The Future Of Retail In The Age Of Amazon

26. November 2017.

The 37-year-olds, who on this sunny Friday morning are both wearing slim-fitting button-downs, black sneakers, and patterned glasses—imagine the Black Keys as merchant princes—visit a Warby Parker store each day, hunting “for anything that needs to be refreshed, anything that’s out of place,” Gilboa says. This could be off-kilter frames or neglected customers. As much as the two consider themselves disrupters of competitors like Luxottica (Warby Parker’s $10.5 billion rival, which owns everything from LensCrafters to Ray-Ban), they’re students of retail history and find inspiration in such leaders as hospitality guru Danny Meyer, Apple Store legend Ron Johnson, and Mickey Drexler, the merchandising titan famous for reviving Gap in the 1990s and J.Crew in the 2000s.

Drexler, an early Warby Parker investor and board member, taught them that good experiential design is about solving customer problems. Gilboa describes how Drexler would walk into stores, zoom by Warby’s managers, and head straight to associates to interrogate them for unvarnished feedback. “He’ll isolate them, ask each of them the same questions, and then triangulate: Is he hearing consistent or conflicting answers? Then he really digs in, surfacing nuggets of wisdom hidden even by stores with great numbers,” Gilboa remembers.

When Warby launched its first store, in SoHo in 2013, the mission was to eliminate everything annoying about buying glasses. Blumenthal hated the “little shit vanity mirrors” at optometry shops, while Gilboa couldn’t stand the merchandise locked away in glass cases and the awkward interactions with often-pretentious store associates. They wanted approachable store greeters, an ask-us-anything reference desk, and a warm aesthetic, which they modeled after Sweden’s Stockholm Public Library, complete with its dark-wood shelving. Anthony Sperduti, cofounder of design studio Partners & Spade, who helped Warby Parker conceive its early stores, says they needed to feel like an authentic extension of the e-commerce brand. The high-quality materials of its eyewear products, he says, are reflected in “the brass details, marble counters—this incredible weight, this classicism.” To transform an intimidating experience into a fun and social activity, Warby Parker added photo booths and full-length mirrors so groups can check themselves out together. “If you’re born online, you better have a really good reason to do brick-and-mortar,” Sperduti says. “You better come out swinging.”

Warby now operates more than 60 stores, and on this particular day, it’s opening three new locations simultaneously—in Milwaukee; Fort Worth, Texas; and Harvard Square. Analysts estimate that the company will generate around $250 million in 2017 revenue. As the operation grows, it only gets harder for Blumenthal and Gilboa to keep this experience fresh. Before committing to risky new territories, the company often tests low-cost pop-up shops, rather than get stuck in the kind of expensive, long-term leases that have suffocated many traditional retailers and led them to try to save costs by building out one-size-fits-all stores. The Warby Parker team has developed modular components so that each store shares an identity but there’s room for local flourishes. Vernors ginger ale, a Michigan favorite, is on tap at the Detroit store, honoring the 151-year-old soda maker that once operated a pharmacy at the same location. The Miami store, which opened in 2015, features floors painted to look like swimming lanes, so that photos taken from the ceiling-affixed cameras make customers in sunglasses look like they’re floating in a pool—images that shoppers can then share on social media.

Big retailers and digital-native consumer brands alike cite Warby Parker as an inspiration and seek to mimic, even reverse engineer, what they believe is the core of its hip but inviting store experience. But refashioning stores with a certain wood finish or outfitting employees in a distinctive smock doesn’t make you Warby Parker any more than painting your store white makes you Apple. Piling on frivolous attractions in an attempt at authenticity, as Brooks Brothers did by opening a Stumptown at one of its Manhattan locations, drives the Warby Parker team bonkers. “The way people are defining experience today is way off,” Blumenthal says. “The idea of adding coffee shops to every store is ridiculous,” because it’s driven not by solving a customer problem or introducing a novel experience tied in some way to a brand, but by a hackneyed attempt to boost foot traffic. Equally jarring to them is Amazon’s new Go store in Seattle, which Gilboa recently explored, in which an array of sensors and computer-vision technology enable the ultimate in grab-and-go shopping. “Play that [concept] forward and you can imagine this dystopian experience where you have no human interaction at all,” he says.

Warby Parker is just as maniacally focused on efficiency as Amazon: Its next big initiative is a $15 million optical lab, in upstate New York, which enables greater quality control and faster product delivery. But the company knows that its true value lies in its elevated and personal experience, and Blumenthal and Gilboa never want to stray too far from what Drexler taught them. “We want to reinvent, but we sure as shit don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Blumenthal says. “Startups sometimes take it too far, like, ‘Oh, we’re an innovator! We’ll just ignore what [traditional] retailers have done!’ Ignore best practices, get crushed.”

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