When online eyewear purveyor Warby Parker launched its website in February 2010, the goal was simple: to leverage the power of the Web to offer designer-quality eyewear at less than $100 directly to the masses.
Three years later, Warby Parker has sold an estimated half a million pairs of prescription glasses and non-prescription sunnies, attracted an all-star roster of style-savvy investors (J. Crew Chief Executive Millard "Mickey" Drexler and Kate Spade co-founder Andy Spade among them) and earned industry recognition. It's one of five finalists for the WGSN Global Fashion Awards' best multi-channel retailer honor, to be bestowed in October and will receive the Accessories Council's retail innovation award in November.
It's even managed to become a kind of pop-culture by-word, with the name "Warby Parker" cited in PR pitches and brand profiles about other potentially game-changing e-commerce upstarts. There's online custom clothier Indochino, which bills itself as "the Warby Parker of suits"; jewelry e-tailer Ocappi, which touts itself as "the Warby Parker of high-end engagement rings"; and Cory Vines, which, in a Forbes.com article, was positioned as "the Warby Parker of activewear."
QUIZ: The "Warby Parker" of [ . . . ]
Since the common characteristic of the Warby wannabes appears to be the online-only retail aspect, it might come as a bit of a surprise that the folks who managed to build a blockbuster business selling prescription spectacles via the Internet is spending a good part of its third year focusing on good, old-fashioned bricks and mortar retail. April saw the company open a 2,000-square-foot flagship store on Greene Street in New York City. The following month a Boston store bowed on Newbury Street. And, if all goes according to plan, Warby Parker's first West Coast flagship, a permanent space at the Standard Hotel Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, will open its doors on Aug. 17.
"We believe the future of retail is at the intersection of bricks-and-mortar and e-commerce," says Warby Parker co-founder and co-Chief Executive Neil Blumenthal. "And we see them converging. ... some customers prefer to shop in stores, some prefer to shop online, but deeper than that, most customers like to do both. That's why we're continuing to invest a ton into [the website] but also into traditional retail."
The brand already offers a variety of ways to physically touch and feel the Warby wares, including eight retail showrooms operated in partnership with boutiques across the country; a couple of kiosks inspired by 1960s-era newsstands dubbed "readerys" (located at Standard Hotels in Miami and downtown Los Angeles); and a peripatetic pop-up shop in an old converted yellow school bus that's currently crossing the country.
PHOTOS: Warby Parker shop and eyewear
But the brand's own stores in Boston, L.A. and New York City are part of a bigger branding vision.
"This is really an opportunity for us to showcase the brand and to have our customers experience it live," Blumenthal says. "We can create really special experiences online, but there's nothing quite like walking into a physical space, a world we've created. ... To some extent these stores can be considered a form of marketing and customer acquisition."
The Greene Street store has a wood-paneled, retro-library feel (a nod, says Blumenthal, to the literary inspirations of the company, Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker — characters plucked from the writings of Jack Kerouac and discovered during a trip to the New York Public Library). The space at the Standard will be different. It'll be much smaller for starters, roughly 500 square feet.
"We want all of our stores to reflect the neighborhoods and the communities we're joining," Blumenthal says, "so this one will look a little different [from the Greene Street store]. There's going to be some powder-coated metal, and we're working with this amazing artist named Geoff McFetridge to do a small installation. He's a friend of the brand and has done a lot of work with the Standard."
The store will be stocked with the full Warby Parker optical and sunwear collections. Non-prescription eyewear will be available for immediate takeaway, orders for prescription eyewear and sunwear can be placed and picked up there (or shipped) and the staff will include an on-site optician to adjust glasses, although there won't be an optometrist to perform eye exams.