Warby Parker, the Keroac-inspired, Wharton brainchild of four friends, was born out of a need: one of the founders had left his $400 glasses on a plane and his grad-school budget couldn’t afford to relive a similar mistake. (At least, that’s how the story was told to us by one co-founder Neil Blumenthal.) So the MBA students set out to upset the monopolistic regime of the Luxottica Group by producing well-crafted eyewear for $95.
For those less familiar with the eyewear industry, Luxottica owns the eyewear licensing rights to the majority of fashion brands—from Chanel to Prada to Ray Ban to Oakley. According to Blumenthal, the inflated prices in the industry are set by brand recognition and not by quality. “Often times, glasses are manufactured in China even if the engravings on the frames [state otherwise],” he said. “It’s deceiving.”
So seeing this disconnect between price and product, Warby Parker cut out the middleman to deliver quality at an affordable price. The brand designed and manufactured its products and sold directly to the consumer via ecommerce.
At the launch, the co-founders worried that customers would hesitate to purchase without the option of trying on the frames at an offline location. To trigger more online sales, the brand instituted its “Try 5” program that allowed the buyer to pick five frames to try on at home for five days before keeping one (or all) and sending back the ones that didn’t work. And, of course, the all-important no charge for shipping.
Now, the brand largely continues with this original model but has also expanded into the brick-and-mortar space with store locations across the country (and a mobile retail school bus).
The perfect storm of good product, great press, and a strong blogger response has made Warby Parker a successful startup. And the company yearly releases a fun and interactive annual report to show its progress and its trends. Notable achievements for the brand include its zero net carbon emissions and taking part in conscious commerce (for every pair of glasses bought, prescription glasses and optometry training is donated to those in need).
So what’s next for the socially conscious eyewear company that sells affordable and stylish glasses? New designs, for sure. But when we asked Blumenthal about the next generation of eyewear disruptors that are using 3D printing to make bespoke frames, he played coy with the answer — only choosing to say that 3D isn’t in the cards for Warby Parker… just yet.