View Slideshow

Big-name investors are pumping capital into a new crop of e-tailers catering to a specific category: eyewear.

Warby Parker — launched by Neil Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, Andy Hunt and Jeff Raider almost two years ago — arguably set the trend in motion. The site, whose name is born from Jack Kerouac characters Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker, boasts a flat rate of $95 for all prescription frames and sunglasses, and there are about 50 styles total (available in two to four colorways each), with an emphasis on vintage- and retro-inspired frames.

The company, which was self-financed for the first 15 months, since its inception in February 2010, now has investors that include Mousse Partners Ltd., managed by Chanel executive vice president Charles Heilbronn, and Silas Chou’s Novel TMT, according to Blumenthal. Heilbronn confirmed that Mousse Partners invested last June, while Chou could not be reached for comment.

Warby Parker, as well as similar sites such as Eyefly, Classic Specs, Lookmatic and French-based Jimmy Fairly, are vying for the top spot in the online eyewear market — virtually an untapped sector until last year — wooing potential consumers with a wide range of ophthalmic frames and sunglasses at accessible prices.

The sweet spot is on-trend opticals for under $100 — offered by Web sites with sleek, modern interfaces that contain features such as virtual and home try-ons, as well as free shipping and returns.

According to Karen Robinovitz, co-founder and chief creative officer of digital marketing agency Digital Brand Architects, which works with clients such as Nine West, B Brian Atwood, Kenneth Cole, Tahari, StyleOwner, Juicy Couture and Kelly Wearstler, consumers are living in an online world where many traditional commercial experiences have been flipped and become more digitally driven. Eyewear is no different.

“The immediacy and instantaneous click-and-buy model takes away from the traditional waiting for frames with prescriptions. And eyewear has become such a trend with the personal style bloggers who turn sunglasses into opticals and wear bold pieces as they would a necklace or handbag. This model makes buying multiple pairs accessible and quick — especially given price points on sites like Eyefly and Warby Parker,” Robinovitz said.

She believes that try-on technology and the ability to share vision imagery on social networks to solicit opinions will benefit wearers and help these e-tailers build strategies around social experiences.
She added, “Obviously, there will always be a need for the traditional model, especially with tricky prescriptions, but this fills a void for those looking for a fun fix that still says chic and cool.”

At least for now, Warby Parker is the largest of the online eyewear retailers.

“Warby Parker was born out of our collective experience in walking into an optical shop and walking out feeling like we got ripped off. Glasses shouldn’t be $500 and cost more than an iPhone,” Blumenthal, co-chief executive officer, told WWD.

The e-tailer has a home try-on program that sends customers five frames of their choosing to try out for five days — with free shipping and returns. “Is there a technological solution?” Blumenthal asked, noting that the brand uses facial recognition software that lets shoppers “virtually” try the frames on. “Yes. And we thought, this is good, but we also felt we would want to [physically] try them on too.”

For Blumenthal, the heart of the company lies in the charitable component that’s been instrumental since the firm’s inception. Similar to the Toms Shoes premise “One for One,” Warby Parker has partnered with nonprofit organizations such as VisionSpring.org, which trains low-income women to start their own businesses selling glasses in their communities, to deliver a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair sold on the site. Blumenthal spent five years running VisionSpring before founding Warby Parker.

“We hired dozens of staff [while at VisionSpring] and it now distributes hundreds of thousands of pairs of glasses a year. This has had a profound impact. A pair of glasses improves someone’s income by 20 percent, making it one of the most effective poverty-alleviation tools on earth, and no one ever talks about it. That’s equivalent to an extra day’s work per week,” Blumenthal said.

During his time at VisionSpring, Blumenthal spent time learning about the eyewear manufacturing process — and discovered a significant disconnect between what it costs to manufacture frames and what they actually sell for.

“We said, ‘Hey, glasses don’t cost that much to produce.’ Then the lightbulbs started going off in all of our heads. How can we possibly disrupt the optical industry and potentially create a company that had a positive impact?”

The brand hit its first-year sales target in just three weeks, selling out of its top 15 styles in four weeks and accumulating a waiting list of about 20,000 people, according to Blumenthal. It’s had double-digit month-on-month growth in 2011, and the company plans to continue on that trajectory next year. And although the company declined to comment on revenue, based on its one-for-one business model, this means the site has sold over 100,000 pairs of glasses. At just under $100 a pop, this translates to nearly $10 million in sales for the almost two-year-old brand.

The e-tailer has also unveiled its second designer collaboration with emerging label Suno November, known for its bold, punchy prints (the first was with Steven Alan in Nov. 2010). The three styles of sunglasses — a contemporary aviator, a Wayfarer-esque style and a round silhouette — each come in three print options, a geometric lanyard, a stained glass and roses. These retail for a bit more than the site’s regular sunglass options, costing $175 a pair.

The newest addition to the group is Lookmatic, which launched in November. It offers prescription frames for $88 (with progressives and bifocals that cost $128) and sunglasses for $58 on its site, Lookmatic.com. It offers a virtual try-on mechanism for a selection of about 45 handmade frames inspired by the Fifties, Sixties and the Eighties, and the site just unveiled a home try-on option Jan. 1.

