When online eyewear purveyor Warby Parker launched its website in February 2010, the goal was simple: to leverage the power of the Web to offer designer-quality eyewear at less than $100 directly to the masses.
Three years later, Warby Parker has sold an estimated half a million pairs of prescription glasses and non-prescription sunnies, attracted an all-star roster of style-savvy investors (J. Crew Chief Executive Millard "Mickey" Drexler and Kate Spade co-founder Andy Spade among them) and earned industry recognition. It's one of five finalists for the WGSN Global Fashion Awards' best multi-channel retailer honor, to be bestowed in October and will receive the Accessories Council's retail innovation award in November.
It's even managed to become a kind of pop-culture by-word, with the name "Warby Parker" cited in PR pitches and brand profiles about other potentially game-changing e-commerce upstarts. There's online custom clothier Indochino, which bills itself as "the Warby Parker of suits"; jewelry e-tailer Ocappi, which touts itself as "the Warby Parker of high-end engagement rings"; and Cory Vines, which, in a Forbes.com article, was positioned as "the Warby Parker of activewear."
Since the common characteristic of the Warby wannabes appears to be the online-only retail aspect, it might come as a bit of a surprise that the folks who managed to build a blockbuster business selling prescription spectacles via the Internet is spending a good part of its third year focusing on good, old-fashioned bricks and mortar retail. April saw the company open a 2,000-square-foot flagship store on Greene Street in New York City. The following month a Boston store bowed on Newbury Street. And, if all goes according to plan, Warby Parker's first West Coast flagship, a permanent space at the Standard Hotel Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, will open its doors on Aug. 17.
"We believe the future of retail is at the intersection of bricks-and-mortar and e-commerce," says Warby Parker co-founder and co-Chief Executive Neil Blumenthal. "And we see them converging. ... some customers prefer to shop in stores, some prefer to shop online, but deeper than that, most customers like to do both. That's why we're continuing to invest a ton into [the website] but also into traditional retail."
The brand already offers a variety of ways to physically touch and feel the Warby wares, including eight retail showrooms operated in partnership with boutiques across the country; a couple of kiosks inspired by 1960s-era newsstands dubbed "readerys" (located at Standard Hotels in Miami and downtown Los Angeles); and a peripatetic pop-up shop in an old converted yellow school bus that's currently crossing the country.
But the brand's own stores in Boston, L.A. and New York City are part of a bigger branding vision.
"This is really an opportunity for us to showcase the brand and to have our customers experience it live," Blumenthal says. "We can create really special experiences online, but there's nothing quite like walking into a physical space, a world we've created. ... To some extent these stores can be considered a form of marketing and customer acquisition."
The Greene Street store has a wood-paneled, retro-library feel (a nod, says Blumenthal, to the literary inspirations of the company, Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker — characters plucked from the writings of Jack Kerouac and discovered during a trip to the New York Public Library). The space at the Standard will be different. It'll be much smaller for starters, roughly 500 square feet.
"We want all of our stores to reflect the neighborhoods and the communities we're joining," Blumenthal says, "so this one will look a little different [from the Greene Street store]. There's going to be some powder-coated metal, and we're working with this amazing artist named Geoff McFetridge to do a small installation. He's a friend of the brand and has done a lot of work with the Standard."
The store will be stocked with the full Warby Parker optical and sunwear collections. Non-prescription eyewear will be available for immediate takeaway, orders for prescription eyewear and sunwear can be placed and picked up there (or shipped) and the staff will include an on-site optician to adjust glasses, although there won't be an optometrist to perform eye exams.
Although the privately held company doesn't divulge specific revenue figures, Blumenthal did note that the company had recently given away its half-millionth pair of eyeglasses. Assuming it has stayed true to the pledge to donate a pair for every pair sold, that would mean the company has sold approximately 500,000 pairs of spectacles and sunglasses (and the occasional monocle) since launching. At $95 a pair (prescription sunglasses are slightly more expensive, the monocles sell for about half) that would put retail sales somewhere in the neighborhood of $47.5 million over the last 41 months.
What about the proliferation of Parker poseurs?
"I don't think three years ago we could have imagined Warby Parker being part of the cultural zeitgeist," says Blumenthal. "So, yes, it is incredibly flattering."
But he and David Gilboa, another of the company's four co-founders, are quick to point out that most of the comparisons miss a key element.
"They all tend to focus on the business model and technology aspects," says Blumenthal. "They aren't recognizing that the secret sauce of Warby Parker is its lifestyle [branding], this point of view that we have that is represented in everything we do from the creative [side of things] to the way our team responds to customer emails, to our class trip [tour bus] to the experience in the stores — you name it."
That, Gilboa adds, is a key part of the Warby Parker success story.
"We recognized early on that we weren't developing any kind of new technology," he says. "We weren't developing any kind of intellectual property, and every component of what we were doing could be replicated individually. So what was going to be defensible — what was going to mean the failure or success of this company — was if we could build this lifestyle brand people wanted to be associated with, something more than a website where people could buy a pair of glasses, a powerful brand that people wanted to showcase, to share and to talk about."
Davia Temin, a New York City-based marketing and branding consultant, says what other brands are trying to do by invoking the Warby Parker name is co-opt "true, authentic innovation."
"What Warby Parker has really done," Temin says, "is re-invent the relationship between the customer and the store in the e-commerce age. The problem with saying you're 'the Warby Parker of X' is that you're not really re-inventing anything — you're just trying to ape somebody else who is innovative."
As for the real Warby Parker, Blumenthal and Gilboa say that as the brand grows and evolves from its Web-only origins, they
are committed to making sure there's more "secret sauce" in the pipeline. They use phrases like "holistic customer experiences" and "brand DNA," but it's clear they also mean continuing to find a way to keep putting a human face behind the eyeglasses they sell.
Case in point? When the West Coast flagship opens at the Standard in the middle of next month, it will include a program called "Artist in Residence," in which the brand and the hotel will host five up-and-coming musicians (Nikki Lane, Sophie Auster, Cillie Barnes, Goldspot's Sid Khosla and Teddy Thompson) for four days each. Each artist will create two songs inspired by their surroundings. The recordings will be compiled and sold at Warby Parker locations, with royalties going to the artists.
Which, in a way, might just make Warby Parker the Warby Parker of the recording industry.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun