Retail Reinvention: From Lion Hunters to Cool Hunters

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For over eight decades at the corner of 82nd and Lexington on the Upper East Side of New York City stood a local institution by the name of Lascoff Drugs. The founder, J.L. Lascoff, a Russian-Polish immigrant to the US, opened the very first pharmacy in New York State in 1899. J.L’s son Frederick took over in 1936, and (as reported in his New York Times obituary) Fred “sold leeches to battered prizefighters, catnip oil to lion hunters and various strange potions to people who had heard of his unusual shop.”

In my first week after relocating to NYC, I made the pilgrimage to 82nd and Lex to see the store that finally replaced Lascoff Drugs – Warby Parker’s latest retail outpost. Warby Parker sell their own kind of catnip oil, not to lion hunters but to cool hunters; vintage-inspired eyewear with a contemporary twist at a “revolutionary price point”. And while there was some outrage about the closure of Lascoff’s, Warby Parker has respectfully renovated the space, retaining signature architectural elements such as the interior tiles, staircase and railings, and the external marquee sign (one of the first neons in NY).

To me, this is a tale not of retail demise but of retail resurrection and reinvention. Warby Parker is the epitome of the modern merchant. As I wrote in a blog post last year, Warby Parker is “one of the exciting new generation of online merchants gleefully taking a wrecking ball to retail and traditional manufacturer brands”.

Launched as an online business just four years ago, Warby Parker redefined the idea of fashion-conscious eyewear; catering to a design-literate, value conscious, digitally savvy shopper. Besides their US$95 key price point, one of Warby Parker’s cornerstone offers is a free service that allows customers to order five pairs of glasses then try them on at home and return the ones they don’t want.

The founders quickly discovered though that, while customers love shopping online at Warby Parker, they also craved a brick-and-mortar experience. Digital could not replace the act of touching and trying on the goods, talking to Warby Parker’s passionate sales associates, and the ability to take an eye exam. Initially, Warby Parker opened up a small space within their head office. Then they branched out with a pop-up and then permanent space in New York’s SoHo, fashioned on a library. Now shops are beginning to roll out across the country, each tailored to its locale.

This new store on the Upper East Side takes the Warby Parker retail aesthetic to new heights (literally). 21-foot (6.5 metre) cathedral ceilings encase a warm, bookish environment with cabinets showcasing 373 frames. Old-style pneumatic tubes whisk frames from floor to floor at 24-feet (7.3 metres) a second. Books compete for space with the glasses, and Warby Parker even print and give away a brochure entitled: “the best spots to sit and read a book in the Upper East Side of Manhattan”.

Would J.l. Lascoff and his son Fred be turning in their respective graves? Maybe not. In their days, they were retail innovators. And Warby Parker is just the latest tenant at the corner of 82nd and Lex to continue the tradition.

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