smart shopper john ewoldt

We once thought that buying clothes and shoes online would never catch on. Thanks to showrooming and free return shipping, we adapted.

The same argument used to be applied to buying eyeglasses online, but consumers have found a way around many of those objections, too. Sites have given us virtual try-ons, free in-home trial periods of five to 10 frames, and tutorials for measuring and fit.

Ira Mitchell of Eagan has ordered 40 pairs of glasses and sunglasses online since 2007. He says he spent an average of $30 for frames and lenses combined. Most were ordered for research for Mitchell’s blog (www.glassyeyes.com). “I also got addicted to wearing a different pair every day,” he said. “I’ve never had a problem with any of them.”

He eventually got Lasik because he plays a lot of hockey, and now the 45-year-old wears only readers, but he still checks out online sources for friends and family.

What’s changed the most since Mitchell started buying frames online, he said, is the addition of more fashion-forward sites. In the past, many sites, as well as inexpensive local sources such as Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Costco, have stuck to traditional, safe styles.

New sites such as Warbyparker.com, Iristocracy.com, Eyefly.com, Classicspecs.com and Illesteva.com offer more fashionable, albeit more expensive, choices.

Warby Parker, which now also has stores around the country (though not in the Twin Cities), charges $100 to $126 for frames and lenses, including progressives. It also donates a pair of glasses to sources in developing countries for each pair sold.

I wish I’d found Warby Parker before I purchased new glasses earlier this year. The frame I liked was $495 at a local optical shop. Thin plastic, progressive lenses with anti-reflective coating and polished edges for a strong correction ran another $400.

I’ve never considered buying lenses online because of my astigmatism, high correction and bifocals. But I’d buy a frame online in a heartbeat.

According to Dr. Joshua Hou, an ophthalmologist and cornea specialist at the University of Minnesota, online purchasing of eyeglasses is increasing, but it’s not for everyone.

“If you have single vision with no bifocal, no prism, a correction of under 6 diopters and astigmatism of one diopter or less, online ordering is acceptable,” he said. Generally, experts don’t recommend online eyeglasses for children under 18.

If a lens mistake is made, there is no permanent harm done in getting a bad pair of prescription lenses, Hou said. Headaches, blurred vision or eye strain may result, any of which should prompt a person to return to the eye doctor.

As a consumer who wants to shop local but doesn’t want to be a chump, I wrote down the maker, style name and model number from the $495 frame I found locally. Then I searched online. I found the same brand and style on eBay for $130. But the color wasn’t right.

After several calls to online retailers, I found one who would sell the frame to me for $50 less if I ordered immediately. The local store had already told me they don’t match online prices, but it’s always worth asking.

As for the $400 lenses, I cut my cost in half at Costco optical, which is highly recommended by Consumer Reports. Saving more than $200 on lenses alone is a good argument for a $55 Costco membership for a year.

Consumer Reports lists Costco, Sam’s Club, America’s Best and Wal-Mart as good bets for low eyeglass prices but not high-fashion frames.

Consumers buying eyewear online generally save about 46 percent, according to Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook. Most web shoppers said they would purchase glasses online again, according to a Consumer Reports survey.

Here are some other ways to save money:

Check out $39 and $59 designer frame sales locally with more than 12,000 frames. Inver Grove Family Eye Clinic (651-455-1492) will hold one Nov. 14-15 in Inver Grove Heights and one in Southdale in Edina Nov. 21-22. Lens prices are also discounted to $1 less than Costco’s prices. Spectacle Shoppe sells all frames at its State Fair booth in the Grandstand for $59 Aug. 27-Sept 7.

Ask your eye doctor for a copy of your prescription and the pupillary distance number (the distance in millimeters between the centers of the pupils in each eye). That will give you the freedom to purchase glasses anywhere.

Other websites to consider include Zennioptical.com, 39dollarglasses.com and Simplyeyeglasses.com.