With so many retailers going by the wayside in the face of ever-growing competition from online retailers, it may seem odd that Warby Parker is taking the opposite tack. Originally an online-only affair, the eyewear merchant is on something of a brick-and-mortar spree, opening its first Connecticut store in Greenwich on July 14.
The logic behind such an apparently counterintuitive move, said co-founder and co-CEO David Gilboa, is simple: “We don’t believe that retail is dead — we believe that mediocre retail is dead.”
Founded by Gilboa and three others in Philadelphia in 2010, Warby slowly began to expand into existing boutique stores before taking the plunge and opening its first wholly owned operation in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood in 2013. Its 346 Greenwich Ave. location will be its 71st; Gilboa said it expects to end this year with 90.
“Our e-commerce business is continuing to thrive,” he said. “But we’ve also been getting really positive feedback from our customers who have shopped and purchased in our retail stores, and we felt the time was right to make even more connections with our customers.”
Warby had its eye on Greenwich for some time, Gilboa said. “We have a very large and loyal customer base in Greenwich, many of whom have been going to New York to shop at one of our eight stores there. We waited for what we felt was the perfect location on the right street, surrounded by the kinds of stores our customers also spend time in.”
The prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses retailer believes it also has the answer to why so many “mediocre” merchants are failing. “The reason a lot of those stores are closing or going bankrupt is that they haven’t provided an innovative shopping experience,” Gilboa said. “We’ve invested in making our stores well-designed, fun and enjoyable, to give people a reason to come in.”
As opposed to many eyewear retailers that keep their stock in locked display cases, Warby’s are displayed on custom-made oak “library” shelving. “Other stores’ process is very opaque,” Gilboa said, “and the customers sometimes don’t really understand what they’re buying until they’re presented with a bill for hundreds of dollars.”
Warby’s approach is to encourage shoppers to try on glasses at will, with full-length mirrors available to see how their spectacles and accessories mesh with their overall style. “Retail advisors” — about 10 in the Greenwich store — patrol the 1,000-square-foot space with iPads to access a customer’s past purchases and make recommendations. “We try to make the process as open as possible,” Gilboa said.
In addition to artwork by illustrator Maira Kalman — including a mural wrapping around its walls and three-dimensional figures decorating its shelves — the store will also sell books, including Kalman-illustrated children’s titles “Cake” and “Next Stop Grand Central,” by 14 independent publishers, reflecting its underlying literary motif.
That unusual theme is not only reflected by some of its frames — with names like Welty and Hardy, not to mention sunglasses line Beckett — but also by the store’s moniker itself: “Warby Parker” was plucked from one of Jack Kerouac’s journals.
“We discovered that at an exhibition of Kerouac’s private journals at a New York Public Library exhibition,” Gilboa said. “We decided that reading and education fit in with the whole idea of glasses.”
The store further differentiates itself from its competitors through its custom designs, he added. “We use premium materials in our own unique designs and sell directly to the consumer. There are no unnecessary licensing fees, no middlemen that can result in a significant wholesale markup.”
That in turn leads to what Gilboa called “a much lower price point than similar-quality glasses you’ll find elsewhere. Instead of hundreds of dollars, ours start at $95. Our value proposition is quite different and unique.”
He also touted Warby Parker’s Net Promoter Score, a tool used to measure the loyalty of a firm’s customer relationships. Consistently in the low-to-mid 80’s (out of a possible 100), Gilboa said the company’s NPS “is higher than that of any company in any industry that reports their score” that he’s seen.
Warby Parker’s hours are 10 a.m.—6 p.m. daily.