Brand Experience Brief: Warby Parker

Warby Parker is one of several e-commerce brands, including Bonobos and Birchbox, that have ventured into the physical store space.  Check out this Brand Experience Brief video to learn what works and what doesn’t in Warby Parker’s store in New York City’s SOHO, and why it matters.

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This is my second Brand Experience Brief on Warby Parker, the eyeglass e-retailer that has been opening brick-and-mortar stores.  My first video was of a temporary space the company was using while the store I’m covering today was under-construction.   So now we’ll be looking at the Warby Parker store in New York City’s SOHO neighborhood.

The store is long and narrow with displays of eyeglasses on the perimeter and long tables in the center.  It feels like a cross between a LensCrafters, an Apple store, and a library.

The store features high exposed ceilings, a skylight, lots of white paint, and a couple of stunning art pieces.  Employees are distinguished by what are officially described as French worker jackets and by their hipster outfits and personalities.

Backlit displays containing glasses organized by collection and mirrors line the walls.  The lack of minimal signage and no obvious order to the displays is well-suited to the browser but not the targeted shopper.  Below and between the glasses displays are shelves of books — I hadn’t heard of any of the books but they seemed eclectic, indie publisher types.  In addition there are library-style rolling ladders that seem to be primarily for decor since they don’t seem to serve a purpose for the glasses.

There’s a photo booth, where you can take a snapshot of yourself in a pair of glasses. You can print out the photo as well as sign up to get a digital copy via e-mail, presumably so you can share it on social media.  Other than that, I didn’t see any tie into a digitally-enhanced shopping experience like kiosks or tablets that you now find at many other retailers.  Also missing was any mention of the brand’s social mission of giving away a pair of glasses for every pair it sells.

Another miss was the counter at the back.  The sign above it read “eye exams” but it seemed like it was more suited for customer service.  Plus behind the back wall there is another counter that seemed to lead to the eye exam area, so it was a little confusing.

In the center of the store are long tables topped with gold-tone banker’s lamps.  Under the glass-top of the tables is a company timeline with pictures and stories from key milestones in the brand’s history.   The tables don’t seem to serve more of a purpose than a place for employees to put stuff while they’re helping customers and so they might seem like a waste of valuable real estate.

But that brings me to the main point about this store.  It’s actually less of a store and more of a showcase.  In fact, one of the company founders, Neil Blumenthal told Fast Company that the stores are not profit centers as much as marketing collateral, giant advertisements for Warby Parker’s website.  That’s not to say that they’re not selling a lot of glasses.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the company averages an impressive $3,000 sales per square foot.  But the stores seem to be designed as brand experiences first, and as retail outlets second.  And that makes sense, given that Warby Parker was started as an online play and continues to do most of its business online.  It also means that perhaps the company is less concerned with some of the issues I’ve identified.

But earlier this year, TechCrunch reported that Warby Parker has raised $100 million to expand its physical store locations from 12 to 20 by the end of 2015.  So clearly the company is interested in growing its brick-and-mortar business and it will be interesting to see if and how they evolve and improve their retail experience.

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