Warby Parker Making Glasses Cool Again

I’m not blind without my glasses, but I definitely need to wear glasses or contacts if I want to see leaves on trees. Quick refresher: when I was in middle school, glasses were definitely not considered cool. I dreaded going to the eye doctor and thought most glasses looked ugly on my face. And when I did end up going, most of the glasses I liked were upwards of $300-$400. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college when my friend told my about Warby Parker, an online site to purchase fashionable glasses. I finally found a pair of glasses I loved for only $95. I became hooked on the business and started actually enjoying wearing my glasses around!

IMG_3564 (Soft-smile selfie of me with my Warby Parker glasses)

Brief History

Warby Parker was founded in 2010 by four friends, including current co-CEOS Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa, in their apartment in Philadelphia. The pain point they were trying to solve was the expensive cost for eyewear. Why couldn’t fashionable glasses be affordable? This business venture idea originated from Gilboa’s personal experience when he lost his $700 pair of glasses backpacking in Asia before starting graduate school. He actually ended up not purchasing a new pair because they were too expensive, so he went through his first semester of grad school without glasses.

Blind Leading the Blind

Even though Neil and Dave had a great idea, many people, including other entrepreneurs and business professionals doubted their idea. Even the co-founders were still trying to figure out exactly what their mission and business model would be. Their main priority was cost and wanted to remove the middlemen in order to sell glasses directly to consumers for less costs. They aimed to sell each of their glasses for $95, and low and behold, they made it happen.  Starting as an eCommerce website, customers could browse directly online for fashionable glasses that cost what seemed like near-to-nothing compared to before. Called “the Netflix of eyewear,” Warby Parker took off and gained over 20,000 people on their site’s initial waitlist.

warbyparker

Customers selected glasses that they liked on site, and then the company would send their choices in the mail for them to try on at home. Whichever ones they did not like, they would send back in the mail. And today, customers can still partake in their Home-Try On program that allows you to try on 5 glasses free for 5 days. If you end up liking a pair, you can purchase them online and the company will send you a brand new pair. So if you end up not liking any of the choices, then you return them an don’t have to pay a penny!

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Brick and Mortar

Usually companies, especially retail, start out as brick and mortar stores and eventually move to eCommerce. However, with Warby Parker, the opposite occurred. While Warby Parker thought people trying on pairs at home would be enough, they actually discovered that people would rather touch and feel the glasses in a store. To solve this problem, the company started opening brick and mortar stores around the country in 2013, and there’s even one today in the Prudential Center. In fact, I purchased my pair of Warby Parker glasses at the brick and mortar store in my hometown of Dallas.  As of last weekend, they have 50 locations in 22 states, along with the original website.

Some benefits of starting as an eCommerce site before a physical location include the ability to first analyze customer data to see which locations and what size will be best to open, along with information on how to personalize each location. The Warby Parker story signifies how brick and mortar retail might not be dead, which we see today with Amazon working to open stores in the near future.

Innovation

1. Stores

From my personal experience, I would argue that the Warby Parker stores are very innovative. They have a trendy, modern feel, and each store has an optometrist on hand. Employees walk around with iPads for customers to enter information and pay for the glasses, similar to Apple stores.

Sara Essex Bradley

Warby Parker just opened their 50th location in LA, and it’s their most innovative store yet.  Its goal is to create a “social media store experience using visual elements.” The store has a separate green room for people to try on glasses with fun virtual backgrounds similar to a photo booth, including an aquarium, palm trees, and large pizza. There are even green screen glasses for customers to wear. People can create 15 second videos in the green room and then download to their phones to share on social media. Really cool to see a somewhat simple/boring retail category taking on such innovative changes!

2. Face Recognition

Some other innovative technologies involve how customers shop for glasses. Besides the “Home Try-On” program, Warby Parker also has face recognition technology to help customers order online. Customers can take a photo of their face on the website, and it will virtually measure your pupillary distance (PD), which is the distance between your pupils so that each order can be customized for your eyes.

The website also offers a quiz for visitors to take in order to suggest frames they might like best.

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3. Giving Back

Warby Parker was included in Fast Company Magazine’s World’s Most Innovative Companies. At first you might wonder how a glasses company can make the list for the top innovative companies in the world…but Warby Parker does more than sell glasses. It also gives back to the community. With its “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” program, Warby Parker gives part of its sales to nonprofit organizations like VisionSpring that Blumenthal also ran before founding Warby Parker. This organization trains people in developing countries to give basic eye exams and sell affordable glasses to their communities. In fact, the founders stated that people in the U.S. are being misdiagnosed for disabilities when in fact they simply need glasses. They recently launched programs in New York and Baltimore to provide eye exams at schools, but giving them fashionable glasses to try on while doing so.

