The story of Warby Parker is now the stuff of startup legend: a bunch of B-school buddies are getting beers and talking shop and happen upon the idea of selling glasses online. But before they founded one of the Most Innovative Companies, Neil Blumenthal and his fellow cofounders had to first figure out how to make the home try-on program work, how to use beauty as a path of credibility, and why user experience is such a holistic process.
The below interview has been condensed and edited.
A lot of people told us it was too hard to buy glasses online because you can't try them on.
That didn't prevent us from moving forward, but it did red flag an area we need to work on: how do we help people find the best pair of glasses for their face and their style. The initial thought was, we're starting an Internet company, there has to be a technological solution. So we found some facial recognition software where you could virtually try on glasses by uploading a photo. We tried it ourselves, but we weren't sure the technology was quite there yet. That led to a period of self-doubt and examination (back in early 2009), which led to the home try-on program.
The home try-on program had a profound impact on our success and our ability to launch in February 2010—GQ called us the Netflix of eyewear. We had people getting these home try-on boxes delivered to their office and they would open them and try on their five pairs of glasses with everybody in the office. One customer turned into 10 customers.
That home try-on idea makes a lot of sense, but could we afford it? We knew that carrying additional inventory would be expensive.
But our thinking was, well, if this increases sales, then it works. If it reduces return rates, then it works. Because we already made the decision that we were going to have free shipping and free returns. And in eye glasses, when someone returns something, you have to trash the prescription lenses because there are literally thousands of potential different prescription combinations, between astigmatism, pupillary distance, your left eye and right eye, and all the different frames.
Once we introduced the home try-on, the hope was that people wouldn't be returning based on fit, since they tried on the glasses first; they'd know that those glasses were the right frames for their face. So we decided to add the prescription lenses after the customer did the home try-on, and placed their order. There might be a small percentage of people that had something wrong with the prescription and they may need to return them, but at least people aren't returning them because of fit or style any longer.
We wanted to make the process as simple and easy as possible. We could have 10 different price points, but when we launched, we only had one: $95, and that included prescription lenses, and free shipping and free returns. Some frames cost more than others to manufacture, some use more material—so we restrained ourselves from having a bazilliion different price points because we thought that simplicity was easier to understand for the customer and made for a better customer experience.
Some people love to put badges all over a homepage, proving that they are VeriSign approved or Better Business Bureau approved, but we thought that the best indicator of quality was actually beauty and good design. If we made that homepage beautiful and also simple and didn't have too many distractions on it, it would be easier to use, but more importantly, it would give people the confidence to shop with us.
We make that emphasis on beauty and good design run through our whole web experience: how do you limit the amount of excess crap on a page? For us, some of the biggest constraints are the brand and what we stand for—those create guardrails for us that prevent us from being able to go all over the a place.
There's a lot of research that shows that increased selection decreases conversion, both in physical stores and on e-commerce websites—it's old adage of "paralysis by analysis." Too much choice impedes decision making. Because while shopping is about discovery and fun and a form of entertainment, you still want it to be as easy and convenient as possible.
That moment that you hear about the brand, which is most likely through a friend, or in the press, you've started thinking about shopping. So we think about the whole experience: walking into one of our stores or visiting the website, having the box arrive, opening the shipping box, the charcoal gray gift box, the light gray glasses case, and so on. We think about all aspects of the experience.
To do this, it goes into investing in our customer experience team, whereas most companies hire or run call centers to optimize on cost, our customer service is designed to create awesome experiences. When you call, a human being answers within six seconds, they have a mastery of the English language, they're empowered to help you, and hopefully you feel good. If we do that right, then you're likely to talk about us in a favorable way. And that starts off the Warby Parker experience for somebody else.