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Warby Parker tries to re-focus eyeglass industry

A pair of Warby Parker's Crosby eyeglasses. Warby Parker sells quality glasses for $95, using in-house design and online sales to undercut high price mark ups by big players like Luxottica.

If you need a new pair of glasses, you might think you have lots of choices. You could go to LensCrafters or Pearle Vision, maybe pick out a new pair of Ray Bans or Oliver Peoples, and then check the price tag. It can easily soar over $300 -- just for the frames. That’s largely because there’s a lot less competition than you might think. All those brands are owned by Luxottica, an Italian company that also owns Sunglass Hut, Oakley, and produces frames for companies like Chanel and Versace.

A company called Warby Parker is trying to change the prescription for the eyewear industry. It might seem niche at first. It sells a monocle. Yes, mostly ironically, but this is a company that appeals to hipster-types who may or may not have handlebar mustaches. Its frames tend to be thick-rimmed like something Buddy Holly wore. Its name comes from Jack Kerouac characters. But it was born out of frustration by the high cost of frames. 

“It didn’t make sense that glasses should cost as much as an iPhone,” says Neil Blumenthal, who founded Warby Parker in 2010 with a few Wharton business school friends. Their answer to the price problem: high-quality glasses for $95 including lenses. Warby Parker designs the frames itself and sells online, undercutting established brands that markup prices up to 20-times more than the cost. 

It’s a formula co-founder David Gilboa hopes will do to Luxottica what Amazon has done to bookstores.

“Luxottica has done a great job of creating the illusion of choice,” Gilboa says.  

A Luxottica spokesperson declined to comment. While there are a number of eyewear companies, Luxottica is the biggest player with about 30 percent of the U.S. market, according to IBISworld.  

Luke Williams of the Stern School of Business at NYU says Warby Parker’s model is daring, as it tries to upend an industry that many didn’t think was broken. 

Warby Parker glasses aren’t available in many bricks and mortar shops. Instead, it has a home trial program, shipping up to five frames for free. 

“They’re basically bringing the store to you,” Williams says. 

To hone its image, the founders set the company’s headquarters in SoHo, New York’s capital of fashion. Its open office is research and design, marketing, and a call center all in one.  

The company has grown to nearly 130 employees and has raised $55 million in venture capital from big names like Ashton Kutcher. It’s not yet profitable, but it’s sold at least a few hundred thousand frames and is growing fast, though it’s still a tiny player in a $9 billion retail market. 

“Warby Parker by actually combining high fashion with reasonable price offers a much more potent threat to other companies like Luxottica,” says Christopher Marquis of Harvard Business School, who wrote a case study on the company. 

K.C. Ifeanyi, a grad student, recently ditched his Ray Bans. For less than the cost of that Luxottica frame, he’s bought three Warby Parkers.  

“Once I saw the style of the frames, and saw that they were $95, I thought, okay, this could really work,” Ifeanyi says. 

One way to know if Warby Parker is changing the eyewear business is if a company like Luxottica copies the model. And, that’s a big risk for Warby.

“And, when that happens, Warby Parker are going to have to disrupt the model again,” Williams of NYU says. 

And, Warby Parker plans to take on bricks and mortar stores soon, opening a showroom in SoHo this year right across from the Apple Store. 

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I recently purchased a pair of WP glasses online then went to my long-time local optometrist to have them fitted for my face/head. I'm a 20-year patient of this Dr. and if they had refused, I wouldn't be any longer. Times have changed and brick & mortar stores have to realize this. I like my Dr. and will still go to her for exams, but not buy frames from her as I don't like what she has to offer and they are too expensive. I think a lot of these complaints are from Drs. who see a threat to their stranglehold on the industry.

Using the same logic that is applied to explain Warby Parker's success/attraction, one would:
1. Hail McDonald's as the david in the goliath battle with fine/more expensive food alternatives
2. Expect that prospective customers of traditional B&M opticals would find *just*displaying the entire selection of frames from Warby Parker more than adequate to serve their tastes.
3. Expect that any vision or adjustment issues would be handled by the prescribing doctor...yeah, the same one who did NOT make the glasses.

