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The internet has revolutionized the way we conduct business. But one category that seemingly can’t be brought online is the process of buying glasses. I discuss why it’s so blurry.

Locked Glasses Case

Today’s podcast is a bit of a rant. Quite simply, I want to buy new glasses. The problem is, the process of doing so is one of the few things in life that are NOT made easier by the web. Let me explain.

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I am the ultimate researcher. Give me any task, from finding the best digital camera to the best sushi restaurant in New York and I will give you a rundown of all the things you need to consider. In the past six months I have researched Blu Ray DVD players, pillowtop mattresses, external hard drives, portable thumb drives, ski houses in upstate New York, and traditional Japanese guest houses in Kyoto. Really, I’m a machine. Everyone asks me to do this.

All of this is made easier by the web. I type fast, am a Google god, and can open a new browser tab with a new source of information before you can blink.

But none of this matters when looking for new glasses. The system is broken, and I’m going to give you 7 reasons why.

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1. It’s an important purchase
Hey, maybe I’m over analyzing, maybe I’m vain. But most people are going to see me up to 16 hours a day, every day, for the next few years. People make incredible snap judgments on everything from attractiveness to intelligence to sense of style based on your look, and one of the first things they will see is your face. So the glasses you choose have a big effect on how you look.

2. It’s expensive and non-refundablePirate Shirt
If we were talking a new shirt and the first day you wear it, your buddy says ‘Arrggh… What’s up pirate man?’ you probable realize the frilly sleeves were a bit too much, you suck up the $100 loss and throw it back in the closet. Even a bad haircut is under $50 and grows back in a month.

But with frames costing up to $500 or more, and high index, lightweight, scratch-resistant, anti-reflective lenses running hundreds as well – customized for you and only you – you just can’t save your receipt and go back for a refund if your little brother’s first reaction is ‘Um, were you TRYING to go for the punk rock librarian look?’

3. The buying process sucks and is horribly inefficient
There’s no way around it. For just about everyone, the key to finding the right pair of glasses is putting in the work. Again, maybe it’s me being picky. My eyes are somewhat close together, so any frame even remotely wider than average makes me look like Bono crossed with Elton John.

But the way to narrow things down is speed. Show me that pair, that pair, that pair, and that one. How bout these? No. How bout these? No. How bout these? No. How bout these? Not bad… put those aside. How bout these? No way. How bout these? No. How bout these? Yes. Wait, no. How bout these? Oh, I like those better than the first pair. How bout these? Uh, you look like a moron.

And so it goes.

The way to go is to try on as many pairs as possible and narrow down what looks good, what the current style is, what feels good, and just find something that works.
However, how are most stores arranged? They have row after row of glasses for you to try, but they are locked behind glass cabinets, which can only be opened by store employees who need to go through a set of keys like a prison warden. Then you start the dance. Let me try that pair there. No, to the left. Below the rimless ones. No, the semi-rimless ones. And then you try it, and it’s a no. So you go through the charade again, and by the third time, it’s getting pretty old.

So why keep them all locked up? Why??? It’s not like a gangster is going to break in, and steal 30 pairs at once and go sell them on the black market like they could with CDs or leather jackets.

And it’s not like the average person is going to even steal ONE pair. How would that work? You talk with the person for an hour, settle on the right pair, and then when their back is turned you slip them in your coat and take off? Only to do what… track down another store, bring in your own frames, sit down for a comprehensive eye exam and consultation, and drop $300 on lenses?

Sure, lock up the Prada frames. Of course, lock up the sunglasses. But to me, I would have all my frames accessible and just hire a security guard or buy a surveillance camera that you can see on the way in. Wouldn’t that lead to a better consumer experience, and thus more sales?

4. The salespeople aren’t much help
So they’ve made it so you HAVE to deal with a salesperson, which are usually part timers with no training. Just once I’d like to walk in, ask for a recommendation, and have them say, hmm…. I’ve sold 71 pairs of glasses this month. You’re in good hands. Based on the shape of your face, the color of your eyes, and your sense of style, you should be looking at THIS or THIS. Shouldn’t they get better at their job the longer they are there? Shouldn’t they be able to at least start with a recommendation instead of just randomly handing you frames?

