Eyes on the Price

I bought eyeglasses and a TV. Guess which cost more

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Illustration by Topos Graphics for TIME

Given that I earn a living as a journalist, you can call me a professional observer. (You have called me a lot worse.) A set of properly working eyeballs attends this occupation, and mine requires eyeglasses for optimal performance. Often I use my eyeballs and eyeglasses to watch television. It so happens that I recently purchased a new pair of glasses and a new flat-screen television on the same day. And you know what I observed? The eyeglasses with bifocal lenses, at about $1,000, were more expensive than the television by a factor of three. When I informed a man I know in consumer electronics about this disparity, he gave me one of those "tell me about it" looks.

There's way more demand for televisions than for eyeglasses, so why do the eyeglasses cost more? It's a tale of two markets. The frames I bought are made by a Danish company, Lindberg, which introduced architecturally designed titanium frames in 1983. Titanium is a light, indestructible, still relatively expensive material that designers love. The lenses are made by a French company, Varilux, which invented progressive bifocal lenses. I bought my glasses at a pricey shop in New York City (where I got superb service). But with glasses, unlike TVs, there are fewer discount alternatives, thanks to yet another European company. Some of the biggest optical chains in the U.S. are controlled by an Italian firm, Luxottica, which owns LensCrafters, Pearle Vision and Sunglass Hut. It also makes frames, including those by Oliver Peoples, Oakley, Persol and Ray-Ban, and has licenses for some 50 designer brands from Chanel to Versace. Because Luxottica manufactures, distributes and sells eyeglasses, it's in a better position to police pricing. (Think Apple.) Rival chains aren't keen for price wars, which is why the average retail price of eyeglasses has held steady while that of TVs has dropped. There's not much discounting in lenses either. Varilux's competition is Carl Zeiss at the high end of the market, but they compete only in who can charge more. My lenses are great but expensive--some $500.

For $650, you can now buy a 50-in. plasma TV that cost more than $4,000 six years ago. Pricing has collapsed because of oversupply: global corporate giants like Samsung, Toshiba, Sharp and Sony need to keep their factories working, so they keep churning out TVs. On the retail side, discounters such as Walmart and Kmart fight it out on price. Specialty chains don't dominate; in fact, most have failed, the latest being Circuit City. And the easier-to-ship flat-screen has aided e-tailers like Abt Electronics. Buying eyeglasses on the Web isn't that easy yet.

So while I could have found cheaper eyeglasses, it's unlikely that I could have found a pair priced lower than the cheapest flat-screen TV. Eyeglass sellers have done a better job of price maintenance than TV sellers have. At least that's the way I see it.