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Disruption

Warby Parker’s affordable prices are disrupting the eyewear monopoly that exists. Just last month, the top leaders, Italian company Luxottica, which owns popular brands we know like RayBan and Oakley, and the French company Essilor combined to make a $49 billion dollar merger with the new company called EssilorLuxottica. However, Warby Parker has managed to stay competitive and has kept growing. The company expects to open 25 more stores this year and is valued at $1.2 billion. Overall, the company’s story is an inspirational one of how technology can help change an entire industry.

8 comments

  1. Great post Nicole! It seems their fave recognition tool and their use of technology in-store makes them stand out from their competitors! I was at a conference last month where Neil Blumenthal was on a panel discussion. He said that the Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program and their overall commitment to socially responsibility was not only beneficial to their relationship with customers but it was also critical to their ability to attract and retain a millennial workforce. Great post!

  2. Awesome post! I was familiar with the Warby Parker eCommerce model before, but I had no idea they had opened brick and mortar stores around the country. Its interesting to see a shift back to brick and mortar taking place with the likes of Amazon and now Warby Parker. I agree with you that this shift may have something to do with the vast amounts of data that eCommerce platforms can collect to ultimately help brick and mortar store placement while lowering the risk of store failure. It will be interesting to see if more companies take a Warby Parker approach to sales and service as it seems to be a very successful business strategy.

  3. Really informative blog post, Nicole! I haven’t bought a new pair of glasses in at least 6-7 years (mostly because I wear contacts 95% of the time), but would seriously consider buying a new pair from Warby Parker due to the reasonable price point. I remember visits to the optometrist as a kid and being surprised at how expensive glasses were (even when I had a fairly rudimentary concept of “expensive”), so the rise of buying affordable glasses online is certainly a positive development for almost everyone. Just another example of how virtually every industry is at risk of being disrupted by technology these days.

  4. Great post. It’s interesting to read that Warby Parker started out with the mission to make eyeglasses more affordable. I have been wearing glasses since college and my first few pairs were north of $400. I was initially drawn to Warby Parker because of the trendy styles of the frames, and was pleasantly surprised to find out after selecting a pair that I liked that they were so reasonably priced and that the cost of lenses was actually included in the $95 price tag. So for me, I came to them first for fashion and found the low cost to be an added bonus, rather than the other way around. Warby Parker has definitely been a game-changer for eyewear and it will be interesting to see what else they do to remain innovative in the future!

  5. zfarkas17 · ·

    Awesome post! I’ve always found Warby Parker really interesting as a company. As the only person in my family to not need glasses I haven’t had to deal with buying them myself, but all of my siblings bought theirs from Warby Parker. I think the trend of online companies building brick and mortar locations is an interesting thing, I know that they are not the only one to do this. It’ll be interesting to see how they adapt to the changing consumer demands moving forward.

  6. katherinelgold · ·

    Great post! Warby Parker is much more innovative than I would’ve thought, I love how you pointed out that they’re completely reimagining retail. The fact that they donate some of their sales is amazing–this product checks all the boxes for millennial appeal. (Fun, trendy, inexpensive, gives back, cool products).

    I’m curious about how their supply chain works and if they faced challenges with suppliers by going up against Luxxotica. If you find any articles about their supply chain, that would be super fascinating to link!

  7. duffyfallon · ·

    Great post. Warby Parker has definitely been a game changer in the prescription eye wear industry. I think you’re right that not only did they make glasses more affordable and the process less of a hassle – but they also have played a considerable role in making glasses stylish/cool to wear again. I ordered from them I believe my sophomore year because of the convenience Home-Try On program. I’ve been to a couple of the brick and mortar stores and would also agree that the experience feels similar to an Apple store. The social media initiative tied in with their LA location is a genius way to drive free publicity.

  8. I had only seen sponsored ads by Warby Parker on my Facebook timeline and Instagram feed, and never bothered to click on them because based on how the glasses looked, I figured they would be overpriced just as well as any other luxury brands’ eyewear is. I had no idea they even had stores because I’d never seen one, and based on the awesome marketing strategies you wrote about, I really want to try visiting their stores. I wonder if they’re going to encounter more competition from brands that already have or will adopt similar free trial systems. I loved reading this post!

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