Why buying your varifocals online can leave you seeing red: Our test proves those cheap deals aren't always as good as they look



02:42 GMT, 2 October 2012

Anyone who wears glasses knows they don’t tend to come cheap — the cost of frames, lenses, lens coatings and cases can mount up to hundreds of pounds.

Supermarkets and online retailers offering frames for as little as £3.95 are increasingly tempting and the UK online market is already worth £40 million.

But as a recent Which report found, some online ‘bargains’ were not only a waste of money, but when it comes to varifocals can be ‘potentially very dangerous’.

To position varifocals accurately, an optician will measure the interpupillary distance (IPD), the distance between the two pupils

To position varifocals accurately, an optician will measure the interpupillary distance (IPD), the distance between the two pupils

Varifocals are widely prescribed for
those who have separate prescriptions for different distances, for
example watching TV and reading.

two prescriptions are combined in one lens: when you look straight
ahead, you can see things in the distance, then to read, you lower your
gaze (as you would normally) to use the other prescription.

position varifocals accurately, an optician will measure the
interpupillary distance (IPD), the distance between the two pupils.

And because two lenses have to be blended into one, making varifocals is a more complex and expensive process.

Which report found some online suppliers just estimated the IPD, which
means the glasses could be unsafe when driving and using stairs.

Others even mismatched the lenses.

But can you ever buy decent varifocals without visiting an optician

To find out we asked Anita Syvret, 59, a company director from Cheltenham, to buy varifocals online.

She has worn spectacles for more than four decades, and varifocals for the past ten years. She spent £600 on the two pairs she uses now.

To buy online you need to measure your current spectacles for the arm length, bridge width, lens width, frame height and total width.

While your optician will give you your prescription, some are reluctant to hand over another vital measurement, your IPD; online stores may presume you’re the average — 63mm.

For an expert assessment, we passed Anita’s online glasses to Dr Sneh Khemka, medical director of Bupa International and an expert in eye medicine and surgery.

The results were surprisingly mixed…

Frames: At First Sight by Nicole Miller, £78.94 (£20.65 of this is the varifocal lens supplement). www.goggles4u.co.uk

Frames: At First Sight by Nicole Miller, £78.94 (£20.65 of this is the varifocal lens supplement). www.goggles4u.co.uk

Anita says: It starts so well. The website allows me to view just the lenses that are suitable for varifocals — 250 to choose from out of 5,000 — which speeds up the process. And some frames are as cheap as £3.54, with lenses only £20.65. My joy is short-lived.

When they arrive, 19 days later from California, the lenses are fine, but the frames are far too wide and the arms are also too long, so they fall off my face. Customer service tells me by email it’s too late to complain.

The glasses are made to order, so once they arrive, that’s it. But they have free frames on offer and all I’d have to do is order lenses at £20.65. No thanks.

Expert view: All spectacles should have closely fitting arms that hold snugly around the back of the ear — otherwise the glasses will slip off, and the muscles around the nose and forehead will cramp as you try to keep them on, causing tension and wrinkles.

If you don’t have properly fitting glasses, your vision can be blurry, but apart from the fitting these frames are actually one of the better pairs we test.

However, the right lens is too weak for distance and the reading element is too strong — this can lead to eye strain, dizziness or headaches and even make your sight worse (if you have to strain your eye muscles too much you can cause a permanent prescription change).

Rating: Poor lenses let these glasses down; the frames are good quality but need adjusting.


A spokesman for Goggles4u says: ‘Our customers are our greatest priority. Please let us know how Anita would like to resolve the issue.’

Frames: Demoiselle Brown/ Blue, £131.95 (£95 is varifocal lens supplement) www.glassesdirect.co.uk

Frames: Demoiselle Brown/ Blue, £131.95 (£95 is varifocal lens supplement). www.glassesdirect.co.uk

Anita says: I am offered a free seven-day trial with four frames so I can decide which fit best. They trust me to send them back and they pay the postage. If none is right, I can keep ordering free seven-day trials, four at a time.

The frames start at £25 but there’s a £95 supplement for varifocals. The site reminds you their consultants are there to help at any time, with a phone number in Wiltshire — how reassuring.

The next day I get a polite email from the dispensing optician saying he wants to discuss my order. When I call, they ask lots of questions: any glaucoma in the family, name of optician, etc and they check the prescription.

When the specs arrive they are a perfect fit with perfect vision.

