ralph lauren blue polo Up Has Vision to Sell Eyeglasses Online
Shopping skeptics said people would never buy certain things shoes, diamond rings, cars online because they needed to see the products in person. They were wrong. E commerce companies have found success in all of those fields.
But some purchases still happen mostly offline, including one of the most personal: prescription eyeglasses.
Warby Parker, a New York start up, thinks it can persuade people to shop online for glasses, with a combination of fashion, low prices, technology and old fashioned customer service. It seems to be working. In its first year of business, the company sold about 20,000 pairs of glasses; however, it would not disclose financial information.
The company designs its own glasses, which largely stick to a stylish chunky look, and generally sell them for $95, including prescription lenses made of polycarbonate plastic. By contrast, designer prescription glasses typically cost several hundred dollars. The company keeps prices low by ordering from manufacturers and selling directly to consumers, avoiding expenses like brand licensing fees and retail markups along the way. It does not offer bifocals, and it charges extra for thinner lenses for strong prescriptions.
A few big licensing companies like Luxottica and Safilo design, manufacture and market glasses for dozens of brands, including Ray Ban, Chanel, Prada, Ralph Lauren and Gucci. Often the companies sell the glasses, too Luxottica owns chains like Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters.
Warby Parker orders the acetate for the frames directly from a supplier in Italy and has them made in the same Chinese factories the big companies use. The lenses are inserted in New York.
“After we learned there was no reason that glasses should be this expensive, we said, why don’t we create a different model?” Mr. Gilboa said. “We can bypass the retail channel and sell them for a hundred dollars and still have a very viable business.”
In that sense, Warby Parker is a classic Internet business working to upend an industry by taking out the middleman. But it is also following a model initiated by companies like Zappos and Blue Nile that aims to reduce the risk of buying online by offering superior customer service.
For instance, the Web site uses facial recognition technology so shoppers can upload a photo of themselves and try on virtual glasses. For those who are still doubtful, the company will mail five loaner frames. All glasses are returnable, and Warby Parker rents space in a few stores in big cities where people can try on glasses before ordering online.
“It’s very much a new model,” said John Gerzema, president of Brand Asset Consulting, who studies shopping trends. Most e commerce sites try to steer customers toward a purchase, while Warby Parker encourages people to mull it over, he said.
Mr. Gilboa and Mr. Blumenthal, who run the company, declined to say what percentage of frames was returned but they said it was lower than the 20 percent they had expected.
Other young e commerce start ups are taking a similar approach. Bonobos, for instance, a New York business that sells men’s pants, encourages customers to order pairs in different sizes and return those that do not fit, with free shipping both ways.
Warby Parker customers enter their prescription information on the site, including the distance between their pupils, which is not usually on prescriptions but which opticians can easily measure. Some states also require customers to send the company a copy of the prescription.
Warby Parker’s glasses, with their thick, square frames inspired by “Mad Men,” are more stylish, and look as if they came from the streets of Brooklyn as do the models on the site. The company says its frames and prices appeal to people in their 20s who might be spending their own money on glasses for the first time.
The founders recently hired an eyeglass designer, but they designed the first collection, using ideas from magazines, vintage stores and their grandparents’ homes. They sell a monocle “the perfect accessory for budding robber barons, post colonial tyrants and super villains,” the site says based on one owned by Mr. Hunt’s grandfather.
The founders say they were drinking buddies at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania when they hatched the idea for Warby Parker, named after characters from unpublished Jack Kerouac writings.
Mr. Blumenthal learned about the optical industry when he worked at VisionSpring, a nonprofit group that sells low cost glasses in developing countries. Warby Parker now donates a pair of glasses through similar groups for every pair purchased.
The founders started the Web site last February, while still taking classes, and planned to spend the rest of the school year “working out the kinks in the business, selling a few hundred pairs of glasses to friends and my mom,” Mr. Gilboa said.
In three weeks, they had beaten their first year sales targets. They have run the company on cash flow plus their savings and two small loans.
The business now has 18 employees and an airy, one room Manhattan office. In an interview there, Mr. Blumenthal wore the boxy Huxley frames, but no prescription lenses, because he does not need them. Mr. Gilboa, who has worn glasses since sixth grade, wore the sandalwood Japhy glasses, which the company’s site says were “made for the contemporary intellectual.”