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The Vision Thing

If selling glasses online seems like a fool’s errand, then the founders of Warby Parker may just be the most farsighted fools ever

Author Edward Lewine Illustration Harry Campbell

industryHistorically, getting a new pair of eyeglasses has involved a certain ritual, one  in which prospective buyers squint into a mirror the size of a cigarette pack while hand-wringing sales clerks inform them how marvelous each pair looks, and which concludes with an exhaustive search for
the frames they tried on when they first came in—frames that, if memory serves, seemed kind of OK.

Nobody really enjoys this process, but shopping for glasses has long been one of the few areas of retail that absolutely requires the in-person, hands-on element. You try them on, you put them back, you try them on, you put them back—so it is, so has it ever been. Over the past few years, however, upstart online retailer Warby Parker has done a remarkable job of turning this convention on its head.

“They sent me five pairs of glasses to try at home,” enthuses Scott Rylander, a 40-year-old human resources consultant from Austin, Texas, who recently bought three pairs from the firm. “They stayed in contact through friendly emails. It was a pleasant experience before I’d even spent my money.”

The important point here, of course, is that Rylander did spend his money via the Warby Parker site—and so have plenty of other visually challenged people. (A privately held company, Warby Parker doesn’t disclose its earnings, but co-founder Neil Blumenthal says sales have grown at a rate of 100 percent in each of the three years since its launch.)

“We think Warby Parker is building a real business, and we’ve looked at them very seriously,” says Jeff Jordan, a partner specializing in e-commerce at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. “They’ve got some challenges, but I wouldn’t bet against them.”

Founded in 2010 by four suitably bespectacled students at the Wharton business school, Warby Parker has a clear formula. It designs its own frames and orders them direct from factories to cut out the middle­man, which allows it to charge as little as $95 per pair, lenses included. “We don’t charge the three-to-five-times markup,” says Blumenthal, taking an oblique swipe at larger and pricier competitors.

While Warby Parker’s low prices are a selling point, so is the shopping experience it offers. The site is slick and appealingly interactive, allowing you to view samples on highly attractive models or on a photograph of yourself. After receiving your selections in the mail, you get five days to tilt your head at flattering angles in the privacy of your home, after which you make an order and wait for delivery (guaranteed within 10 business days). The options are pure geek chic; the customer service is fast, upbeat and attentive.    

“For eons the glasses-buying process was just so mediocre,” says Erica Moss, 28, a Manhattan-based social media expert. “That’s why Warby Parker is so refreshing. They’re selling a lifestyle and a brand. They’re media savvy. They’re participatory. They jump in and interact with you online, and that’s exciting.” Equally appealing for many customers is the do-gooder angle: For every pair of glasses that Warby Parker sells, it donates a pair to a person in need.

And, again, Warby Parker’s unconventional business model appears to have worked surprisingly well. Blumenthal, 32, says the company started out with 18 employees and sold around 20,000 pairs of eyeglasses in its first year. Today it employs 150 people and, while official sales figures aren’t available, it has donated more than 250,000 pairs of glasses to date.

Investors are certainly taking note. Earlier this year Warby Parker announced it had taken on approximately $41.5 million in financing from the likes of J.Crew CEO Millard Drexler and American Express. According to venture capitalist Jordan, however, the upward trajectory is by no means guaranteed. “Ultimately, there’s nothing they bring to the table except their brand,” he says. “There’s no reason I can’t start ‘Jeffy Parker’ and try to take them on.” Indeed, there are already a half dozen online retailers shaping up as competitors.

For its part, Warby Parker has been experimenting recently with brick-and-mortar stores: namely, a dedicated outlet in New York and a presence in the stores of 10 other retailers. But for Blumenthal, the intangibles—the company’s spirit and attitude—are what set it apart from its rivals. “What keeps me up at night is that we’re now hiring several people a week,” he says. “But we need people who live and breathe our brand. That’s something we need to be super-thoughtful about.”

EDWARD LEVINE estimates that he has spent about three months of his life trying on glasses, and has come to the conclusion that the problem is his face.

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