Warby Parker’s Growing Ambitions

Brick-and-mortar presence grows

Author: Andria Cheng

August 2, 2017

At Warby Parker Readery inside the Brookfield Place mall in downtown Manhattan, you can not only shop for glasses and read books stocked in the 1960s-style-newsstand location, you can also pick up free postcards, featuring sketches such as a bespectacled woman waiting for a train at a nearby subway station by artist Jason Polan.

While those postcards are not adding directly to the company’s sales, the illustrations of local scenes give the store a personal touch and illustrate why Warby Parker, since its 2010 launch, has resonated with many consumers. With such initiatives as a home try-on program, it’s made a name for itself as a retail industry disruptor and a so-called unicorn, reportedly valued at $1.2 billion and counting big-name investors including American Express Ventures, T. Rowe Price and Tiger Global Management.

After building on the promise of cutting out the middleman to sell eyeglass directly to consumers online, mostly at $95 a pair, a price it said is far below the $400 to $500 a traditional designer pair would have cost, Warby Parker also has opened physical stores.

With more than 50 stores currently, this year Warby Parker plans to open 22 stores, said its co-founder and co-CEO, Neil Blumenthal, in an interview in June. Its retail ambition isn’t limited to big urban markets like New York or Los Angeles. New store openings this year included its first forays in states including Kentucky and Alabama.

“We are excited about our brick-and-mortar presence,” Blumenthal said in the interview. “We are not sure what our store count will be. We try to make each environment special to the community, whether it’s through original artwork or through some partnerships.”

And while he concedes that it’s hard to measure the sales impact of stores that are customized for local markets, “we think it’s important for our brand to create authentic relationships with our customers.”

The Omnichannel Experience

Speaking at a retailing conference hosted by the Wharton School in June, he said the idea behind opening its stores isn’t just about “raising ecom awareness.” The stores allow Warby Parker to demonstrate its glasses “are equal if not better quality” than other designer glasses, he said.

The stores complete an omnichannel loop: Warby Parker uses the location of its online consumers to gauge potential opportunities for opening brick-and-mortar stores. (Over 75% of customers who buy at its stores have browsed and done research on the company’s website first, he said.) Similarly, in-store shoppers can become online browsers and buyers: Each Warby Parker store employee is outfitted with an iPad and can email consumers pictures of themselves trying on different glasses in stores so that they can show friends and family and make an online purchase later.

“We are experience-focused and medium agnostic,” Blumenthal said at the conference.

He noted that that the stores offer full-length mirrors so shoppers can see how they look, a simple practice that’s not “rocket science,” but something that other retailers weren’t providing.

Thanks in part to those innovations, Warby Parker is outpacing the retail and eyeglass market. Warby Parker is expected to increase its US sales 20% this year, on top of a 28% growth in 2016, according to market research firm 1010data. In comparison, industry giant Luxottica, maker of Ray-Ban sunglasses and owner of LensCrafters and Pearle Vision, is expected to see US sales decline 3% this year following a 1% gain last year, 1010data projects.

“Customers are looking for unique experiences to engage with retailers/brands,” Michelle Malison, retailing analyst at Euromonitor International, told eMarketer Retail. “Glasses/sunglasses are products that have always required a degree of customization/personalization, but the shopping experience Warby Parker offers is quite unique. The key is to create a personalized experience that offers shoppers an opportunity to emotionally engage with the brand.”

Warby Parker also sits in the sweet spot of a growing retail market. Euromonitor estimates global eyewear retail sales are growing at an average of 4.6% a year to $126.2 billion this year, up from $101 billion in 2012 globally. In the US, the annual average growth rate of 4.4% the past five years will translate to 2017 sales of $36.6 billion, according to Euromonitor.

To be sure, while Warby Parker may be growing much faster, its sales, which Inc. magazine earlier this year estimated at $250 million, are far smaller than those of Luxottica, which also makes licensed Ralph Lauren and other designer eyewear and this year agreed to merge with the lens manufacturing giant Essilor. The combined company would have sales of more than 15 billion euros, or $17.7 billion.

Blumenthal declined to provide any specific financial measures of the company, including whether it’s profitable, or how many customers Warby Parker has, but said in the interview that the company’s sales and traffic continue to grow each year.

In a study of online receipts from a panel of more than 110,000 US online shoppers for eMarketer Retail, Slice Intelligence data found that Warby Parker has generated quarter over quarter sales growth of anywhere between 23% and 37% in the past five quarters through Q1, when the highest rate was noted.

“We think if we continue to deliver great customer experiences at affordable prices. We can continue to scale this company for years to come,” Blumenthal told eMarketer Retail.

Disruption Engine

One way Warby Parker is building the brand is spending a much higher percentage of revenue compared to other retailers in the industry on technology and creating its own in-house tech features, he said. One notable innovation that’s generated headlines: a prescription check app that allows existing customers seeking to renew their prescriptions to do a vision check at home first before a doctor reviews and writes a prescription. While the feature is still free and is only available in some states including New York, Blumenthal said “the response has been great” and he sees the opportunity for the company to charge and expand in most states.

“Traditional retailers generally outsource technology to third parties,” he said. “Because of that they don’t have flexible systems or the ability to iterate and improve their customer experience through technology. We are able to conceive an idea, test it and bring to market within two weeks.”

Warby Parker opened an optical lab about 30 miles from New York City, an attempt to be “closer to being fully integrated.”

“Consumer expectations are changing super rapidly thanks to Amazon,” Blumenthal said. Being vertically integrated allows it to react faster.

“They’ve redefined the space,” said Barbara Khan, a Wharton School marketing professor, in an interview. “They are the disruptors.”

Photo credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo