After my first semester at Penn, long reading assignments and late nights doing homework in bad lighting had taken their toll on my eyesight. My perfect vision was evidently not so perfect anymore, so when I went home for winter break, I got an eye exam. Afterwards, as I browsed the displays of the optometrist, I did not see an option I liked. In fact, most of the frames resembled what I imagined a middle-aged librarian would have worn in the early 2000s–not exactly the look I was going for. My mother, a life-long glasses wearer, had been reading about a glasses store that was shaking things up in the eyewear industry, slashing prices and revolutionizing the glasses buying experience. So, armed with my new prescription, we headed to our local Warby Parker.
Warby Parker was founded in 2010 by four Wharton graduate students, Neil Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, Andy Hunt, and Jeff Raider. Now valued at over 1 billion dollars, the company’s origin story is rather simplistic. According to the Warby Parker website, one of the founders lost his glasses, and realizing it would be very, very expensive to replace them, he spent the first semester or so of graduate school without them. Inspired by this experience, he and his friends sought to find an alternative solution. They established Warby Parker with the goal of providing affordable, stylish glasses to consumers, while also giving back to the community; for every pair of glasses sold, a pair of glasses is given to someone in need.
Their business model is highly innovative. In researching the glasses industry, they found that one company had essentially monopolized the market, keeping prices high and profiting from customers who had no other option. In a Forbes article, one of the founders, Dave Gilboa, describes this moment as “the first Eureka moment”. He said, “understanding that the same company owned LensCrafters and Pearle Vision, Ray-Ban and Oakley, and the licenses for Chanel and Prada prescription sunglasses — all of a sudden, it made sense to me why glasses were so expensive.” Optical stores were all forced to buy their frames and lenses from one supplier, then they had to mark up prices to cover the cost. Warby Parker circumvented this system by essentially cutting out the middleman. All the glasses are designed and made in-house, essentially creating a vertical integration of the glasses industry that allows them to keep prices low.
“Understanding that the same company owned LensCrafters and Pearle Vision, Ray-Ban and Oakley, and the licenses for Chanel and Prada prescription sunglasses -- all of a sudden, it made sense to me why glasses were so expensive.” Dave Gilboa
According to the Vision Council of America, about 75% of Americans use some form of corrective lenses. Redefining how these people buy their glasses is no small feat, but it is disrupting a huge industry in a way that is dramatically benefitting the customer. This change is revolutionary for Summers Bruce, a student at Southern Methodist University, who said, “As someone who is considered to be legally blind without my glasses, not having glasses is not an option. With a prescription so large, I would be spending upwards of four or five thousand dollars for a pair of glasses and a backup pair just in case. The thought of being able to get a pair of cute and functional glasses for only ninety-five dollars is changing everything, because now I can get two or three pairs for a fraction of what I was paying before.” Considering the large population of Americans who rely on corrective lenses to help them see, Bruce is by no means the only person with a wallet breathing sighs of relief.
"As someone who is considered to be legally blind without my glasses, not having glasses is not an option...now I can get two or three pairs for a fraction of what I was paying before." Summers Bruce
In addition to their ingenious business plan, what makes Warby Parker truly unique is their specific and intentional focus on the customer. Their entire process of purchasing glasses is designed to make it as simple and easy as possible. In the store, the glasses are all organized by shape, and once you decide which one you like, the purchasing process is quick and painless. The woman working in the store recommended that based on my face shape, I should look at the round glasses section. When I was ready, she whipped out an iPad and within ten minutes I had a Warby Parker account with my prescription, billing information and glasses style saved. Four days later, my new glasses arrived in the mail with a note saying that if they didn’t fit, or if I was in any way unsatisfied with my glasses, I could just bring them into any Warby Parker store and they would take care of the issue. “It’s like the Apple Store of glasses buying,” said my mother, a lifelong glasses wearer, “it’s simple. Before, salespeople would try to convince me that I needed thinner lenses, anti-glare coating, anti-scratch coating, and each of those things cost extra money…But then Warby Parker streamlined that whole process. Every pair of glasses includes the anti-scratch and anti-glare, they only have one kind of lens material, and a flat price no matter what the prescription.” For the Warby Parker customer, buying glasses has become a no-nonsense and stress-free experience.
These glasses can also be purchased online from the comfort of your own home through the similarly efficient online store. The potential customer takes a short quiz to determine which shape is most appropriate, before being presented with a selection of frames to choose from. You can choose up to five frames to try on; Warby Parker ships them to you and returns the ones you don’t like for free.
"My glasses...are more of a fashion accessory and less of a burden." Alannah Yellen
Warby Parker defines itself as first and foremost a fashion company, affording price conscious consumers an easy and simple way to purchase well-made, stylish and, most importantly, affordable eyewear. People no longer have to choose between style and price, creating freedom in the purchasing process. Alannah Yellen, W’21 said, “My glasses don’t have to be boring anymore because I don’t have to worry as much about them matching everything if I can buy two or three pairs. It’s really exciting because they’ve become more of a fashion accessory and less of a burden.”