In August of this year, the results of the first ever study to compare spectacles bought online to those purchased from optometry practices was published in leading American journal Optometry and Vision Science. Full details of the study are below, including profiles of some of those who participated in the study. If you would like further details, or would like to speak with one of the participants, please contact our PR Manager, Ann-Marie Gannon. 

The study, commissioned by The College of Optometrists (UK), found that when comparing spectacles bought online and those bought and fitted in optometric practices customers preferred shop bought spectacles.

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A total of 33 participants completed the study and compared 309 pairs of spectacles Participants purchased spectacles from both a random sample of five of the most easily accessed online spectacle retailers and five high street practices of their choice. The participants then wore each pair for at least two hours over a 2-3 day period, and completed a questionnaire on vision, comfort, fit, and how acceptable and safe the spectacles felt. All of the participants and spectacles were assessed at the University of Bradford eye clinic for clarity of vision, ocular muscle balance (testing the function of the eye muscles), and fit and quality of the spectacle frames and lenses.

Case study experiences

We interviewed a number of people who took part in the study to better understand their experiences:

Jan Wilcock

Jan is a 56 year-old woman living in the Bradford area. She works as a business development manager in the Faculty of Health Studies at Bradford University. She took part in the study because she had never bought spectacles online and was curious to see how it worked and if she could get the same spectacles for a lower price. Jan has a complex prescription, she is shortsighted, needs to wear her glasses all of the time and has done so as long as she can remember.When it comes to buying her spectacles, she has no loyalty to any particular shop, but usually does go to one of the big supermarkets when she needs a new pair.

Jan found the study really interesting. When it came to online purchasing, initially she was bowled over; “I thought, wow, this is a bargain. I wanted a similar style to what I usually wear so I knew which size the frames had to be. But, while it seemed cheap initially, the price rose and rose as I added my details and in many cases it ended up being more expensive to buy online. Then when it came to submitting my measurements, there was no guidance. All of the glasses were varifocal, and it became very confusing very quickly. I would never have gone through with my order if I hadn’t been a part of the study.”

Jan found that some of the online spectacles would have been fine: “One pair, I could have coped, my eyes would have gotten used to them, like a new pair of shoes, you need to break them in.” Another pair were “too light, I knew I would have to throw them away” and another pair were “just wrong because they were not measured correctly.”

Her experience in store was different, and she felt the measurement was done correctly. However, she did notice a discrepancy from branch to branch in one major supermarket. In one store, they wouldn’t prescribe a pair of spectacles because they said there wasn’t enough space for the varifocal, however when she went to another branch of the same store they gave her the very same pair, which were fine.

The study will not change Jan’s buying habits, she really values the BOGOF deals at the big supermarkets so will continue to shop there.

Jess Cook

Jess Cook is 28 year-old woman living in Leeds. Jess works in a brand and design agency and has been wearing glasses since she was five. She usually buys her glasses online and has done so for the past seven years. She found the study interesting, but is not going to change her habits as a result.

“It was interesting. I had a brilliant experience at one high street retailer, which was great. In the other shops I didn’t feel that the level of service was good enough to compensate for the fact that you have to spend so much more money than to do online. I do also feel that there is a wider range of spectacles available when you shop online. When I was shopping in store, I felt I was choosing something because I had to rather than something that I really wanted. Having completed the study, I feel confident in my choice to shop online.”

"I was shocked by one experience I had with a large supermarket. When I picked up my spectacles, I felt that the wrong lens was in the wrong eye. When I said it in store, I was assured that this was related to the glasses being new, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I did return the glasses and have the lenses swapped, but that could have put me in danger if I had chosen to throw out my old pair as I picked up my new pair.”

Jill Bell 

Jill is a 55 year-old computer network specialist at the University of Bradford. She wears varifocals for reading and although she always bought her spectacles at a high street practice, she had considered buying online before she took part in the research.