Oversimplfied shit like this makes sense for anyone who finds making optimal decisions in today's world too much trouble. I'm starting to think that every less-than-terrific product can be made acceptable by simply lowering its price. You agree?

There have many articles highlighting the growing success of Warby Parker. Most of those articles center around either their taking on Luxottica, leaving out the "greedy middle man" (from their own advert) or just how amazing it is to buy cool glasses at cheap prices.

Warby Parker has become the new poster child for a quote by Oscar Wilde: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Their marketing savvy is nothing short of brilliant. Their ethic, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Warby Parker's "in house designs" are frames designed and manufactured from poor quality materials in China. There are no local designers they've hired to create these cool styles. There are no trained local opticians working at WP edging and cutting lenses to be mounted in those frames. In a very real sense, WP has become the Walmart of the optical industry. Cheap glasses at cheap prices made in China. The only difference is that everyone at WP wears a plaid shirt rather than a polo shirt with a logo on it.

Warby Parker will no doubt grow into one of the largest optical retailers in the country. The people behind it the company have the business knowledge to achieve that goal. The consequence of their success will independent optical retail shops whose staff is far more knowledgeable about optics suffering, or worse being put out of business. True skills and knowledge of optics and how correct fitting and processing work hand in hand to provide the best vision is something not offered at Wharton.

A Wharton grad is can do my taxes or my finances anytime. But I would never let them make my eyeglasses.

I'm an Optometrist who doesn't sell glasses. I've been watching Warby Parker for the past two years. They are good marketers, they have disruptive marketing channel. I have a problem with them. They don't service what they sell. There quality control isn't great. The glasses they sell aren't dispensed. When you make glasses they need to be centered for your eyes. In low prescriptions it's not super important in higher presriptions it is. They ask you the consumer to provide that info. They show you online how you can measure the pd your self. take it from me it doesn't always work out so well. The glasses need to be ajusted. Since they do not have a physical presence they abandon that part of selling glasses completely. Great model for them. You can save a lot if you don't service your product. In the rush for cheaper online, in this case hip and sheak and cheap online, is the public better served. I think not. If WB takes over the world you will have Luxx, which will be even more expensive, a lot of smaller opticals (weaker sisters) out of business. Less choice, a charge to dispense WB glasses, thats already happeneing. Forget it if you need bifocals. WB doens't atempt those.They absulutely need to be fitted and ajusted. Great marketing nice looking product, no attempt at servicing there product. Is that really a deal?

It was a huge omission to not mention private practice optical/optometrists, such as myself. Warby Parker cannot give you a professional opinion on how your glasses frames fit, and whether the frame is appropriate for your prescription. They cannot measure your pupillary distance or segment height, essential measurements to look the correct portion of the lenses/prescription. They cannot adjust the frames to fit your crooked nose and uneven ears. They do not offer the colorful awesomeness of non-monopolizing frame companies such as Anne et Valentin, Theo, and Face a Face. Warby Parker has been successful serving the purpose of a moderately priced second pair. They will not put us out of business, same as Amazon cannot replace my local bookstore.

I wish someone would implement the Warby Parker method with disposable razor blades!!
And what a very cool, pro-active 'free glasses for someone who can't afford them' policy!!
I'm headed to their website!!

For the past few years I have ordered glasses over the Internet for between $22.5 for single vision lenses to $65 for bifocal polarized lenses. There are many sites. Why did you not include this option?

I am curious why Marketplace completely skipped over the selling point that when one buys a pair of their cool ass frames, WP will provide a pair of free glasses to someone who cannot afford a pair. That is just an additional bonus to doing business with this company.

I am curious why Marketplace completely skipped over the selling point that when one buys a pair of their cool ass frames, WP will provide a pair of free glasses to someone who cannot afford a pair. That is just an additional bonus to doing business with this company.

If you want cheaper high quality glasses, check out zennioptical.com. There are many others as well.

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