Start-up capital was raised by a group of investors led by Jeffrey Cole, who is chairman and ceo of Lookmatic. He was chairman and ceo of Cole National from 1983 to 2003, which once owned and operated Pearle Vision and Sears Optical. Currently, Cole is also on the boards of GrandVision and Safilo.

“It’s a brand name that we just like — aside from liking it and building a brand we want, it’s ownable, from an e-commerce and traditional branding [perspective]. It also has that sort of root word — matic — that is catchy,” Lookmatic executive director Joe Cole said. “A lot of people get a lot of different things from it — whether it’s a reference to Instamatic film or being a fanatic about eyewear. There are a lot of things you can take from it. [Customers can create their] own idea of what it means and all of it is very positive.”

Joe Cole contends that the market and the volume of consumers who shop online is enormous, but the number of people who are actually purchasing eyewear online is tiny. He sees huge growth potential in the category. He calls it a “fun hurdle” and plans to grow the brand on the basis of providing online shoppers with “stylish eyewear at an incredible value.”

When asked how Lookmatic sets itself apart from others in the category — Warby Parker in particular — Cole maintains that the two are very different on a brand level. While Cole contends that latter is “very metro focused on a city like New York” and has done a great job in creating “niche” eyewear, he said that Lookmatic tries to reach a broader audience.

Additionally, the site will unveil its designer collaborations series in March — for which it has tapped Loeffler Randall, Waris Loves You, Los Angeles store Ten Over Six, Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation” and actor Jason Schwartzman to create a limited edition pair of sunglasses each available in three colorways.


“It was important to collaborate with a group of talented people who have their own great personal style. Our brand is all about being able to express your individual style, and this group of designers highlights that philosophy. It’s also a bonus to work with people that really enjoy the creative process,” Cole said.


Then there’s Classic Specs, born in October 2010, whose selection of about 35 frames cost $89 for ophthalmic styles and $139 for polarized prescription sunglasses, according to co-founder Andrew Lipovetsky. Classicspecs.com also offers virtual and home try-on, but it’s hoping to differentiate itself from the competition by working with midsize brands to develop their eyewear.


“The way other retailers are focused on building their own brands, we think that’s a fantastic model, but we’re working with licensors,” Lipovestky told WWD. “Think about the brands you wear everyday that don’t make eyewear, but that you’d like to buy eyewear from. A lot of the midsize brands are being ignored because they can’t get the attention of the Safilos and Luxotticas of the world.”

He maintains that while Classicspecs.com has yet to ink a deal, the owners are in discussion with a couple of labels and plan to launch with a brand in 2012. The company projects about $2 million in revenue this year.

But an ongoing battle exists — and not only for market share. Warby Parker and Classic Specs had a spat over Web site design last year, where the former made various allegations that the latter was copying its site. Classic Specs denies these claims, calling them “illegitimate.”

However, there may have been some confusion surrounding the charities that the site was associated with. When it launched, Classic Specs said Global Vision 2020 was the charity it planned to affiliate with, according to Lipovetsky, but when asked to comment, the nonprofit said they had no knowledge of this, nor had it ever heard of Classic Specs at the time (Lipovetsky said: “When we took the business online, we were unaware that we needed formal approval in order to donate a portion of our revenue to charity.”) The e-tailer does now work with New Eyes for the Needy, a New Jersey-based charity to which it donates 6 percent of all sales. Susan Dyckman, executive director of New Eyes for the Needy, confirmed that Classic Specs began its partnership with the nonprofit in February of last year, specifically supporting an eyeglass voucher program that helps people in the U.S. receive glasses they can’t afford.

Lastly, Eyefly, developed through a partnership between Bluefly and eyewear manufacturer A+D Labs, launched in June of this year. It has a shopping experience similar to the above — minus the home try-on program — and prescription frames retail for $99.

“We saw an opportunity to enter the eye market from a fashion standpoint. One of the things I’ve always said is the first thing you see when you look at a person is their face, and why would you wear the same pair of glasses every single day when you change your jewelry, outfit, handbag and accessories based on what you’re wearing and where you’re going,” Bluefly and Eyefly ceo Melissa Payner said. “If you have 100 pairs of shoes, you can now have 100 pairs of glasses.”

Customers are encouraged to upload a photo of themselves and use the e-tailer’s FittingBox technology to gauge how glasses will look on them. The site also hopes users will engage with friends on social networking platforms and share these images to receive input on deciding which frames to get.

For its launch six months ago, Eyefly enlisted street-style photographer Tommy Ton to shoot a series of “style stars” — Mickey Boardman, blogger Susie Bubble among them — each wearing eyewear from the site’s selection of over 40 frames. Payner said that come January they will introduce a new spring collection comprised of nearly 50 new styles.

Payner added that shoppers can buy into the looks seen on Eyefly.com — and that all images are styled using product from Bluefly.com.

“They don’t take the approach from a fashion perspective,” Payner said of similar sites that she contends take a “narrow, focused attitude. We’re about all the different fashion trends, the same as Bluefly does online. We don’t say, ‘This is our look.’ These are the fashion trends that we think are important for the season, but we don’t narrow them. We show all the statements that are the most important from the fashion shows. We dress you head to toe.”

View Slideshow