Warby Parker seemed novel when the eyeglasses start-up launched in 2010: the retro-inspired plastic frames, the free at-home try-on, and the prices below $100.
But, already, the Warby Parker model is attracting imitators. Earlier last year, the founder of a Warby-Parker-esque Brooklyn start-up called Classic Specs complained on Tumblr that it had received a cease and desist letter from Warby Parker (full disclosure: co-founder Neil Blumenthal writes a column for Inc.com). Since then, several more eyewear start-ups--Lookmatic, Mezzmer, Made Eyewear, Eyefly, Rivet and Sway--have popped up with a similar aesthetic and online business model. A Warby Parker spokesperson said he hadn't heard of these companies and declined to comment further.
Some analysts like Forrester's Sucharita Mulpuru are surprised that Warby Parker has managed to attract so many copycats. Despite Warby Parker's strong brand recognition and media hype, says Mulpuru, the company has a long way to go before it dominates the eyewear space online and off. For starters, Luxottica designs and sells more than 80 percent of major eyewear brands sold in retail stores. And according to Mulpuru, the leading provider of online eyewear isn’t Warby Parker but a little-known Canadian outfit called Coastal.com. (Warby Parker is private and wouldn't disclose financial information to Inc.)
Plus, Mulpuru argues the online eyewear space is hard to break into, since the average consumer only shops for glasses once a year at most and there’s little evidence the replacement cycles have gotten any narrower, or that more people need glasses in general.
So do any of these new eyewear start-ups have a shot? To determine what, if anything, sets these competitors apart, Inc. spoke with a few of the founders and asked Mulpuru for her honest assessment.
The pitch: Do-it-yourself specs
Kevin Hundert grew up around eyewear. His grandfather took over REM Eyewear, a wholesale company, around 1971, and his father took over the business 15 years ago.
Emboldened by Warby Parker’s success, Hundert ventured to China in 2012, where he worked in his father’s factory, learning how to produce glasses. After raiding his piggy bank and tapping his family for advice, he officially launched Made Eyewear in June.
What sets Made Eyewear apart, he says, is that its customers design their frames from start to finish. "They can select the shape, customize the colors, engrave the stems, and put up to 25 letters of text on the inside or outside of their stems," he says. "We have this factory, so we can make these to order. We build them on a one-off basis, which no one is doing."
Mulpuru’s take: "Warby Parker is trying to create their own brand in some ways, but the truth is that people love brands. And there’s a reason eyeglasses are expensive: People will pay more for Prada frames. If it’s completely unique, that’s interesting. But the idea of some unbranded company doing it won’t work."
The pitch: Glasses as fashion
Eyefly is the creation of Bluefly, the big fashion discounter. With the new brand, the company is hoping to sell customers on the idea of eyewear as fashion accessory.
"If the frame fits already, it’s very easy to switch up your look and your style with different colors," says Rebecca Giefer, Eyefly’s general manager. "The styles are simple, they’re go-to shapes, and everything is designed in-house."
Beyond that, however, the company is very Warby Parker: it partners with a nonprofit, the Brian Holden Vision Institute, to donate a pair of glasses for every pair sold, and offers a try-at-home option for up to five frames.
Mulpuru’s take: "I don’t think consumers realize they’re lacking an assortment of glasses, so there’s a lot of education Eyefly will need to do to convince people otherwise. I'm no fashionista, but if you go into LensCrafters these days, the assortment is pretty good."
Rivet and Sway
The pitch: LensCrafters for ladies
For many women, glasses shopping can be as painful as trying on swimsuits, says Sara Bryar. Her eyewear company, Rivet and Sway, is focused on "creating an emotional experience" online. "We did a ton of research before we launched, and we found that women think shopping for eyewear is a hassle," says Bryar. "It isn't fun. It’s expensive and a time-suck. They felt like it was a chore."
Rivet and Sway, which has eight employees, aims to make the experience more personal. Shoppers try on up to three frames at home and a personal advisor weighs in on style and fit. "Women don’t really know how to buy glasses," says Bryar, whose next agenda item is increasing brand awareness "in a physical place." "We really want women to think of glasses as a true accessory," she says. "All our frame names have a story behind them."
Mulpuru’s take: "Women may not have the best selection of glasses out there, but I don’t look at this start-up and say, 'Women need an eyeglasses store.' That gets to be really niche.'"