I stopped into the store closest to me on two different Saturdays, and both times the store was completely empty, except for a girl behind the counter and a guy who was clearly her boyfriend sitting there keeping her company. I could not have felt less welcome.

Store Hours

And that’s when they’re open! It amazes me when service oriented stores are open 930 to 530. Do they think we’re taking a vacation day off to come see them? Can’t you stay open late one or two nights? Noooo… you make us all come in on a Saturday at the same time, when of course the crowds are too big for them to show you anything.

And even ones that DO try to help can tick you off. I was looking at frames with one saleswoman, and at one point, I asked her what the current trends were. Obviously I hadn’t shopped for glasses in a few years, and was wondering what was stylish and current.

Most websites now tell you with the crowd is doing… most popular blog posts, most downloaded songs, most emailed articles, and so on. But she responds in an insulting, dismissive tone, saying ‘I don’t follow trends, and I don’t care what others think.’ For the person clearly looking to make a statement and not follow the crowd, that’s probably not a bad response. But for someone asking for a recommendation, she clearly read me incorrectly.

5. You can’t apply the best of the web to the process
• You can’t Amazon the process with ratings and reviews. What looks awesome on one person could look horrible on the next.
• You can’t Netflix it and let people receive 10 pairs it the mail and return the ones they don’t want… you still need to try on too many pairs to make that efficient.
• You can’t buy someone else’s prescription on Craig’s List on the cheap
• You can’t crowdsource it other than dragging your friends or family with you while you try on various styles and they give the thumbs up or thumbs down, but free coffee only goes so far
• You can’t really have a ‘free’ model where you give away frames and just charge for lenses. It doesn’t really scale.
• You can’t sell glasses on Facebook
• You can’t spread glasses virally via online video
• And you can’t find the perfect pair via Twitter!

6. They can’t even do the easy things right with the web!
Have you tried to use your company’s vision plan to pay for all this? If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to track down an optometrist that takes your coverage within a 30 mile radius of your home by using an outdated voice-prompted 800 number. Or hopefully you can figure out how to navigate their website. But if you think that mega insurance companies are up on the latest mapping mashups and recommendation engines, think again.

And it really doesn’t matter, because once you get there with your confusing notes to say you’re supposed to get 50% off frames up to but not more than $200 and then 20% of the difference and then 25% off contacts OR 35% off lenses but not the ones that – and the guy interrupts you to say that they don’t take THAT specific plan that YOU have, and that the only frames eligible are THOSE, as he points to a display case in the back of the office filled with the misfit grandpa frames.

7. It’s nearly impossible for companies to market their frames effectively
I think most people don’t care at all what company makes their frames. Their sole purpose is just to find something they like that fits their style. But there’s definitely a subset that is looking for a logo on the side of the temple that says Prada or Gucci or Dolce Gabanna. I’m not one of those guys.

But it’s useless to market these because every person is different! If Armani advertises a great looking jacket, and you like the style, you grab your size and you’re good to go. But if they try to focus on a specific frame? The target market is incredibly smaller.

What’s more, even if you do interest someone, the glasses are branded with tiny hieroglyphic style numbers on the inside of the frame, which are impossible to read. Of course you can’t read them, that’s why you need glasses!Sarah Palin Glasses

In fact, in my research so far, there’s only one single style that everyone knows, everyone recognizes, that had full color photos and marketing materials behind it, and according to the person behind the counter, the style that everyone wants and can’t get a hold of across the country.

That’s right. The Sarah Palin glasses.

If you’re a researcher like me, then you definitely want to check out Wired’s Gadget Lab. We’ll give you the latest information any way you want it… you can read the Gadget Lab blog, listen to the audio podcast, watch the video podcast, or get an RSS feed.

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