Online Retail Business of the Week: Warby Parker


Warby Parker

Warby Parker‘s explanation for their creation of thick acetate eyewear is: “We want you to be seen in our glasses.” And just a year after their launch, the start-up is accomplishing that mission.

Warby specializes in vintage-inspired prescription glasses that retail for a flat $95. In an impressive debut, they sold 20,000 pairs of glasses during their initial year in business. The stylish frames’ cost is kept low in part due to the Web-based business model: The New York Times heralded the company as one of the first to successfully shift prescription-eyeglass-shopping to the internet.

Warby Parker’s success also stems from clever customer service. Like customizable jewelry site Gemvara, they keep the Web from scaring off potential buyers, by providing accessible service people along with ample opportunities to make decisions. For instance, the company lets customers choose five frames, and then mails all five to them (to be returned after five days). That way, buyers can try on glasses at home, and the process is completely free — even the shipping. Of course, for those shoppers who don’t want to wait for the sample frames, the site uses facial recognition technology so users can upload a picture of themselves and try frames on virtually.

Don’t have a copy of your vision prescription? No problem — Warby Parker will call your doctor for you. David Gilboa, one of the company’s four founders, told the Times, “We’re asking consumers to change the way they buy eyeglasses, so we want to de-risk it as much as possible.” It sounds like it shouldn’t be groundbreaking, and yet their online brethren — including the now-notorious DecorMyEyes — haven’t figured it out yet. (You may recall that DecorMyEyes relied on SEO tricks and manipulation by providing the worst customer service in the business.)

The company was founded by Gilboa, Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, and Jeffrey Raider after they met at Wharton. (Blumenthal had experience with prescription eyewear after working for the non-profit VisionSpring, which provides eyeglasses in developing countries.) Some of them wear glasses and some of them don’t, but as Gilboa noted in the Times: “After we learned there was no reason that glasses should be this expensive, we said, why don’t we create a different model?”

Besides the Web-based sales plan, Warby Parker also keeps costs down by designing in-house, thereby bucking licensing fees and middleman retail markup. They currently have 24 styles for men and 23 for women. And in keeping with their distinct-looking frames and quirky company name (Warby Parker comes from Zagg Parker and Warby Pepper, characters in Jack Kerouac’s journals), they also offer one monocle.

The monocle is also a good way to keep from discriminating against one-eyed customers.

Lest the quirk dissuade you, the offbeat start-up has a manifest charitable component. Through non-profit organizations like Restoring Vision, Warby Parker distributes glasses (one for every pair it sells) throughout the developing world. So far, they’re up to 30,000 pairs spread out over thirty-six countries.

Up next for the company is a small, simultaneous expansion into the worlds of sunglasses and designer collaborations. Late this spring, they’ll launch three sunglasses models with Suno, a three-year-old fashion label that employs Kenyans and features some of the artisans’ work. As Warby Parker themselves advertise on their site, it’s “a collaboration built on shared values.”


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