While most of its fans discovered Warby Parker’s stylish yet affordable eyewear collection online, the brand is taking the natural next step with a brick and mortar storefront opening this month on Newbury Street.
The location is the second permanent stand-alone for the brand — the flagship is in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood — and will offer a full selection of frames and plenty of Warby’s signature swag. Even better, Warby works with nonprofits to get glasses to people in need around the world.
The brainchild of four Wharton graduates, Warby Parker, founded in 2010, has several ties to this area: The company is named for two characters mentioned by Lowell writer Jack Kerouac; cofounder Jeff Raider hails from Wellesley; and cofounder (and co-CEO) Neil Blumenthal is a Tufts alum. We chatted with both about how it feels to bring the hip brand to Boston.
Q. What were the early days of Warby like?
Raider: We all met at business school and were really close friends. Our fourth friend Andy [Hunt] had this idea because he knew Neil had worked in the eyewear industry in spring for VisionSpring — a nonprofit that provides reading glasses to people in the developing world — and asked us what we thought of selling glasses online. I said, I’d love to get new glasses but I’m just not going to spend $500 with them. Neil contacted the place he had worked with and said glasses [could be made] for a fraction of the price. He said, glasses are just a couple pieces of plastic and a couple pieces of metal even when they’re well-designed so they should cost nowhere near $500. I couldn’t sleep that night — I knew there could be a brand opportunity to bring this product to people at great value.
Q. When did you know it was a hit?
Raider: I think we knew it was a hit right after we launched the website. We were fortunate enough to get some amazing press and immediately just started seeing orders come in a major way. We sold out of our entire home try-on inventory and many of our most popular frames within our first few days.
Q. And now you’re going into brick and mortar, how does that feel?
Blumenthal: It’s funny because people think that us opening true ground-level brick and mortar stores was this giant leap, but we’ve been doing it in some form for three years. Forty-eight hours after we launched the company, the idea was that we would use the Internet to create our direct relationships with customers and that would allow us to bring down the price, so we didn’t have any stores in the original strategy. But when demand went through the roof, we had to temporarily suspend our home try-on program and people started calling asking if they could come in and try on your glasses. We told people to come to my apartment and we had literally hundreds of people over a few months. We learned that it was an awesome way for us to build relationships with our customers because as much as we love talking to people on the phone or e-mail or Twitter, there’s nothing quite like an in-person interaction.
Q. Where did the idea for the try-on-at-home program originate from?
Raider: We talked to our friends and asked, “We think we could deliver amazing glasses to people online at a fraction of the price, would you be interested?” A huge percentage of people said, “Yeah that sounds awesome but I’d really like to try them on.” So we looked at other companies that have similar models of rent and returns like Netflix and DVDs and, being analytic students, we decided we could do it. For us, we felt like we should provide this sort of service for our customers.
Q. Warby has such a specific look and style that extends beyond the frames. How did you go about developing that?
Blumenthal: Early on we spent a lot of time defining “What does Warby Parker stand for?” And the four of us would even argue over words like the difference of collegiate versus preppy. While collegiate stands for learning and self-improvement and improvement of society, preppy is more associated with just a fashion style or a socioeconomic status. Just getting into that level of detail helped define what Warby is today and gave us the point of view of what exactly we want our store to look like and where it should be. It should be on Newbury Street.
Q. How does it feel to come home to Boston to open this store?
Raider: That part of it’s amazing. I remember being young and walking around Back Bay, down Newbury to Boston Common. I think it’s the style epicenter of Boston, so getting a location on Newbury Street is pretty surreal for me.
Warby Parker eyewear will open its doors at 83 Newbury St. above Georgetown Cupcakes on May 17. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m. www.warbyparker.com