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Warby Parker Revolutionizes Eyewear Market by Borrowing From Apple, Zappos

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When the four co-founders of Warby Parker were readying the launch two years ago of their internet-based eyewear venture, they channeled a who's who list of marketing role models: Apple as a master of design and function; Zappos for customer experience; Nike for building an enduring brand; and Method and Patagonia as trailblazers with clear "do good" missions.

Neil Blumenthal
Neil Blumenthal

The high aspirations appear to be working. The young company hit its first-year sales target in three weeks, sold out of its top 15 styles and had a wait list of 20,000 customers after a month in business.

The model is simple: Buy a pair of hipster-chic glasses at the flat price of $95 and the company will donate a pair to an organization that provides glasses to people in need. To date it's donated more than 100,000 pairs with no traditional advertising, though a heavy dose of PR and, increasingly, events are getting the word out.

The business plan is a familiar one to insurgent brands: Upend an established industry dominated by a few powerful players (in this case, Luxottica and Safilo) and wring out overhead costs by running it as a lean, largely web-based venture. While Warby Parker has opened showrooms by leasing space in existing retailers in cities such as Austin, San Francisco, Portland, New York, Los Angeles and Boston, most customers shop online, using a virtual try-on tool, or ordering as many as five sample pairs free to try on in the comfort of home.

Co-founder Neil Blumenthal, who oversees the creative processes and marketing, sees four keys to the success, starting with the fashion aspect and the price point. Warby Parker uses the same production lines as Luxottica, and in some cases, Mr. Blumenthal said, has innovated on existing methods, including creating some of its own materials. "It's not that people haven't sold inexpensive glasses, but nobody has provided the quality at the price," he said.

The other two factors are the customer experience -- free shipping, free returns, hiring college graduates from great universities with "a mastery of the English language," Mr. Blumenthal said -- and the social-mission aspect. Prior to running Warby Parker, Mr. Blumenthal ran VisionSpring, which is the recipient of Warby Parker's buy-one-give-one mission. "It's authentic," he said, of the connection. "It's not a cause-related marketing scheme that isn't core to our business from day one."

The company has taken on $13.5 million in venture funding and has had profitable months, but at the moment is more focused on expansion than driving margin.