John-Lennon-meets-Harry-Potter round frames? A little designer number from Chanel or Prada? If you are shopping for new specs, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the choices of styles and brands.

But in actuality, much of this variety is an illusion: The lion’s share of eyeglasses on the market — including those sold under popular designer brand names — come from just a few Italian companies with names you probably won’t recognize: Marcolin, Safilo, Luxottica.

Luxottica not only manufactures millions of pairs of glasses annually, it also markets and sells them via more than 7,000 retail stores it also runs. Though the name “Luxottica” doesn’t show up on their signs, when you head into LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Target’s optical department, Sunglass Hut and many more outlets, you are shopping at a space or store that the behemoth owns or controls.

Plus, when you buy glasses from your favorite designer, they were probably made by one of the big-three manufacturers. Luxottica owns several brands, including Ray-Ban and Persol.

And, no, Michael Kors didn’t have a major part in how your new progressives look; design houses routinely send sketches of new-season styles to optical companies so their in-house staff can riff on, say, Tiffany’s new pearl earrings or Ralph Lauren’s latest runway lineup.

With only a few companies controlling both the manufacture and the distribution of most of the frames sold, it’s tricky to figure out whether you are getting a good deal or not. Luxottica frames can cost from about $300 to several thousand bucks per pair.

The way to assess value is to buy from a store that offers great advice — where you will be told whether more expensive frames warrant their higher price tags. Some companies don’t sell any Luxottica products. For example, Warby Parker offers $95 single-lens glasses in funky, fashionable frames. It began as an internet-only business that would (and still does) send out five free frames for customers to try on before they ordered glasses. The company has since opened more than three dozen brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S. and Canada.

To help you identify retailers that employ staff who can help you pick the right pair at the right price, the nonprofit Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook collected ratings from thousands of local consumers on vision centers. Several stores received “superior” ratings for overall service quality by at least 80 percent of their surveyed customers, while some others received such favorable ratings from fewer than 50 percent. In general, chains and franchise operations were rated lower than independent firms. But there was variation among each type of outlet.

Through special arrangement with the Star Tribune, you can access Checkbook’s ratings of local vision centers for quality and price free of charge until Feb. 1 by using this link: checkbook.org/StarTribune/Vision.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers collected prices for 18 models of eyeglasses (with single-correction lenses) and found that some local outlets charge twice as much as others. For example, for a pair of Ray-Ban RX5286 eyeglasses, prices at surveyed stores ranged from $211 to $448. The best news is you don’t have to pay more to get great advice and service. Checkbook’s shoppers often found low prices at the highest-rated stores.

Checkbook researchers also collected prices for six brands and models of contact lenses and found even larger store-to-store prices and fees. For example, for a one-year supply of Focus “Dailies” daily disposable lenses (plus exam and fitting), prices at local stores ranged from $471 to $1,037. Among local vision centers, Checkbook found that Costco, along with a few independents, offered the cheapest prices for contacts.

You can save a lot by buying from some — but not all — online-only retailers. Checkbook shopped for glasses and contacts at a sample of internet stores. For eyeglasses, prices at almost all of the online retailers it shopped were substantially lower than surveyed local stores — several online stores offered prices that were less than half those offered by local outlets. Online sellers also offered a much wider selection.

An obvious disadvantage of buying eyeglasses online is that, unless you are replacing frames you like with an identical model, you can’t try on various frames to see how they will look on your face. Fortunately, liberal return policies are the norm among online sellers of eyeglasses, so you can return them easily if you are not completely satisfied.

For contacts, Checkbook found that several online contact lens sellers offered prices that were at least 20 percent lower than local stores. The lowest prices were offered by FramesDirect.com and ContactLensKing.com, but even these two options offered higher prices than local price leader Costco.

 

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings of vision centers free of charge until Feb. 1 at checkbook.org/StarTribune/Vision.