusive, boutique lines, handmade in the US and Europe,” said owner Robert Layman, whose family business has branches in Doylestown, West Chester and Israel. “Our eyewear is handmade in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Israel. You will not find it online or in any optician’s office.”
Artistic Eyewear does not do eye exams. They are a fashion forward boutique that focuses strictly on helping customers find the best frames for their face, personality and budget.
Layman admits he was concerned when inexpensive online eyewear first hit the market. “We found that after trying online frames, people come back to us,” he said. “You need to feel, touch, try on a pair of glasses to know if they are right for you.” Even brands like Warby Parker haven’t put a dent in his business, he said. “They make an affordable product but it's geared to a much younger market.”
What else won’t you find online? Artistic Eyewear’s selection of frames specially made for “petites,” customers with small or narrow faces.
Layman points out that it isn’t just that online frames are made in China; the lenses are made there too. As a result, the quality can be uneven. The same goes for customer service. Talking to an 800 number only goes so far when it comes to your vision.
Ultimately, it is personal service that gives retailers like Artistic Eyewear an edge over online options.
“We let customers take home a pair of frames and get responses from family and friends,” said Layman. “Once they buy frames, we offer a two-year warranty on scratches. Other companies offer a one-year warranty during which you can only exchange your glasses one time. Our customers can bring their scratched glasses in as many times as needed during those two years.”
And Jenn Herb, manager of Artistic Eyewear, has thirty-one years of experience in helping customers select frames that fit their face.
“We don’t let anybody leave unhappy,” she said. “Our best advertising is word of mouth, right here on the Hill. Our distinctive frames are worn by area business owners, including: Lisa Howe of Artisans on the Avenue, Voltaire Blain of Style by Blain, Shannon Williams of The Spice Rack and Ann McNally of McNally’s.” Blain admits to owning eight pairs of eyeglasses from Artistic Eyewear, including several pairs for his wife.
At Nostalgic Eye Care in Mt. Airy, they’re not worried about online competition because their customers are coming for the doctor.
When asked if their business is concerned about competition from online eyewear, the young woman behind the counter at Nostalgic Eye Care smiled broadly. “No, she said. “People come to see Dr. Herring.”
A licensed optician with a doctorate in optometry, Herring completed an advanced pediatric care and vision therapy program during his training at Salus University. An adjunct instructor at Salus, Herring also finds time to sponsor the local Mt. Airy baseball and basketball teams.
Clearly, Herring knows a thing or two about design, decor, and marketing. The spacious, light-filled showroom on Germantown Avenue and Westview has a decidedly contemporary feel with white walls, deep plum chairs and cream colored seating. Frames are displayed in glass cases like fine jewels.
In addition to the usual suspects designed by Gucci and Tom Ford, there is a large array of distinctive, trendy eyewear made in Spain, Slovenia and France. Carrying exclusive brands such as Andy Wolf, Cinzia and Laibach & York, priced from $400 to $600, Nostalgic Eyewear doesn’t worry about losing customers to online distributors.
Over at Brown Eyecare, located at 6633 Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy, their customers come to take advantage of a different kind of business model. They offer a Membership program that cuts out the insurance company and makes an investment in the practice. For example, a comprehensive retinol examination that costs $110 is just $50 for members. Frames are priced to fit every budget.
It's a solution that gets rave reviews. “Best optometrist experience I've ever had! Staff was friendly and professional, and they got me an appointment as soon as I walked in the door. More affordable, with cuter styles, than any other eye care shops in the area,” is one such example.
There are advantages to buying online. It can mean skipping a trip to the store, and it can also cost up to 75 percent less. That adds up if you’re prone to doing things like dropping your $600 Prada frames in the garbage disposal.
But there are drawbacks too. When ordering glasses online, you need to measure the space between the center of your pupils. Online retailers provide information on how to measure this distance yourself, but it is a complex procedure and you can get an inaccurate measurement. This can result in your glasses being slightly out of focus or causing eye strain.
And the older you are, the more correction you are likely to require in your glasses. As a result, buyers of online frames are more likely to be under the age of thirty.