How Warby Parker Became A Billion-Dollar Disruptor

Tom Redd

Good listening is still a crucial skill for business success. Where you listen is also important. The founders of online eyewear retailer Warby Parker grew up with social media, and that is where Neil Blumenthal and David Gilboa put their ears to the ground: They listened for the rumble of their generation’s needs, wants, and social conscience.

In April 2015, Warby Parker was only five years old but was already valued at $1.2 billion. This company has disrupted the eyewear industry with its understanding of millennial generation shopper trends.

Blumenthal and Gilboa are millennials, a generation that ranges from late teenagers to people just about to enter middle age who were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. One important millennial trait is a feeling of instability due to family struggles during the Great Recession.

Wharton School graduates Blumenthal and Gilboa followed millennial worries on social media, such as difficulties in finding jobs and paying off student loans. Blumenthal and Gilboa also focused on what their generation posted about fashion sense. They listened to the millennial desire to do business with socially responsible companies, which led to the company’s customer-centric merchandising model.

Charming a financially insecure millennial audience

Kristin Wong is one example of a consumer Warby Parker reached. She needed new glasses and did not want to spend a lot for them.

Wong had worked hard to save money so she could quit her day job and become a full-time freelance journalist. She specializes in budget topics at her Brokepedia website and writes about the subject in a casual but appealing way.

Wong tried Warby Parker because the eyeglasses on its website fit her taste for retro fashion. She wanted a pair with large circular lenses like the ones that movie star Harold Lloyd wore in silent films.

The company’s pricing also attracted Wong. Warby Parker sells eyeglasses for $95, which includes frames plus lenses—about one-fourth the price of eyewear at other well-known retailers and brands owned by Luxottica, the world’s largest retail eyewear company. The steep price difference is one way that Warby Parker has disrupted Luxottica’s business.

Moving from virtual to brick and mortar

Warby Parker first interrupted Luxottica and the traditional eyewear industry by reaching out to millennials digitally. Millennials have grown up with online shopping, social media, and the hyperconnectivity of mobile devices. The digital business environment is native ground for the youngest members of the generation, who are comfortable posting their pictures online and asking for viewers’ opinions.

Warby Parker’s digital strategy includes asking prospective customers to try on its eyeglasses online. Customers do this through a virtual reality feature on the company’s website: You simply upload your picture, select your frames, and ask people to vote for your best look on social media sites. Alternatively, the company will mail you five pairs of frames for a 5-day trial period.

Until recently, the company had few brick and mortar stores and popup centers.In April, however, Warby Parker received $100 million in new funding and surprised the eyewear industry again by using the money to open more stores. While millennials have grown up with mobile devices, consider wi-fi to be a primary utility, and are comfortable with mobile tools and e-commerce, they also like to have the option of visiting physical retail stores.

Doing social good

Many studies show that corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, such as those that focus on employee benefits, environmental protection, or helping those in need, also motivate millennials to buy goods.

For each pair of glasses Warby Parker sells, it contributes to its nonprofit program for supporting vision centers in developing nations. The program trains partners to give basic eye exams and sell eyewear at prices local citizens can afford.

Warby Parker reports that it tallies the number of glasses sold each month and donates an amount equaling what it would cost to supply the same number of eyeglasses to the partners in those countries. In that way, the company donates a pair for every pair sold.

This well-defined CSR program is another way that the company has disrupted retail eyewear. It matches the company’s business purpose with its charitable goal — a slam dunk.  Blumenthal and Gilboa say they want to make good vision available at a reasonable price all around the world.

Maintaining a sense of humor

Warby Parker went into business with the intention of disrupting the eyewear industry. In an interview with Forbes magazine, Gilboa said the industry has “been ripping consumers off for decades” with products that are overpriced. Gilboa noted that he and Blumenthal also started with the goal of showing that business can have a tremendous positive impact on social good.

Another way Warby Parker is disrupting the retail world is in its lighthearted attitude, which includes production of less-than-serious annual reports. The company’s 2014 Make-Your-Own Annual Report, for example, includes useful Big Data questions, such as “What was your favorite color in 2014?” But it also asks participants, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Among the multiple-choice answers: “To break in his new jeans” and “Because he’s a strong, independent chicken.”

Come to think of it, Warby Parker is like the chicken. It tried on an old, stiff industry and is softening it to fit the company’s own comfort. It isn’t clucking nonsense to say that Warby Parker is strong, independent, and knows how to strut its stuff.

Learn more about digital transformation in retail.

Tom Redd

About Tom Redd

Tom Redd is the Global Vice President of Strategic Communications for SAP Retail. His specialties include business development, product management, marketing strategy, marketing management and CRM.