Are opticians taking us for a ride?

    14 October 2020

    It started one night in the mid 90s. A near miss on my motorbike convinced me my eyesight wasn’t what I thought it was. What unfolded over the next few years has given me a disturbing insight in to the murky art of optometry.

    Opticians occupy a position not unlike doctors: they can talk utter gobbledegook and I’ll nod along without understanding a word. Cylinders, stigmatisms and varifocals – much of what I heard at the opticians seemed designed to obfuscate rather than illuminate. I was pleased, however, to discover my eyesight wasn’t that bad and, after a short period of adjustment, got used to the prescription I’d been given.

    The expense of having to get a spare pair plus some sunglasses then started to dawn. Why is it that, with production costs as low as £7, most of us end up paying twenty or thirty times that price for our specs? Opticians have essentially made an art out of convincing us that our physical ailment is the perfect opportunity for a fashion statement.

    But my suspicions didn’t stop there. After two years of wearing glasses, I received a reminder that whilst not mandated it was good practice to get another eye test. I understood the logic of having my eyes checked regularly so I duly went along.

    The acid test for my eyesight – riding my bike at night in the rain – was still fine and clear as a bell so I was surprised when I was informed that I needed a new prescription. On the appointed day and with great ceremony, my newly prescribed glasses were plonked on my nose and I walked out. There was much wiping and cleaning of lenses and oohing and aahing at my thinner lenses with anti-glare and hardening – indeed, I would have expected nothing less after the amount I paid.

    Thirty minutes later I was struck down with a blinding headache and had difficulty focusing. I returned to the optician and was told the new prescription would take some adjusting to – which worried me, surely the goal is the opposite.

    As I rode my bike with the old prescription later that night I became aware that things were still pin sharp and my headache went. And that’s when I smelt a ruse. The next day, I demanded the old prescription was put back and given they couldn’t do otherwise by law they obliged, despite some heated discourse.

    Ever since then I’ve received dozens of reminders for eye tests.  I don’t wear my glasses unless driving and I still have the same pin sharp focus from exactly the same prescription I had twenty five years ago.

    I often need a new pair of glasses when my old pair gets lost or breaks and every time I have to go through the same rigmarole – I’m asked for a recent prescription and pilloried when told I’m still using one that’s 25 year’s old. Most opticians refuse to fulfil my order until I’ve had another test. On occasion, I’ve even resorted to buying glasses abroad.

    7.6 million pairs of glasses were sold in the UK in 2019 alone and the glasses industry is worth an eye-watering £74 billion. Competition hasn’t driven down prices; in fact, the industry is dominated by three major players: SpecSavers, Boots and Vision Express whose market share means they can more or less align their prices.

    Call me cynical but the entire opticians sector would be considerably worse off if a healthy proportion of people who wear glasses were informed that with careful management they could potentially keep the same prescription and glasses for twenty years or more. Sitting here now and staring out of the window with my original pair of glasses I can still see paragliders jumping off a hill several miles away.

    It would seem from conversations with friends that this is a common experience. The process of getting your eyes checked for disease or injury shouldn’t mean you have to run the gauntlet of what seems to be a significant minority of unscrupulous salesmen. Time for someone to step in and protect the vulnerable and force opticians to give proper advice, not just the one that makes them most money.