From a vision point of view, Jill was generally happy with all of the spectacles she tried on. She felt that each one was to a high enough standard for her to see clearly. But from a cosmetic standpoint, she favoured buying her spectacles in store like she usually does. She says; “the main thing is that you don’t get to see the glasses when you buy online. As part of the study, I chose one pair of frames that looked similar to ones I had seen in the shops. But when they arrived, they were much thicker than I expected so they were not what I wanted. Some companies do give you the measurements of the frame thickness on their site, but I found that you’d have to do a lot of research into this to make sure they are what you think they are going to be. As part of the research, I did notice that there was a wide variation in price for varifocals which surprised me, but I think I will still buy in store when shopping for spectacles in the future”.

Stephen Robinson

Stephen is a 47 year-old engineering technician living in Mytholmroyd, near Bradford. He is shortsighted and usually buys his glasses in a high street shop. He had never even looked at spectacles online before the study.

His experience in the study was generally positive; “all of the glasses were ok. There was just one pair that was not right, the prescription was out. I bought those spectacles in a high street store. The main problem I experienced with buying specs online was the fit, most needed some tweaking but I didn’t mind this because the price was so much lower. There was only one pair that was really bad in terms of fit.

“In the future, I would probably buy online again, but that would depend on what I wanted. So, for example, if I was buying a designer pair I would like to go into the shop and try them on, something you can’t do when buying online. The cheapest pair I came across online was about £20, but the cheapest in-store was about £50, so if you look at price as a factor, online is cheaper and quite easy. The main problem with buying online is that you’re not sure what they will look like when you try them on, and you’re not sure if they will be a good fit, but the money saved outweighs this”.

The implications

  • If you are buying glasses online it’s very important to ensure that your pupillary distance is measured correctly. Pupillary distance will not be included in a prescription given to you by your optical professional. It is one of the measurements that will be taken by the person dispensing your spectacles as part of the dispensing process. 
  • It is recommended that online purchasing of bifocals and PALs (varifocals) is avoided as they require careful fitting because of the increased risk of falls in these spectacles in frail, elderly patients.
  • Once you have your prescription, you are free to purchase your glasses from any supplier. However, as prescribing and dispensing of spectacles are closely linked it is best to have your spectacles dispensed where you have your eyes examined. It is often more difficult to resolve any problems you may have with your spectacles when prescribing and supply are separated.
  • Remember, wherever you purchase your spectacles, you still need regular eye examinations to make sure that your eyes are healthy.

The findings

The study compared over 300 pairs of spectacles; those bought online and those purchased in retail shops, where they were fitted by practice staff. All were worn by survey participants and then assessed at the eye clinic of the University of Bradford, UK where it was found that participants ranked shop bought spectacles, fitted by practice staff, significantly higher overall than those bought online.


The key College of Optometrists study findings are:

  • Participants preferred shop bought spectacles dispensed by practice staff, ranking them significantly higher overall than those bought online. This was particularly true of more complex prescriptions, such as Progressive Addition Lenses (PALs, also known as varifocals), which are often worn by the elderly.
  • Researchers found a higher rate of spectacles bought online were classed as unacceptable or unsafe due to incorrect measurements of pupillary distances (the distance between the eyes, measured between the centre of the pupils). When ordering online, pupilary distance is usually measured and supplied by the customer and the measurements provided can be inaccurate.
  • 79% of participants said they would purchase their next pair of spectacles from the high street. The remaining 21% indicated they would purchase their next pair online cited convenience, clarity in pricing, significantly lower prices and the lack of pressure to purchase amongst their reasoning.
  • The average cost of online spectacles was significantly lower than the high street spectacles used in this research.
  • 6% of all study spectacles were classified as unsafe. 78% of spectacles perceived as unsafe came from online suppliers. For 50% of these spectacles, the issue was due to the fit of the frame rather than the accuracy of the lens prescription.
  • Significantly more online spectacles (30%) were classed as unacceptable by participants than practice bought and fitted spectacles (10%), largely due to fit and appearance.


Other resources of interest