Billion-dollar glasses seller Warby Parker bets big on retail, just not ‘mediocre retail’

Even as Warby Parker was getting off the ground seven years ago as an e-commerce startup disrupting the eyewear market, the in-person experience was critical to its success — co-founders and co-CEOs Neil Blumenthal and David Gilboa invited early customers into their apartment to try on glasses.

Their New York City-based company is a highly successful example of a novel approach to selling within a regimented consumer goods sector, with $215 million in venture capital raised and a valuation in excess of $1 billion. But they’ve kept a focus on physical retail and are betting that customers still want to walk into a store and pick up a pair of frames, with 51 brick-and-mortar stores in the United States and Canada and plans to grow to 70 by the end of the year.

Austin figures prominently into the company’s retail plans. Its first location in the Texas capital opened in August on South Congress Avenue and is the largest Warby Parker store in the country at 2,975 square feet. Jon Demone is the store leader. A second Austin store opened in October in the Domain Northside shopping center.

The South Congress store blends Warby Parker’s nationwide clicks-to-bricks sales model with a local vibe, including permanent office space for Austin Bat Cave, a nonprofit teaching kids about creative writing. There are also framed blue bandanas produced by a trio of Austin businesses; design by Studio LAND, dying by Maura Ambrose of Folk Fibers and printing by Bearded Lady.

Three of Warby Parker’s roughly 30 store openings this year are in Texas, but none are slated for Austin — although the company hasn’t ruled out future stores in the city.

Warby Parker locations are built to resemble libraries, with terrazzo flooring, orb chandeliers and books stacked above each glasses display. Literature is a reoccurring theme within the company; the name “Warby Parker” comes from a pair of characters from Jack Kerouac manuscripts.

Ruthie Ben-Zvi, a communications and public relations specialist from Warby Parker headquarters, spoke with Austin Business Journal on a recent tour of the South Congress store about its design and the company’s decision to grow its retail footprint. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Austin Business Journal: With retail hurting nationwide, why expand the brick-and-mortar presence, and why come to Austin?

Ben-Zvi: We opened in markets where we already had people engaged with us online to provide a physical experience, another way to interact with us. A lot of people just walk in off the street. It’s like a brand vehicle, so people who haven’t heard of us when they walk by are curious. The decision to go into retail was a journey, but from the very start of the company it was something we knew would be important.

More and more retail companies are going bankrupt. Why are physical stores important to Warby Parker when it already sells millions of dollars of glasses online?

We don’t think retail is dead or dying. Mediocre retail is dying. Customers have a high standard of what they’re expecting from retailers and brands — from a customer experience standpoint but also from a social mission standpoint. Customers are savvier today then they’ve ever been, which is something we’re very aware of. The kind of retail that you see over the past throughout 90s and mid-2000s is not the kind of retail that provides an incredible customer experience. We also think that the future of retail is really blended, not 100 percent online or 100 percent brick and mortar. We think of our customers as Warby Parker customers, we don’t think of them as retail customers or online customers. We erase that invisible line and just try to provide an experience that serves the customer through every channel, whether they’re trying on glasses in the store and ordering online or browsing the online store to see the selection and then coming into the store to make their purchase.

How can entrepreneurs and startups catch the eye of Warby Parker?

When we open up stores, we do a lot of research to see if we know anyone there already or if we’re big fans of any artists or authors who are there already. We try to be really thoughtful about who might be able to best capture the Warby Parker brand while expressing their own artistic vision. We try to work with people that are having an impact locally.

Source: Austin Business Journal
Will Anderson, Digital Editor

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