Where's the Best Place to Buy
With so many choices, how can you decide where to buy contact lenses?
There's no single "best" place to buy. Finding the right source for your contact lenses will require some research but the information in this article will help you save time. Here's where to start:
First, ignore your preconceived ideas about which source is cheaper or better, and be prepared to evaluate a variety of offline and online sources.
Second, focus on value, not just price. With any type of purchase, most people who are "looking for the best price" really are looking for the best overall value. This is especially important when purchasing contact lenses, where a combination of products and professional services is involved.
Overall value is affected by these factors (in no particular order):
Check shipping and handling rates before ordering, whether you purchase online, at an optical store or from your eye care practitioner. Sometimes the charges are significant; sometimes there's no charge at all.
- Availability. The best price won't mean much if the product is out of stock, and you need it now.
- Customer service. If you encounter rudeness or unacceptable delays, switch to a place that appreciates your business.
- Convenience. Consider the value of your time, plus the price of gas.
- Bundled products and services. Sometimes you can find some nice deals when you purchase replacement contact lenses at the time of your routine eye exam.
- Price. Costs can vary, especially if you buy in larger volumes.
If you are a first-time wearer, bear in mind that contact lenses can be purchased from a variety of sources, but only after you've been evaluated and fitted by an eye care practitioner (ECP). If you already wear lenses, you'll need a copy of your contact lens prescription from your ECP.
(Also, you should know that if your prescription is special such as if you have keratoconus or high amounts of irregular astigmatism you will likely require custom-made lenses that only your eye care practitioner can order for you.)
Next, follow these steps when choosing where to buy contact lenses.
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Step One: Check Your Insurance
Do you have a health insurance plan that includes vision coverage? Check to see what benefits are provided for contact lenses. Typically you'll find one of two scenarios:
- You get a simple percentage discount (for example, 15 percent off) at participating brick-and-mortar retailers and ECPs.
- You get an annual allowance for the cost of your contacts and your contact lens exam.
The prices from your insurance plan's seller may or may not be better than what you can find elsewhere. Consider this as one option as you shop around for where to buy contact lenses.
Step Two: Evaluate Sources
Before comparing specific prices, consider the positives and negatives of different types of contact lens sellers:
Your eye doctor. Pricing of contact lenses from ECPs varies widely. Many people assume that lenses from an optometrist or ophthalmologist will be more expensive than contacts from other sources. But many eye doctors offer contacts at very competitive prices, especially if you purchase a year's supply of lenses at one time.
Other advantages of buying contact lenses from your eye doctor include:
If you purchase contact lenses that arrive damaged, does your source have a good return policy? Check before you decide where to buy!
- You know immediately if the lenses are in stock.
- There are no handling or shipping charges (if you pick the lenses up).
- Many eye doctors have websites where you can order your lenses online at any time. Online orders can be picked up in person or mailed to you, and shipping often is free if you order multiple boxes of lenses.
- Immediate service. In an emergency, your eye doctor often can supply your lenses immediately, with no waiting or fees for expedited shipping.
- Free lens cases and solutions. Many eye doctors offer free lens storage cases and travel-size contact lens care products for patients who purchase lenses from them.
- Easy exchanges. If your new contacts don't feel right or arrive torn or damaged, you can exchange them immediately.
Also, your eye doctor and his or her staff can answer any contact lens-related questions you might have when you pick up your lenses, and they can advise you when it's time for your next eye exam to renew your contact lens prescription.
Optical chains. Stores like LensCrafters and Pearle Vision generally have optometrists either on-premises or in adjacent affiliated locations. Such outlets offer the advantage of being able to provide eye exams and contact lens fittings, as well as sell you a supply of lenses.
If you have a common prescription, already have a valid Rx and need more contact lenses immediately, such a location may be a good option because they may be able to sell you lenses with no waiting if they have your brand, size and lens power in stock. These sellers also benefit from volume buying and generally offer competitive prices. Some people also appreciate the "trust factor" of an in-person transaction, as opposed to purchasing contact lenses online. And these locations generally are open evenings and weekends.
Mass merchandisers. Stores like Sears and Target often have optical departments that offer the same advantages of optical chains in fact, many of the optical departments in these stores are owned or leased by major optical chains. Costco, which runs its own optical department, and Walmart, which has a mix of company-owned and leased optical departments, offer these same advantages, too.
Online retailers. Buying anything on the Internet involves some risk, and contact lenses are no exception. That doesn't mean it's a bad idea you just have to know the advantages and pitfalls of buying contact lenses online.
Internet sites let you order 24/7 and make it easy to compare prices. A disadvantage is that if you need lenses today, you won't get them; and if you need them tomorrow, be prepared for extra shipping charges.
Step Three: Compare Prices
To get the best price on contact lenses, you have to comparison shop. This can be complicated.
Don't assume you'll find a significantly better price on the Internet than you will at an optical chain store or from an independent eye care practitioner. Also, don't assume that any seller who offers one particular lens for less will be cheaper for all lens brands and types.
And remember that pricing can change often, particularly on the Internet.
Here's what to do:
- Ask about replacement lens prices at your eye doctor's office when you have your examination, or during a follow-up visit when you obtain your contact lens prescription.
- Call or visit several optical stores for price quotes. If you belong to a warehouse club like Costco, be sure to include them.
- Check prices on the Internet.
- For each of the above steps, be sure to ask if any rebates are available.
Our chart gives sample prices for popular brands of contact lenses from a number of sellers. Please note that pricing for contact lenses can change frequently, and limited-time rebates may reduce lens prices significantly.
Also note that when we called stores in an earlier survey, we were given different prices and/or rebate information by different store locations of the same retailer. We don't know if prices and rebates varied by location or if some store employees were misinformed. Either way, it pays to ask questions and double-check the information when you call.
And you may want to ask about price-matching. For example, one store we called offered to match Costco's price as long as you could prove you had a Costco card. Also, you might consider asking outlets if they will match advertised prices or specials from a competitor.
Step Four: Factor in Rebates
When purchasing contact lenses, be aware that several types of rebates may be available:
- Rebates from the seller
- Rebates from the manufacturer
- Rebates for first-time contact lens wearers
- Rebates for individuals who buy lenses and get an eye exam
Usually, you can take advantage of only one rebate, because the required proof of purchase (for example, a box flap with bar code) can be sent to only one entity.
Also, you may have to order larger quantities (often a year's supply) to qualify for rebates. Be sure to factor in the rebates offered by each vendor to make sure you are getting the best price for your lenses.
Even though the "per box" price may be higher from a given source, when you factor in rebates, this supplier may offer the best value.
Brand-Switching and "Private Label" Contact Lenses
By law, contact lens retailers must sell you the exact lens you have been prescribed with no switching of brands or lens specifications.
But there is one exception: Some lens manufacturers sell a particular lens under several brand names. For example, they may create private-label brands for large eye care practices or optical chains. If your prescription calls for a private-label lens, it's legal to buy that same lens packaged with its alternate brand name. Some mail-order sellers offer guides to help determine the national brand name of a private-label lens.
The Bottom Line on Where to Buy Contact Lenses
To get the most value from your purchase, you'll need to think about what best meets your needs, and do some price-comparison shopping.
No matter where you buy your lenses, be sure to have your eyes checked on a regular basis. With smart shopping and proper eye care, your contact lens-wearing experience can be both economical and healthful.
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[Page updated June 2016]