Retail Disruption In Action. How I Fell In Love With Warby Parker

Last week I paid my first visit to Warby Parker in Wynwood, Miami. The visit was noteworthy for several reasons: a great customer experience, very comfortable glasses, and a completely different model of optician.

Most opticians’ offices remind me of department stores, but with a smaller footprint. You get a dazzling assortment of glasses, all arrayed by brand. And since every designer has a brand of glasses, along with glasses-only brands like Ray Ban or Maui Jim (I know these companies sell clothes and accessories now, but their primary business is glasses), that’s a LOT of glasses. For me, it’s completely overwhelming.

Consider this: I’ve only been wearing glasses full-time for about 8 years, so I don’t have a lot of expertise in knowing how to navigate through styles, shapes, weights, colors, etc. I stumbled upon a pair of Missoni’s I liked early on, and just kept replacing the frames when they broke. For a variety of reasons, those frames no longer work for me, and I’ve spent the past six months and a lot of dollars trying to find a pair that are comfortable and stylish. I have 4 pair of glasses, 2 pair of sunglasses, and of them all, only 1 pair is remotely wearable.

At NRF’s Big Show this year, when the company had our annual dinner, partner Steve Rowen showed me his Warby Parker glasses. All three other RSR partners are long-time glasses wearers and explained all the things I should have been avoiding. Who knew? Steve’s glasses had the qualities I liked, and I knew that Warby Parker has a store in Wynwood.

If you know me at all, you know Wynwood is one of my favorite places. The street art is spectacular and I take a lot of photographs there. It’s gotten a bit trendy, and as you can see from the photo above, the Warby Parker store fits right in with the artistic theme. Very cool. So, after two months of procrastination, I finally paid a visit to the store.

It has been said that Millennials really expect curated assortments. So do I. I just don’t have the patience to browse, especially in the claustrophobic world of glasses. I don’t think I could have taken one more dizzying array of glasses crammed into a small space. As you can see from the photo below, Warby’s assortment was manageable, and the store itself was more empty space than anything… designed to mimic the bottom of a swimming pool. You are seeing the entire assortment of glasses, and most of the furniture.

A helpful associate showed me the frames Steve has, and then found another style that she thought might look a bit better on my face. She was right! For $95 (vs. the $200+ I’d paid for my other glasses) I owned new frames. They called my optometrist to get a prescription and sent me on my way. The highest end lenses they have (digital, polycarbonate, UV filters, scratch resistance) were $200 (vs. $395 at a traditional optician). So for $300 all-in, I have new glasses on the way. The entire event took about 15 minutes.

I had some complications and needed a new prescription, which I took care of elsewhere, but the process was so easy compared to other places I’d been:

  1. They showed me a total of three different choices. Each one was well-suited to my face in its own way and each one was on-trend.
  2. The store was uncluttered, making life much easier. Mirrors were in-line with the glasses (hard to see in the photo) so I didn’t have to go sit anywhere.
  3. The associate was helpful without being arrogant.
  4. The post-sales support was great. I realized after the fact that the prescription they had was too strong, so I put a quick hold on the order. They waited, I got my new scrip and they generated a new order for me, which they volunteered to Fed Ex to me… even though it was my bad in the first place.

I was glad I’d gone to the store. Even though Warby allows you to order multiple frames on line, pick the one you like the best and send back the ones you don’t, I wanted to actually see and feel these on my face. The optometrist warned that “she’d heard those glasses break.” Well, I can order a new pair online if they do. That’s what I’d done with my older Missoni’s, which also broke. Then I ask a local optician to pop the old lenses in the new frame. But I had to start my journey in the store.

This is the nature of disruption in retail, and shows how store-based retailing remains important. Warby’s only risk, which is not small, really, will occur when their signature look goes out of fashion. More than one private label specialty retailer has gotten burned by that (Hello Aeropostale, and Abercrombie and Fitch). We can only hope the retailer remains nimble and not lost in fantasies of what people should like.

I’m eagerly awaiting my new glasses, and might take one more foray into store-based retail: A Shinola has opened just across the street. As soon as the tourists go home, I’ll be out again to see what Made-In- Detroit watches look like!