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Skip the $700 Eyewear: Warby Parker Sells Stylish Specs for $95 a Pop

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By , dealnews contributor

Many consumers haven't heard of Luxottica, or could just as easily mistake it for a sleek line of kitchen appliances. But make no mistake: This Italian colossus has a slice-and-dice grip on the eyewear market — not just in the U.S., but across the globe, as it's worth an estimated $8.5 billion.

Luxottica designs and retails more than 80% of the world's major eyewear brands. That includes not only the frame lines we know and love (including Persol, Oakley, and Ray-Ban), but also the distribution channels where we buy them (including Sears Optical, Target Optical, Pearle Vision, and Lenscrafters). By the way, they also own Eyemed, the second-largest insurance company in the U.S.

While Luxottica hasn't been labeled a monopoly by way of legal definition, its stronghold on the market certainly makes it an eyewear powerhouse that seemed untouchable. Until three young upstarts fresh from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business came along.

Warby Parker has become all the rage among the hip, smart, and socially conscious — thanks in large part to a weakness it exploited in Luxottica's armor. Founded in 2010, Warby Parker devised a way to fit folks for glasses online, something no one else in the market had done successfully. To boot, the company began selling glasses — quality glasses, mind you — at the door-busting price of $95 a pair. The result: Warby Parker has already grown more than 500% after hitting its first year's sales target in three weeks.

"We feel like we can have a big impact, and the bigger we grow, the bigger an impact we have," says co-founder David Gilboa. He's the son of two doctors, but may be the first non-doctor in a medical family to have one-upped his parents.

Taking Down a Monopoly With Unbeatable Pricing

As Gilboa describes it, the idea for Warby Parker traces its roots to a vacation debacle. While backpacking in Thailand, Gilboa lost his glasses. Returning to the United States for a semester at Wharton School, he wasn't sure how much it would cost to replace them. That's when sticker shock hit: $700 for a new pair.

"I had just bought an iPhone 3G for $200," Gilboa recalls. "It didn't make any sense that a magical phone that did things nobody could've imagined cost $200, and these glasses that used the same basic technology for 800 years cost $700. There had been no innovation on the product side or on the distribution side."

Instead of swallowing his eyewear ire, Gilboa pondered like any good business student: Why did prescription glasses cost so much? That's when he learned about Luxottica. And with three Wharton classmates — Neil Blumenthal, Jeffrey Raider, and Andrew Hunt — he co-founded Warby Parker, bootstrapped out of a Penn campus apartment on a simple premise: What if you could do a nimble end-around past Luxottica and sell prescription eyewear online for $95 a pair?

That system makes trying on a pair of virtual frames easy. Potential customers can upload a picture onto the Warby Parker website, or request up to five pairs to try on at home, 100% free. Of course, there was some nervousness as to whether such a system, back when it was debuted, would actually work. Judging by sales (and helped along by the low price, no doubt), Warby Parker hasn't seen any groundswell of consumer complaints.

Buy a Pair, Give a Pair to Charity

What's more, Warby Parker developed an angle of doing good that doubled as brilliant marketing. Blumenthal is the former director of VisionSpring, which gave glasses to people living for less than $4 a day, and was a driving force behind the company's charitable giving from the outset. Warby Parker gives away one pair of glasses through VisionSpring for every one sold. While Warby Parker wants to make money, "We also want to be an inspiration," Gilboa says.

Of course, there's always the temptation to sell out, or raise the prices now that it's firmly established that the company can't sell its eyewear fast enough. But that hasn't happened so far, and if Gilboa and his partners have their way, Warby Parker will continue to stay true to its original vision.

"I'm most pleased that we started the business as four good friends, and we were told not to start a business with friends — that there would be tension and it would be bad for the friendship and bad for business," Gilboa says. "But we decided to ignore all of that. And we're all still great friends."

Not unlike TOMS Shoes, Warby Parker has made a name for itself by providing quality products at reasonable prices, with the added bonus of helping those in need. Readers, have any of you bought frames from Warby Parker or another online eyewear site? Or are many of you hesitant to try on glasses virtually? Sound off in the comments below.

Front page photo credit: NY Creative Interns
Photo credits top to bottom: Complex Style and Behance



Lou Carlozo is a dealnews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth. Prior to that he was the managing editor of WalletPop.com, and a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

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Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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7 comments
MisChief
LensCrafters apologist here. I lived in a town where LC was the best game in town for quality, price, and short turnaround time. It was only $200 for a really nice pair of glasses with excellent customer service. I really love my LC glasses. I definitely would try Warby out, but I would prefer their brick and mortar. I wonder what their turnaround time is like.
brer_rabbit
I just ordered the free five pair "Home Try-Ons". Like others have said there are some limitiations such as severe astigmatism or prescriptions with prisms. Even though they don't do bifocal, trifocal, or progressive lens you can order just the frames for 10% off and have the lens inserted elsewhere. All the information is clearly posted on their website. I really hope I like one of their frames so I can give them a try.
fwaziz
Awaiting my first WP purchase which just shipped. I did the try-on at home - not all frames are always available for try-on, but it does help immensely to feel the fit and materials. Make sure to get a prescription from your eye doc WITH a measurement for pupillary distance (they don't normally put it on the prescription). Although you can measure yourself, better if the doc does it.
My WP cost $145 for a newer style, so they are already being to encroach beyond the $99 pricing. Still a bargain, though, compared to the thievery at Hour Eyes.
pmurray63
Warby Parker does not yet make bifocals or progressives, alas, so it's back to my original plan of Costco for my next glasses. I'm not interested in giving Luxottica another dime.
baka
I went to the Warby Parker site and priced a pair of glasses with high index lens. It was $175. That's about how much I paid for a similar pair at Costco Optical. My advice, get glasses from Costco (even Consumer Reports agrees). Even with the price of membership, it would be cheaper than Lenscrafters.
psaturn
The $200 iPhone ? We all know that it is NOT $200. Try to buy one without contract and see how much it costs. I agree that the Luxotica monopoly is disturbing. But people keep asking for these brand names that Luxottica carry. But that is not the only cost of the eyewear. You have the costs of anti reflection coating which can cost $100 alone. If you are older than 40 you can pay extra for the progressive lenses (no line multifocals or bifocals) which can be $300 for the high tech name brand like Varilux).
tjmasters
I saw the 60 Minute article about Luxottica and it made me sick. Greed is the root of all evil and I am not some religous zealout mind you. It's a scam to be sure, I've got Eyemed and went to Lenscrafters to get my preciption glasses and the whole time I was there I felt like I was getting fleeced. I new about the monopoly they hold and really couldn't figure out an alternative. The joke is on me, becuase if you have eyecare insurance forget about using any Lenscrafter coupons and if you don't you probably get the same price as I do with the coupons. I am all for making a profit but at what cost? How many millions/billions does one person/company need to live and provide for their family. How many exotic cars will make you happy. I hope these guys do well but I also hope they keep some sort of sense about them and keep prices reasonable. If you do, you will have a loyal consumer for a long time. I've already reccommended Warby Parker to my daughter & several others.
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