New York-based Warby Parker has 20/20 vision when it comes to selling their branded eyeglasses, and brand of philanthropy. Touting "eyewear with purpose" the startup disrupted business-as-usual, bringing comparatively low-priced ($95) but high-quality glasses with a 30-day "no questions asked" return policy online, and the choice of five different pairs of glasses for five days to try at home.
And now with $36.8 million of funding, led by General Catalyst Partners (and partner Joel Cutler joins Warby Parker’s board), they’re getting ready to open their first retail store, in the brand's home turf — NYC’s Soho neighborhood, where they've been testing the retail water with pop-up stores.
“We're a fashion brand first so [having a store] helps reinforce what we're trying to tell people about who we are. No other major fashion brand has launched online before. That's new to people. So having bricks and mortar offers some gravitas for the brand. It's a very high foot traffic area in Soho so it will expose the brand to a lot more people,” said co-founder Neil Blumenthal to the Wall Street Journal.
Facial recognition technology lets digital customers upload a photo and virtually try on glasses, as well as enter prescription data including distance between their pupils necessary for the right fit. “We’re asking consumers to change the way they buy eyeglasses, so we want to de-risk it as much as possible,” commented David Gilboa, co-founder with B-school friends Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt and Jeffrey Raider.
Figuring out a production process that relies on Italian acetate for frames (enabling hipster-thick and geek chic specs a la Mad Men), cheaper assembly in China, and lens insertion in New York, “We can bypass the retail channel and sell them for a hundred dollars and still have a very viable business. After we learned there was no reason that glasses should be this expensive, we said, why don’t we create a different model?” added Gilboa.
From the beginning, the heart of that "different model" has included philanthropy, with a TOMS-style "buy a pair, give a pair" platform at the core of its brand promise. And just as TOMS has evolved from selling "one for one" eyeglasses to shoes, Wired hears there's a chance that Warby Parker might expand its brand from glasses to shoes and beyond.
But in the meantime, taking a page from brand inspiration Jack Kerouac, the Warby Parker team is going on the road. Continuing on its theme of bringing glasses to the people, this fall WB is taking a branded school bus across America on a six-month journey with a contest dangling the lure of free glasses for a year.
It's been a rapid rise for the brand. Launched in 2010, WP sold out of 15 styles in four weeks and quickly accumulated a wait list of close to 20,000. Americans spent close to $18 billion on frames and lenses (not including contact lenses) in 2011 according to the Vision Council, with online transactions just 1.6% of that.
Less than two years later, thanks to savvy fund-raising and a sharp retail strategy, it's clear the Warby Parker brand has a vision and a heart to match.
Below, a visual look at how the brand fared in 2011: