Lessons in “Real-tail” from Warby Parker

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Who or what is a Warby Parker? Those two words were all the buzz at January’s National Retail Federation “Big Show” in New York, attended by over 27,000 retail passionates from all over the globe.

While the name sounds like a rare breed of goose, or an effete English art college major*, Warby Parker is actually one of the exciting new generation of online merchants gleefully taking a wrecking ball to retail and traditional manufacturer brands. Their vision: “create boutique-quality, classically crafted eyewear at a revolutionary price point”. The hook? US$95 a pair including prescription lenses, with free delivery and free returns.

The idea came from co-founder Neil Blumenthal and three college friends complaining about the exorbitant cost and bland design of eyewear in the US. Their 2008 whine session evolved into Warby Parker, which instantly clicked with customers when it launched online in 2010. Initial inventory sold out in four weeks with another 20,000 people on a wait list.

The keys to the concept are authenticity and creativity, what you might call “Real-tail”:

  1. Real pricing – because today’s customer won’t accept unrealistic margins. Warby Parker’s founders are retail rebels with a cause. They were outraged by an “industry…controlled by a few large companies that have kept prices artificially high”. So they smashed the supply chain, cut out the middleman, and passed the savings onto the customer. That’s in line with a world where consumers won’t pay a dollar more than is absolutely justified.
  2. Real design – because today’s customer is highly design-literate. As their website says, “The Warby Parker aesthetic is vintage-inspired with a contemporary twist”. In other words, geek-chic for the second decade of the 21st century – it’s a look that’s retro, stylish and timeless. Warby Parker designs their own frames, so they avoid the licensing fees normally associated with designer glasses. Suddenly DKNY seems over-priced and old-fashioned.
  3. Real service – because today’s customer expects brands to go above and beyond. Warby Parker models its customer care process on great online retailers like Amazon and Zappo’s. Simply put, they aim to satisfy customers or die trying. With that attitude, you’d expect free shipping and free returns. What you might not anticipate is a free try-on service that allows customers to order five pairs of glasses, try them on at home, and return the ones they don’t want. And you would definitely be surprised by their free adjustment service. As reported in Forbes, one customer whose glasses were tight around the ears emailed Warby Parker for help. They suggested that she either visit the main showroom in New York, or if it was easier, go to an optometrist and then forward Warby Parker the bill.

  4. Real conscience – because today’s customer buys values as much as value. Warby Parker talks about “eyewear with a purpose”. For every pair of glasses sold, another pair is distributed to one of the billion people worldwide who can’t afford or get access to prescription eyewear. “We believe that everyone has the right to see.” The idea of “conscious capitalism” is deeply embedded in Warby Parker’s DNA – Neil Blumenthal’s background is as a Director of a not-for-profit.

I think Warby Parker’s “real-tail” approach provides some clues for what it means to be a great retailer in 2013.

Taken individually, the elements of Warby Parker’s offer might not seem that revolutionary. Specsavers sell A$39 glasses and 2 for A$149. Toms (www.toms.com) trademarked a “One for One” program in both shoes and glasses – buy one, give one to someone in need. Zappo’s built a business on “Delivering Happiness” via outrageously great customer service. But when it’s all put together, Warby Parker is highly compelling.

And it’s all executed with a freshness and energy that is engaging. Like many an online brand, Warby Parker is venturing into physical retail. I visited their pop-up in the Meatpacking District in New York, which was effortlessly charming right down to the signage created out of old vinyl record covers. They are currently on the road with the “Warby Parker Class Trip” in a school bus transformed into a mobile showroom. And Warby Parker often venture into innovative temporary stores, such as one called “The Readery”, a radical reimagining of a 1960’s newsstand stocked with glasses, beach reads and “vintage treasures” inside New York’s trendy The Standard Hotel.

Meanwhile, their 55 sq m head office and showroom in SoHo does more sales per square metre than Tiffany’s.

We have our own “retail rebels” in Australia upsetting the status quo; innovators like Shoes of Prey and The Iconic. They, along with brands like Warby Parker are making this one of the more fascinating times ever in retail.

*Warby Parker’s name actually came from a mash-up of characters created by Jack Kerouac – Zagg Parker and Warby Pepper.

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