In just five years, Neil Blumenthal, cofounder and co-chief executive officer of Warby Parker, went from selling glasses in his apartment with three friends to being at the helm of a retail brand that’s valued at $1 billion.
“The whole idea came to us as eyewear consumers ourselves. We didn’t believe that glasses should cost as much as an iPhone. There had to be a better way,” Blumenthal said. “At the time, in 2008, we started seeing more and more categories sold online that we never thought could be sold online, whether it was Blue Nile selling engagement rings or Zappos selling shoes.”
In 2010, Blumenthal designed frames he loved and started selling them directly to the consumer. An issue that came up immediately was how to try them on. If you’re selling online, he reasoned, it made sense to implement a virtual try-on function. But while the team was testing this, they found it might not be the best tool; the technology wasn’t quite there, and it actually started to impede purchases. Conversion decreased when virtual try-on was used — which led Blumenthal and company to scratch that idea.
Next, they came up with a home try-on system, which allowed consumers to select five frames to try on for a period of five days. Blumenthal said this wound up being so successful that the site had to suspend home try-ons after 48 hours because they ran out of inventory. Additionally, warbyparker.com hit its first year’s sales goals in just three weeks, and soon after launch, customers were calling and asking if they could come into the “office” to try on different styles.
Warby Parker’s office at the time was Blumenthal’s apartment, where he invited the first five people who called to come in and test out a physical shopping experience.
“Sure enough people started coming in. There is something about shopping in a physical setting that’s different than shopping online. When we opened up our first office we did it in Union Square on 16th Street; we wanted to be centrally located and have a showroom. It was a retail store in our office,” Blumenthal said.
And that first office was quickly on track to do two million in sales (out of the office, not counting online orders) in the first year.
This gave the company the confidence to start testing different kinds of offline opportunities, from a pop-up shop in a 4,500-square-foot garage to a Warby Parker Class Trip yellow school bus that traveled to over 15 cities across the country.
“Each city we went to two or three intersections, and suddenly we had data on where some of best blocks for us to potentially open up a store [were]. Suddenly, we’re getting retail experience where we felt comfortable opening a store,” Blumenthal said.
Not long after, the brand’s first store opened on Greene Street in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, which he called a great representation of the brand that could never have been conveyed solely by selling online.
“The secret sauce is a convergence between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar,” Blumenthal said.
Currently, Warby Parker has 16 stores in places from Venice, Calif. to the Upper East Side in New York City. Consumers can book eye exams online and when they arrive in the store, can see screens with a schedule that’s designed to look like a train board. There are also photobooths so people can take pictures of themselves in various style glasses (which can also be shared on social media). Warby Parker also created a “Bookmark,” to cater to those who might go into the store but not be ready to make a purchase yet. In these instances, Blumenthal said that the potential customer is sent a photo with a “beautifully formatted e-mail” of product they looked at in the store when they leave. They can then decide to add the items they were looking at to their cart and check out whenever and wherever they are.
He noted that over 80 percent of customers who buy in-store have been to the site first. Now, the team designs the site so potential customers can be informed when they shop in a Warby Parker store.
To date, the company has received more than $200 million in funding to build its fast-growing brand. Blumenthal said Warby Parker isn’t profitable yet.