Cowboy opticians and cheap spectacles (hooray)

I could write a book about my bad experiences with opticians over the past twenty-five years.

For example, take the optician in the posh part of south Manchester in 1982, who fitted me up (pun intended) with my first hard contact lenses. He ordered two left lenses by mistake. Unsurprisingly, after a short period of struggling with a too-strong ‘left’ lens in my right eye, I went back to see him.

He realised his error, but didn’t tell me the truth. Instead, he told me that the vision in my right eye had ‘changed’. This was a lie, but he ordered the correct lens and charged me again. Yes, you read that correctly.

Hard contact lenses were expensive and that extra lens was a huge cost to me as an impoverished student at the time. Also I was concerned that my sight had ‘changed’ so suddenly after starting to wear contact lenses (in fact it had done nothing of the sort).

Hard lenses lasted for ages and, a few years later, after this man had retired, I lost the left contact lens. ‘You have a spare lens don’t you?’ the new optician asked me. ‘You can use that’.

‘No’, I replied, ‘the spare lens I have was made for my right eye and then my vision changed’.

But, still, the optician insisted that it would be suitable for my left eye. I told him I couldn’t understand this, as my left eye had always been weaker than my right.

Then he told me what had happened. I suppose it must have all been there on my record card. I couldn’t believe it. But at least he had the decency to admit it and there was no point getting annoyed with this honest guy. The earlier optician was his father…

Three years ago I had to make eleven visits before an optician got my spectacles and contact lenses right. About five years ago, there was a catalogue of problems with another high-street chain, which lost the screws to my frames and thought that silver screws in gold frames were an acceptable substitute. Finally they broke the frames.

You’ve probably realised by now that I don’t rate opticians too highly. Even my dad, who spent his whole life working in the National Health Service, describes them as ‘snake oil salesmen’ and talks about it not being a ‘proper profession’.

Anyway, up to date… All the drama lately with my right eye made me realise that my left isn’t focusing on the computer screen as well as it should be. Suddenly I’m getting headaches and having problems working. I guess the left eye is having to do more since I had the the PVD in my right. Time to get my eyes tested…

You may think that if you go to your local high street optician, pay £18 for an eye test and get your printed prescription, you then have everything you need to go and buy a pair of spectacles from anywhere you choose. Including, if you wish, from a website. Some of which sell frames and lenses for less than a tenth of the amount that you would pay at a high street optician.

But think again…

During my test, I asked the optician to measure my pupilary distance, as I knew this was needed for spectacles. She grumbled a bit, said this wasn’t usual, but measured the distance between my pupils and it took her about thirty seconds to do it.

However, when I got home, I discovered that this figure hadn’t been included on the prescription. I called and was told that the pupilary distance measurement isn’t part of the NHS eye test and if I wanted it done they would charge me an extra £10, as it is part of the ‘spectacle dispensing’ process. I pointed out that the measurement had already been done at my request, but they wouldn’t give me the figure.

It’s ridiculous that the pupilary distance, a key figure that is necessary to order spectacles, isn’t included on the prescription along with all the other necessary details. And, because the NHS eye test doesn’t specify it, the optician uses that as justification. The whole idea of separating the eye test from the purchase of spectacles was intended to create competition and lower prices.

The entire eye-examination only costs about £18, yet they charge an extra £10 for something that takes thirty seconds to do. In the end I complained to head office about this disproportionate charge and finally they gave me the measurement for free. On its website, GlassesDirect says:

‘Unfortunately, many prescriptions given by high street opticians do not include a PD measurement. This omission is often made intentionally to try to ensure that you will purchase your glasses from that high street optician.’

In fact, the high-street optician I went to admitted this when I went to collect the measurement.

There are several do-it-yourself techniques for measuring your own pupilary distance. Using one of them, I calculated that my distance was 63mm. However, according to the optician, it is actually 65.5mm for distance. The figure is always less for reading spectacles because the eyes converge when focusing close and the spectacle-maker adjusts the distance accordingly.

GlassesDirect can use an average pupillary distance measurement which is ‘based on a survey carried out on 4,000 people’. Their average seems to be 60mm for reading and 63mm for distance.

To be honest it’s probably best to give the high-street optician their final pound of flesh and pay to have the PD measured by them. It’s not as if the distance is going to change in the short-term. So, once you have the figure, you can use it for years.

Now all that remains is to choose the frames…

Do I suit these frames?

Do I suit these frames?

Do I suit these frames?

Update: see the comment from Glasses Direct below and read the latest here.


  • Interesting post, and we have heard of a few examples of high street opticians attempting to charge extortionate prices for measuring PD’s, a procedure that takes minutes to perform. We’re glad it didnt put you off trying our service and it would be good to how you found the glasses. Jamie Murray Wells. Glasses Direct

  • Jim Foley says:

    I went to a Boots Opticians shop in Stafford. I’d broken my prescribed glasses and was using cheap magnifying type glasses that I’d bought for a few pounds. At the end of the test the optician told me there was no need for me to buy prescribed glasses as I was doing perfectly well with the cheap ones. I only need them for reading. The test didn’t cost me a penny as I’m over 60. Perhpas I was lucky.

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