How Warby Parker disrupted the eyewear category

Stephen Whiteside

Transforming a mature industry with a lengthy purchase cycle requires a brand with real vision – and nowhere is that more true than the eyewear category.

Incumbents don't come much more formidable than Luxottica, which owns brands including Oakley, Vogue Eyewear and Ray-Ban, and manufactures glasses under licence for big-name players like Polo Ralph Lauren, Prada, Tiffany, Giorgio Armani, Coach and Burberry. It is also the parent of retail chains LensCrafters and Pearle Vision, and licenses the Sears Optical and Target Optical banners – all together amounting to 4,818 stores throughout the US.

Such was the challenge facing Warby Parker – a start-up then based in Philadelphia – upon surveying the scene in 2009. It believed, however, that opportunities lay beneath the surface. "We just love glasses. But we didn't love the process of buying glasses: we thought that was something you could just do better," Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker's ceo/co-founder, told delegates at BRITE '14, a conference organised by The Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School.