Christa Hester, 21, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University, models her Warby Parker glasses.
Preston frames from Warby Parker. $95.
By Noel Um Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Last month, Warby Parker turned 3. Having significantly expanded since its inception in 2010, this online eyewear company is sprinting through its toddler years.
Warby Parker recently tied the knot with two new investors, J. Crew and American Express, bringing the most recent round of investment in the company to $41.5 million.
Warby Parker's success in revolutionizing the eyewear industry has led it to become the paradigm for other e-companies attempting to buck the preconception that well-crafted glasses come with a hefty price. At $95, Warby Parker glasses are constructed on the same production lines and from the same materials as higher-priced designer frames.
By cutting out the middleman -- creating its own designs, manufacturing the glasses themselves and selling directly to its customers, -- this startup company is able to sell glasses for a fifth of the price of frames of comparable quality.
Warby Parker has yet to triumph over the leader of the eyewear industry, Luxottica Group, which owns brands such as Oakley and Ray-Ban and partners with major designers, including Chanel and Versace. But Warby Parker has begun to challenge the high prices of 52-year-old Luxottica, and other companies have followed suit.
More recent startups BonLook, Eyefly, Look Magic and Tortoise & Blonde all offer services similar to those offered by Warby Parker; they sell their glasses for less than $100 and offer online features such as Virtual Try-on and Home Try-on, which help customers find perfect-fit frames.
In an NPR story on Warby Parker, co-founder Neil Blumenthal attributed the dearth of online eyewear offerings in the past to the fact that established companies branded glasses a personal and customized item that could not be sold online. Warby Parker proved those claims to be false.
Warby Parker minimizes the risk of buying a pair of frames that don't fit one's face with its Home Try-on feature; it sends customers five frames to test at no cost (as long as they're returned promptly). The company also offers a wide selection of frames that range in design from old-school tortoise to light-weight titanium.
The company particularly has gained traction among the younger crowd who are generally impressed with the low price, high quality of the frames and the company's dedication to charity.
For every pair of glasses sold, Warby Parker sells a pair of glasses to low-income individuals for $4. The company provided more than 250,000 pairs of glasses in 2012.
Mr. Blumenthal believes that it is important that the customers of their $4 frames buy their glasses instead of receiving them for free so that they can feel empowered by their investment and choice of design.
"I thought that the donating part was a really good idea for Warby Parker," said Kaitlyn Kline, 25, of the North Hills. "Especially since the glasses themselves are not expensive, the fact that they donate a pair to charity is great."
Brian Trimboli, 18, a Carnegie Mellon University freshman, said that he first heard about Warby Parker in an article in GQ. "Home Try-on was good since it's free, and the glasses get delivered very quickly. I liked the frames; they felt really sturdy to me, and they were so similar in quality to my Ray-Bans that I wouldn't say that one is necessarily better than the other."
According to Warby Parker's 2012 annual report, Preston -- the name for the soft-edged rectangular frames available in tortoise and sandalwood -- were the most popular frames in Pennsylvania (and most of the country). Other popular frames included Zagg and Nedwin.
"The website offers a lot of unusual styles -- very hipster, with a lot of the classic 'Ray-Ban' type frames and the bigger frame styles," said Christa Hester, 21, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University, who owns the Tenley frame in brown. "I always used to hate wearing glasses, and I finally got a pair of glasses that I liked."
Critics of Warby Parker cite a limited selection of styles and would like to see more fashion-forward designs such as a 1920s-inspired circular frame or a chic spin on the classic black nerd glasses.
The popularity gained from its younger fanbase has been the springboard to the company's success, but it also serves as the brand's weakness. Because Warby Parker targets a younger audience, it sells only single lenses at the moment. Bifocals or progressive lenses are not yet available. On its website, Warby Parker encourages customers who need progressive lenses to order its frames at a 10 percent discount and have the lenses placed by another optical store.
The company took its name from two characters in an unpublished Jack Kerouac novel. With its automatic hip factor, Warby Parker was bound to attract a young clientele. Its next challenge will be to appeal to a broader customer base that values being in style as much as seeing in style.