For most digitally native vertical brands, the decision to launch a brand online versus brick and mortar is a no brainer. Low overhead, 24/7 access for customers, and anytime/anywhere management are just a few benefits. Warby Parker was no exception; the decision to launch online was simple. Mostly because it was the only viable option available.
Back in 2010, the founders of Warby Parker had an idea — instead of buying expensive designer eyeglasses in a physical store, buy cost-accessible yet equally stylish eyeglasses online. And customers could buy, and more importantly try, conveniently and without sacrificing the in-store experience of shopping. Warby Parker let customers choose five frame styles to try on at home before selecting a pair to buy, with fast, free shipping both ways.
Whether it was a matter of design or circumstance (they had no outside funding and little capital of their own to open stores), the Warby Parker team disrupted an industry that wasn’t even on anyone’s radar for being disrupted.
“The future of retail is at the intersection of e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar...the two experiences should be seamlessly integrated and complementary.” - Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker CEO
The leap into physical
So what prompted the company’s decision to try physical stores? Just 48 hours after launching its website, a GQ article heralded Warby Parker the “Netflix of Eyewear” and the brand was flooded with orders. Too many orders in fact. The at-home try-ons were suspended, inventory ran-dry, and the waitlist reached 20,000 deep. Such a loyal following was built that customers were begging to come to the company’s office to try on the glasses. On the third day in business, they were already thinking about a storefront.
Not long after CEO Neil Blumenthal turned his apartment dining room into a makeshift showroom, the brand decided to test physical retail. It was the next step to meet customer demand and to learn more about their shopping behavior. First came pop-in shops where Warby Parker could court new customers by aligning with other brands. Then came reclaimed and refurbished school busses that visited 15 cities, sometimes with buses parked at four different intersections in the same city to pin down site data, down to the street corner.
Three short, stellar years later in 2013, the brand opened doors to its first-ever store in Manhattan to meet exceedingly high customer demand. And today, the eyewear retailer that didn’t have enough capital to sign a single store lease, has raised nearly $300 million in funding and has 100 brick and mortar stores in well-vetted markets.
After five years, the brand has learned a lot about omnichannel retail. Blumenthal, told CNBC, “We think the presentation by retail experts of ‘either [online] or [offline]’ is a false choice. It really is the intersection of the two. … And we are trying to approach retail expansion in a very deliberate manner, where we are testing and learning.”
Warby Parker is certainly proving that retail is not dead. Blumenthal went on to tell PBS that it’s “mediocre retail that’s dead. And we’re finding a really powerful response from customers any time we open stores. Both in terms of driving sales through the stores themselves, but also in just the profitability of our overall business.” He adds that the brand is finding “great synergies between having both online experiences and offline experiences.” Blumenthal admits that “When it’s our first store in a new market, we see some cannibalization of web sales for a few months. But it only lasts nine to 12 months. And then e-commerce starts to grow faster than it would have before.”
Scale, baby, scale
So what’s next for the wunderkind brand? Keep. Opening. Stores.
Successful as it is, Warby Parker has less than 1 percent of the U.S. market share. “We're still just scratching the surface,” co-founder Dave Gilboa told Inc. "There's still huge potential in our core market, and we think there's also potential globally." Especially since, according to Forrester, 90 percent retail is taking place firmly in physical stores.
Ultimately, as Blumenthal notes, "We believe the future of retail is at the intersection of e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar...the two experiences should be seamlessly integrated and complementary.” By testing and learning small, digitally native brands can be strategic decision-makers, using online insights, pop-in and pop-up data, to create unique stores to fit specific locations and needs.
It’s not just about expansion, but rather deliberate, data-driven expansion. By leveraging online customer data to adeptly identify the next, best locations, Warby Parker’s playbook is the one for other DNVBs to follow when they make the step into physical.
Because as Blumenthal put it, “We believe in moving fast, but move fast deliberately and when you break things, make sure it’s not catastrophic. By staying focused and reducing complexity as much as possible, you can actually grow faster, longer.”