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Warby Parker proves you can sell quality glasses at more affordable prices

Warby Parker proves you can sell quality glasses at more affordable prices
Warby Parker co-CEOs Neil Blumenthal, right, and Dave Gilboa have guided the trend-setting eyewear company to a value of more than billion dollars (Warby Parker)

“It’s like Warby Parker, except ...”

Words to that effect cropped up again and again over the last few months as I investigated the eyewear industry and interviewed glasses makers.

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It became increasingly clear that New York-based Warby Parker was the company that other eyewear firms consider the yardstick for anyone seeking to disrupt the near-monopoly of Essilor Luxottica, the industry behemoth behind LensCrafters, EyeMed and nearly every designer frame you can think of.

In fact, one of the first calls I made was to Warby. It took about two months to get co-founders and co-CEOs Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa on the phone.

The conversation was a getting-to-know-you thing rather than a formal interview, so I can only paraphrase what they had to say. Also, these guys frequently finish each other’s sentences, so I honestly had a hard time figuring out who was doing the talking at any given moment.

The history of the company has been told often enough. The four co-founders were students at Penn’s Wharton School when they realized there was a need for an eyewear company that could deliver high quality and classic style at reasonable prices.

They launched Warby in 2010. Nearly a decade later, the privately held company is worth over a billion dollars.

It’s easy to see why Warby is so influential. The frames (mostly produced overseas) are durable and spiffy, and the lenses (mostly produced domestically) are as good as more expensive alternatives.

And the prices are impressive. Complete single-vision glasses start at $95. Progressives will run closer to $300.

These price points are about half as much as you’d pay at most brick-and-mortar optometrists — which is why, say Blumenthal and Gilboa, many of their competitors are taught at trade shows to badmouth the company to customers.

I can’t verify the truth of that, but I can say that optometrists have told me Warby uses cheaper acetate for its frames than pricier designer frames, and the lenses can be hit-or-miss.

Then again, optometrists seldom hesitate to criticize all online rivals, especially the cut-rate outfits such as Zenni Optical, where you can buy glasses for less than $50.

My research has led me to the conclusion that, as with most consumer products, you get what you pay for, and that brick-and-mortar optometrists bring a lot to the equation with their hands-on service.

However, the online eyewear market is developing quickly, and consumers are rapidly figuring out things like bridge and arm measurements.

It’s just a matter of time before buying glasses on the internet is as easy and reliable as buying shoes on Amazon or Zappos.

Warby seeks to mitigate the risk of online shopping by sending customers five different frames to try on in advance. That strikes me as an expensive practice, but the co-CEOs say the chances of test frames being broken is offset by the increase in customer satisfaction.

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Another element that adds to Warby’s overhead is the company’s hybrid model of both online sales and real-world stores (one of their most recent just opened on Colorado Boulevard in Old Pasadena).

I told Blumenthal and Gilboa I didn’t see how those costs kept them competitive with top-quality online rivals such as Los Angeles’ Lens & Frame Co., which has no physical stores to maintain.

Their response: Service is a big deal. Yes, many consumers are now comfortable buying glasses online. But the vast majority still want to try frames on, ask questions and have the help of an experienced salesperson.

I ordered a couple of pairs of Warbys — one online and one in a store — and they both came out great.

But the store experience was better.

The salespeople at the Century City branch were helpful. An optician double-checked my pupillary distance, the span in millimeters between the pupil of each eye, and tweaked both my orders for a better fit.

My advice is that if you’ve got a relatively simple, single-vision prescription, ordering online from Warby is a snap.

If your prescription, like mine, is more complicated — progressives, say, or prisms — you’ll do best ordering through a store.

Another data point to keep in mind: For every pair of glasses sold, Warby distributes a free or discounted pair to someone in need. The company recently announced it had distributed its 5-millionth pair of glasses under the program.

In that way, if no other, it would be great if all other glasses companies were more like Warby.

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