Warby Parker's new Lincoln Park store opening Saturday
Warby Parker's first permanent store in the Midwest is scheduled to open Saturday in Lincoln Park, down the street from the temporary shop it has operated for five months.
The new shop, at 851 W. Armitage Ave., is the 12th retail store the online eyewear brand has opened in two years.
Its temporary studio, which opened in November at 837 W. Armitage Ave. to introduce the brand to the neighborhood while the company prepared its permanent store, closes Wednesday.
The new 2,200 square foot store, where Warby Parker signed a 10-year lease, will have an optometrist, a photo booth and art from Chicago cartoonist Daniel Clowes.
As its other stores, the shop will sell books from independent publishers, have a library-inspired Reference Desk where people can get their frames adjusted — "like (an Apple) Genius Bar," co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal said — and offer free maps of the best neighborhood reading spots to put new glasses to use.
The bookish theme is fitting for a brand whose name was inspired by Jack Kerouac characters.
"Writers tend to be very creative and chart their own path and be destructive in a positive way," said Blumenthal, who co-founded the socially conscious eyewear company five years ago with three friends.
Warby Parker launched online in February 2010 selling glasses starting at $95, without store overhead and brand-name markups. But it has found that its customers like to interact in a physical setting.
"When people walk in they can immediately and viscerally feel what the brand stands for: fun, creativity and doing good in the world," Blumenthal said.
While the vast majority of its sales are online, Warby Parker's growing fleet of stores have been profitable, averaging just under $3,000 in sales per square foot, he said. To compare, Apple sells an average of $4,568 a square foot and Best Buy $1,192, according to a 2014 report in The Wall Street Journal citing research firm RetailSails.
Blumenthal declined to reveal the total revenues of the privately held company, which has 500 employees.
Warby Parker's retail strategy has followed its customers' behavior, Blumenthal said.
After the company launched, it hit its first-year sales target in three weeks and had so many orders within 48 hours that it had to temporarily suspend its try-at-home program because it couldn't spare the inventory, Blumenthal said. Customers who wanted to try on frames before buying had to come to Blumenthal's apartment.
"Our first store was my dining table, our first cash register was my co-founder's laptop," Blumenthal said.
At its first office, the volume of customers who trekked in to try on frames was so high that "we got kicked out of the building," Blumenthal said.
Eventually the company started experimenting with pop-up concept shops and rolled a school bus into 15 cities to sell glasses and gather data on which neighborhoods performed best.
"We had a lot of data and a lot of evidence that retail really works for us before we started rolling out stores and investing in 10-year leases," Blumenthal said.
In Chicago, Warby Parker frames were available at Bucktown boutique Apartment Number 9 before it opened its Lincoln Park store.
One of the hallmarks of the brand is its social mission. Based on sales, Warby Parker gives a monthly donation to nonprofit partners who train people in developing countries to give eye exams and sell glasses to their communities at affordable prices. Last year, Warby Parker said it had helped distribute 1 million pairs of glasses to people in need.
But the company's marketing message doesn't lead with its giving program.
"We think that people primarily buy from us because of the design of our frame; second, price; third, service; and fourth, social mission," Blumenthal said.
That said, Blumenthal believes the social mission is critical to helping recruiting.
Warby Parker is among several online retailers growing physical footprints, including Chicago-based BucketFeet, The Tie Bar and New York-based Rent the Runway, which is opening its first Chicago store this month in River North.
Retailers have come to understand that customers' shopping journeys flow between the online and offline worlds. Ninety percent of people who buy glasses in Warby Parker stores have been to the website first, Blumenthal said. Shoppers who try on glasses in store can email a photo to friends to get their input or bookmark them, via an app carried by the sales advisers, so they can buy them online later.
"The future of retail is really exciting," Blumenthal said. "It's not about either e-commerce or bricks-and-mortar, it's a fusion of the two."