Consumers today are buying everything on the internet from prescription medication to private jets.
But as recently as 2010, the idea of purchasing prescription eyeglasses online seemed far-fetched to many. That was the year that Warby Parker co-founders Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal, along with their business school classmates, launched the e-commerce platform specially devoted to eyewear.
Gilboa says they ignored the advice of others, many with deep industry experience, who argued that launching both an e-commerce platform and a new eyewear brand was biting off more than they could chew.
"We liked the fact that we were outsiders," he says. "We were thinking differently, and we were ready to disrupt and not kind of abide by the traditional aspects of how people shop for glasses."
Today, Warby Parker is valued at $3 billion and has expanded to include sunglasses and a line of contact lenses called Scout. In June, the company submitted a confidential filing for an initial public offering to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. It recently launched an app that allows customers to renew their prescription by taking a vision test on their smartphone's screen. And it has plans to expand its number of in-person stores, where customers can purchase its eyewear and receive comprehensive eye exams.
Gilboa spoke to Inc. managing editor Lindsay Blakely in an exclusive Inc. stream event about the road ahead for e-commerce retail and how entrepreneurs can keep up with the evolving e-commerce landscape. Here are three takeaways from the interview:
1. Pay attention to what causes customer friction.
What part of your customer's interaction with your business causes the most friction? Gilboa says that in Warby Parker's early days, the company underestimated the importance of making it easy for customers to get eye exams and new prescriptions. Customers interested in purchasing Warby Parker glasses had to go to their own optometrist and get a prescription, which they would then send to Warby Parker.
In the company's early days, Warby Parker customers had to get a doctor's prescription separately to buy their eyeglasses. "I don't think we appreciated how much friction there might be for our customers and those patients," says Gilboa.
Since then, Warby Parker has opened 140 in-person stores with licensed optometrists. They've also launched a Virtual Vision Test app that allows customers to renew their prescriptions with a smartphone vision test.
2. Look for opportunities to innovate your retail experience.
Whether customers are shopping for swimwear or a new car, entrepreneurs should home in on what part of the traditional shopping experience is ripe for innovation. According to Gilboa, he and the other founders wanted to make shopping for eyewear fun.
"We hated the shopping experience of walking into a pretty cramped store where all the frames were behind lock and key," says Gilboa. "There's a salesperson who is kind of staring at you as you're looking into a little handheld mirror, and they kind of upsell you on different lenses and coatings. You don't really understand what you're buying, but the next thing you know, you're billed for hundreds of dollars."
When creating an in-person retail experience, Warby Parker tried to mimic what customers loved about the online shopping experience. It found that 70 percent of its retail customers started their shopping experience online, according to Gilboa. They then go to an in-person store to try on the frames and then either purchase the glasses in-person or online. The company then focused on building a unified tech platform that would integrate all these experiences, he says.
3. Evolve with the needs of your customers.
During the pandemic, Warby Parker temporarily closed its retail locations. The company saw an increase in online orders, as well as demand for its home trial program, which ships a selection of frames to customers to allow them to try them on for free. More people used its Virtual Vision Test app. The company also offered telemedicine video consultations for customers.
"We really tried to think through the ways that we can use digital tools to ensure that people can get access to proper eye care and get access to the glasses and contacts that they need to see," says Gilboa.