The first showroom Warby Parker ever had was Neil Blumenthal's dining room.
It was 2010, and the company, which sells eyeglasses online, was flooded with orders after being featured in the pages of Vogue and GQ. With 15 styles sold out in four weeks, and a waiting list 20,000 people long, the founders had to temporarily shut down the site's home try-on program, which lets customers order glasses to try on before buying them. Suddenly, Blumenthal says, he and his co-founders, all Wharton MBA students, were fielding calls from customers asking if there was anywhere they could go to try the glasses on in person.
There was: Blumenthal's apartment. "We were concerned it'd be a pretty sub-optimal shopping experience," says Blumenthal. "But something magical happened, and we were able to build this really intimate relationship with the customer."
That experience taught Blumenthal that having a "store" doesn't always require four walls and a cash register--and that there are plenty of creative ways start-ups can attract foot traffic, as well as Web traffic. Thus began the company's unconventional foray into the world of bricks and mortar. As Warby Parker prepares to finally take the leap and open its first flagship store in New York City this March, here's a look at some of the experimental ways this nearly three-year-old company has reinvented retail.
Putting a Store in the Office
One of the cool side effects of welcoming customers into his home, Blumenthal says, is it gave the customers a rare opportunity to "peek behind the curtain" of a start-up, while simultaneously giving the founders a rare opportunity to get immediate feedback from customers. So, when they were ready to open their first offices in New York City, Blumenthal says he and his co-founders deliberately picked a space with enough room for a showroom. The open floor plan allowed customers to browse frames, while Blumenthal and the rest of his team worked just a few yards away. The showroom, unmarked from the street, soon became so popular, that Blumenthal says, "The landlord went crazy, because the building only had one elevator, and he basically kicked us out."
Now, the office-cum-showroom is in a slightly larger space, where Blumenthal says, about 1,000 customers come through on the average Saturday. What's more, according to Blumenthal, the 600 square foot showroom boasts sales per square foot on par with Tiffany's. "That pretty much just leaves Apple above us," he says. "That's pretty crazy considering we sell $95 glasses out of the fifth floor of a non-retail building."
Co-branding With Other Stores
Blumenthal says that partnering with other likeminded brands and stores helped the company test the waters of a storefront, before committing to opening one of its own. The team started by identifying some of their favorite stores and, and then approached them about setting up a small Warby Parker footprint there. Warby Parker would pay rent for the space and give the host a small commission for every pair sold. They'd even bring in their own staff to man the Warby Parker booth and allow customers to order on an iPad. That strategy is currently playing out in 10 stores across the country.
For a partnership with The Standard Hotel, Warby Parker designed a vintage newsstand called The Readery, where hotel guests can buy Warby Parker sunglasses. The company even designed a limited edition frame, exclusively sold at The Standard. The advantage, Blumenthal says, is twofold. Not only is it a distribution channel, but it's a learning experience for Warby Parker's staff. "We think The Standard's an innovator in hospitality," says Blumenthal, "and we think we can learn a lot from the hospitality industry in terms of how to treat customers."
Taking the Store on the Road
As fast as Warby Parker has grown, there are still plenty of cities left to hit, so this year the company launched Warby Parker Class Trip, a traveling store on wheels. They bought an old school bus and retrofitted it to look like a professor's library, in keeping with the company's retro aesthetics. So far, the bus has hit six cities, with three more to go, before it stops. Aside from spreading the word about Warby Parker throughout the country, the Class Trip stunt also has a social element. The company invited Warby Parker fans to enter an online video contest for the chance to win free glasses for a year and a party with all their friends aboard the bus.
Hosting a Bazaar
Last holiday season, Warby Parker rented out a 3,500 square foot garage space in Manhattan, and invited other local stores to help fill it. At what came to be known as the Warby Parker Holiday Spectacle Bazaar, shoppers could by anything from Warby Parker glasses to La Colombe gourmet coffee, Christmas trees, and even handmade axes. They held events, too, partnering with McSweeney's publishing house to host readings. The idea, says Blumenthal, was to offer shoppers not just an end product, but "a really special experience for the holidays."