Warby Parker and the hands-on of retail

Correction:  This Case in Point feature (Feb. 23) about Warby Parker, the eyeglass seller with a major online presence, misstated the company's position on retail stores. It has had showrooms since its launch but now has more retail outlets and is opening them faster than ever before. Also, the authors incorrectly suggested that they had knowledge of Mickey Drexler's first meeting as a member of the company's board. They did not speak to any parties involved in the meeting. 

February 21

The big idea: The lens had changed on the optical industry when Warby Parker launched in 2010. An online retailer, it offered $95 single-vision frames in 27 proprietary styles. And with each pair it sold, it donated one to a nonprofit partner. In a move that might differentiate it from its many “me-too” competitors, the company recently has opened full service brick-and-mortar stores in New York City, Boston and Los Angeles.

Did these capital investments represent further innovation in eyeglasses retail and a visible brand retrenchment? Or would they come to be viewed as a mistake? The retail landscape is fast changing. Were brick-and-mortar stores a solution?

The scenario: By fall 2013, a handful of operations such as Coastal, Eyefly and FramesDirect had aped Warby Parker’s model, offering similar deals such as two-for-one and free shipping.

Its popular indie-retro brand and proprietary styles were now more important than ever — not to mention its partnership with VisionSpring, a nonprofit focused on promoting economic independence through entrepreneurship in targeted countries.

Retail was changing, too. Customers no longer were expected to visit a store to make a purchase. In fact, many ultimately would buy online. But even in 2013, potential buyers still enjoyed to hold a pair of glasses and try them on before making a decision.

The resolution: Warby Parker began reversing the typical process of migrating a physical store into the cloud. It built real stores to complement and solidify its relationship with an adoring young-adult audience. The stores were digital-ready and intended to facilitate rather than separate the cyberspace world from the tangible one. Online appointments, a photo booth that e-mailed visitors their images and a tablet-based checkout were a few of the digital enhancements that made its stores feel as modern and engaged as its Web site and social media.

The lesson: Retail convergence isn’t about separating the cloud and the world of nuts-and-bolts physical space — it’s about streamlining the customer experience and meeting customers on their own terms and in their preferred platforms. Brick-and-mortar stores can build brand awareness and enhance accessibility. There is a tightrope to walk between the ease of online-based transactions and the palpable presence of an in-store experience.

Michael Lenox and Rebecca Goldberg

Lenox is a business professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Goldberg is a management consultant at Goldberg Productions. Darden professor Jeanne Liedtka co-authored the original case.

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