Monopolizing the eyeglasses market

By Jeff Linville -

In a few weeks, I will turn 45.

I am apathetic about that. But what I have noticed is that many of my friends and relatives my age are starting to join me in one regard.

They can’t see.

This isn’t a new development for me. My vision went wonky at age 11, then got noticeably worse in my mid-20s. I have been wearing glasses for 34 years, and really thick glasses for 20 years.

And now my friends are catching up, and I love it.

They complain about not being able to see the price tag or read their mail. Oh boo hoo.

I made a fool of myself trying to bat in Little League before I found out there was a reason I couldn’t see the ball.

They complain about being able to see up close, but they do just fine at a distance. Well which do you think is more of a bother, say, during a picnic or a day at the beach?

In 1996 my pregnant wife and I were visiting relatives at Virginia Beach. A large group of us went to the beach that day, and I had a bad mishap on a boogie board. Got slammed face first into the sand. Gashes across upper and lower lips, bleeding profusely.

I sat down on a blanket with a snow cone to my mouth. Later, when it was time to go, I put on my glasses and looked around for my cousins. I walked out into shallow water to call them in.

Then a big wave came and knocked me off my feet. My glasses were knocked off, and I couldn’t find them. I recruited my cousins and every little kid in the vicinity, but none of us found the glasses.

I was legally blind 300 miles from home.

So yeah, I’m not gonna show much concern that you have to reach in your purse and pull out reading glasses every once in a while.

Of course, that does bring up an important point.

Between those like me who have needed glasses their whole adult lives, and those like my parents who only needed glasses once they hit 45, almost all Americans need corrective lenses of some sort during their lives.

Glasses or contact lenses are a medical necessity, and there is a giant corporation milking that for all it’s worth.

Two years ago, Forbes magazine wrote a big exposé about how one company has a monopoly on eyewear and is driving prices up to ridiculous levels.

I have been recycling the same frames for a decade, but friends and family have told me about the rising cost of frames no matter which company makes the glasses.

That’s because it probably is the same company, with a different brand name.

Luxottica is an Italian company that either owns or has the licensing rights to many of the boutique frames. There are about 30 brands in total, according to Jane Lehman, Luxottica vice president of corporate communications.

Luxottica owns such luxury brands as Ray-Ban, Oakley, Persol and Vogue. Then the company has licensing rights to make glasses for other luxury brands like Prada, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany, Bulgari and DKNY.

That would be enough on its own. Luxottica would control all the high-end frames, charging $400 to $500 for frames that cost $50 or less to manufacture, while we would have to settle for lesser brands.

Only now Luxottica also owns many retail outlets where glasses are sold like: LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Target Optical and Sunglasses Hut.

Luxottica sold 93 million frames last year alone, according to Lehman. She said that is less than 10 percent of the world market in a “highly competitive and fragmented field.”

Still, 93 million is quite an enormous market share to have in any product, whether it was watches or jewelry, but eyeglasses are a medical necessity.

In some reported cases, Luxottica has strong-armed eye doctors into carrying only its brands. That is basically how Luxottica acquired Oakley. The big fish saw a little fish in its pond and told vendors that they had to ban Oakley from their sales floors or risk the wrath of Luxottica.

Enough doctors and vision centers caved so that Oakley’s stock prices tumbled, then Luxottica swooped in and made the purchase.

Remember when the government broke up the Bell telephone monopoly in 1982? What about the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911?

When one company has a monopoly, consumers suffer. So why hasn’t anything been done about the $500 medical necessity?

By Jeff Linville

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.