Expert view: These are a good pair, solidly made with a nice double hinge — making them more flexible and less likely to snap.

Like all the frames we test, these are remarkably small for varifocals. Most opticians prefer a wider diameter for the range of vision you need.

The lenses sit well inside the frames. They’re not particularly thin but I am quite impressed with these. Anita’s IPD is 61 and these are ever so slightly off at 62, but she hasn’t complained about her vision so it must be OK.

Rating: A good pair of glasses, although I would have recommended a slightly wider frame.


Frames: 1172 The SS Collection (Black Green), £129 (£90 is the varifocal lens supplement) www.selectspecs.com

Frames: 1172 The SS Collection (Black Green), £129 (£90 is the varifocal lens supplement). www.selectspecs.com

Anita says: What a disaster. Glasses from £6, it says.

Much correspondence and £129 later, I have a useless pair of glasses through which I can see nothing. They say most orders arrive in seven to ten days — these took 49 days. The frames are a perfect fit but I can’t see a thing.

A series of curt emails ensues from someone called ‘support’ who refuses a refund but offers me a discount on another pair for £104. So what went wrong

All I can think is that when they sent confirmation of my prescription there were no minus nor plus signs, so I had no way of knowing that the prescription was wrong.

Expert view: Truly terrible glasses in every sense. They look dreadful and the whole frame is tilted to the left-hand side. The lenses have grains of dirt in them.

You can tell the second you put them on that the prescription is wrong — the reading/close-up element has been put through almost the whole lens rather than just the bottom, so everything is magnified. As wrong as you could get.

Rating: The best place for these specs is the bin.


Selectspecs did not respond to our requests for a comment.

Frames: DS Collection Glasses U12 (bronze), £77.75 (£45 is the varifocal lens supplement). www.directsight.co.uk

Frames: DS Collection Glasses U12 (bronze), £77.75 (£45 is the varifocal lens supplement). www.directsight.co.uk

Anita says: This company offers a free trial of four pairs at home and a money-back guarantee within 30 days if I’m not satisfied. Throughout the ordering process I’m reminded help is just a phone call away — the phone number in Buckinghamshire is prominently displayed.

There are hundreds of frames to choose from, but unfortunately I can’t choose by size, only by style, so finding one where the main measurements fit my face is time consuming (a problem with most online varifocal shopping).

But, at £77, what a bargain! The glasses arrive 16 days later. The company emails me when they’ve been posted to let me know they’ll be there the next day. They are a perfect fit and give great vision.

Expert view: These basic frames are a much lower quality than some of the others — the hinges aren’t flexible — but the frames are adequate.

Examining them closely, they are already slightly off kilter, which means the specs won’t sit on the face exactly as they should. The lenses give the same excellent vision as the Glasses Direct ones, but at around half the price.

Rating: If I had only £80 to spend I would pick these instead of better but more expensive frames from Glasses Direct.


Frames: Givenchy 148, £202.66 (£65 is the varifocal lens supplement). www.specsuperstore.com

Frames: Givenchy 148, £202.66 (£65 is the varifocal lens supplement). www.specsuperstore.com

Anita says: Prices start from £9.95. The company is based in Wales and advertises a phone number. Selecting frames by varifocals brings up 2,561 to choose from. It’s a laborious job.

Two days later I get an email, apologising my chosen frames aren’t available. They also want to check my prescription. When I call, the assistant couldn’t be more polite and knowledgable.

Days later an email says the specs will arrive the next day at 11.23am — which they did, plus a £40 online wine shop voucher.

The glasses are a perfect fit. They don’t suit me, which is my fault, though I couldn’t try them on, but they do the job.

Expert view: The frames are no better than the Goggles4U ones, but they’re the nicest looking and have good quality nose pads. But the back of the ears and the nose pads need adjusting.

The positioning of the nose pads is vital, ensuring the centre of the lens sits where it should be. You can see straightaway it’s a good quality lens — it’s not as thick as some of the others. The lenses are spot-on for distance.

Rating: A good quality pair of glasses, but you pay for the name.


A final word of advice from Dr Khemka: ‘If you must buy online, I’d buy a decent distance pair and a cheaper pair of reading glasses.’

WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR WITH ONLINE SPECSLook for websites that send you a selection of frames to try at home.Be wary of sites that do not provide a phone number.Check the returns policy.Badger your optician for your interpupillary distance (IPD) measurement.Check the supplement for varifocals (prices vary hugely).Be prepared to undertake a time-consuming exercise.