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!
(Soft-smile selfie of me with my Warby Parker glasses)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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Lights, camera, get in on the action! To celebrate the opening of the #warbygreenroom, we're throwing a contest for all of our friends in L.A.: starting tomorrow, share your 15-second green screen videos—which you can create at the new store!—using #warbygreenroom and #contest for a chance to win a pair of sunglasses, along with other store-exclusive treats (including a print designed by @alia_pop)! More details via the link in our bio. 🎥 😎 . . . . . . . . No purchase necessary. 50 U.S./DC, 18+. Submissions accepted 4/21/17 through 4/30/17. Void where prohibited. See Official Rules at blog.warbyparker.com for details.
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.
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.
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.