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Can J.Crew’s Mickey Drexler Turn Warby Parker Into The Next Apple Retail Store?

The last time the J.Crew CEO got his hands dirty with a major brand's big bricks-and-mortar move, he was working for Steve Jobs. Here's what that could mean for Warby Parker.

Of the $55 million in funding that Warby Parker has received over the past two years, arguably the most valuable investment has come from the pockets of J.Crew’s CEO and Chairman, Mickey "Millard" Drexler. Earlier this year, Drexler, an outspoken (and rich) thinker in retail, surprised many by investing in the hip glasses company. As of today, he’ll also join the company’s board. "I like and respect [Warby co-CEOs] Neil [Blumenthal] and Dave [Gilboa] and love what they have created with Warby Parker—they have completely reinvented the eyewear business," said Drexler in a statement.

Warby is gaining access to the creative mind that turned around The Gap in the '90s and then went on to help build J.Crew into the $2.2 billion business it is today. But not so long ago, Steve Jobs tapped Drexler to build a retail presence for Apple. At the time, trying to sell computers in a lust-worthy retail environment was presumed ridiculous ("Here’s Why Apple Stores Don’t Work," BusinessWeek declared in 2001). So Jobs tracked down his most important weapon, Drexler, considered the smartest exec in retail. It was Drexler who directed Jobs to hire then-Target exec Ron Johnson to build Apple stores, along with influencing the Apple team to draw from Gap’s sprawling and airy store aesthetic, and urging Jobs to build a secret retail prototype. Drexler and Jobs—both notorious micromanagers, obsessed with every last detail—would find like minds in each other. Drexler has been on Apple’s board ever since.

Now, Warby is in the rarified position of tapping Drexler at a similar inflection point as it expands from a Web-only business into a physical retailer. For those who know Drexler, Warby’s appeal is logical. Much like J.Crew and Apple, Warby has a proposition that is design-driven, emphasizes simplicity, and retains end-to-end control of its product. And all three companies have been able to take commodity products—the MP3 player (Apple), suits (J.Crew), and glasses (Warby Parker)—and, respectively, transform them into fashion statements. In 2008, Drexler wanted to design a single perfectly fitting suit that every man in America would want in his closet. "Buying a men’s suit is complicated and not easy," Drexler explained to Fast Company for our April 2013 cover story on J.Crew. His team designed The Ludlow, a slim suit with narrow lapels, which has since become one of the brand’s most successful franchises, and a lynchpin in growing its menswear business. "Simplicity is very difficult to achieve," says Drexler, in his thick Bronx accent. "Try to ask someone to make a good roast chicken. To achieve simplicity, you have to have the ability to eliminate all that interferes with the simple."

Warby Parker co-CEOs Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa

Warby has done just that with glasses: chic specs are sold for one price and delivered to a consumers’ doorstep to try on. Now that the Warby men are entering retail—an entirely new, more expensive and risky gambit—they’ll get to tap the wisdom of a 68-year-old who’s been through it all (including getting fired from The Gap and taking J.Crew public and then private again). Already, Drexler’s fingerprints and hints of Apple can be seen in Warby’s five stores. Much in the way Apple stores became interactive playgrounds for customers to fall in love with iProducts, Warby is trying to do the same with glasses. "They shouldn't be behind a locked glass case; we should have someone there available to help answer questions but not be pressuring them or forcing them to make decisions," says Warby co-CEO David Gilboa. To help fuel that experience, Warby hired Anthony Sperduti of Partners & Spade to design its flagship SoHo store. It’s no coincidence that Sperduti and his partner, Andy Spade, have a long history with Drexler, having designed J.Crew’s culty Liquor Store, one of its most profitable locations.

Inside Warby Parker's flagship store at 121 Greene Street in Manhattan

But as e-commerce companies like Warby Parker, Bonobos, and Fab start to dabble with becoming offline retailers, being in on Warby’s ground floor isn’t exactly a bad thing for Drexler. While J.Crew has done a brilliant job of cementing its role as tastemaker, it’s hardly been on the cutting edge technologically. "We have a whole team here now which didn't exist two and a half years ago, which is really a direct operations team, an Internet team. There's someone actually paying attention to, like, innovation and technology and things that we should be doing on our website that we never thought of before," J.Crew brand president Libby Wadle told Fast Company this spring. "For a customer to check out a year ago was extremely cumbersome. There's multiple clicks involved; they might forget it in the middle. There was no one on-site even thinking about that kind of thing before." Now Drexler will also have a few more tech brains to tap. So while he will certainly be the mentor in this relationship, he’ll get to play mentee, too.

[Base Image by: Yu Tsai | Photos by Joel Arbaje for Fast Company]

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  • KPR

    I legitimately need someone to explain something to me. So, I understand that when a company decides to sell its product exclusively online, it saves a substantial amount of money by avoiding the overhead associated with brick and mortal retail stores. It then passes that savings on to the customer. Which was Warby's original model. 

    So I'd love someone to explain to me how a company like Warby Parker can begin to sell within physical retail spaces without increasing the cost of its product. Does the company just take a hit on margin? Will Warby stores act simply as places for people to try product on and product is shipped via the same warehouses as online inventory or will the store actually carry inventory inside the physical space? 
    Would love to hear some thoughts on this. 

  • rhr

    One would like to think that Warby had a 5-year strategic plan that involved building customer base online initially, and then entering specific markets on an incremental basis.  A reduction in margin would be contemplated in such a plan.  An alternative strategy would be to introduce a "store only" product line that is more expensive to help them recover some margin. Warby may not want to go there though.

  • John D.

     Warby Parker buys directly from manufacturer.  They make a huge margin on their online sales.  Brick and mortar will be less valuable to them but at this point they're still trying to find themselves.  They claim to be recreating the shopping experience but are basing themselves on a company that hasn't been able to innovate without it's leader. 

  • AKA little voice

    While the article didn't go into the particulars, Warby Parker and others who follow in their footsteps are changing the eyewear business in several ways. 
    1.  Initially being a strictly online retailer providing information about the size and scale of the glasses, style recommendations for face shapes, and the ability to upload one's photo to virtually try on glasses

    2.  Developing the process of allowing a customer to have up to 5 styles sent to them, to try on and make a decision in 5 days, versus in-store pressure and up-selling 

    3.  Developing a manufacturing pipeline that reduces the cost of eyewear.  Most brands available at Lenscrafter, Sunglass Hut, and private practices offering eye wear of varying price ranges, are produced by Luxottica.  And if a customer likes anything slightly stylish,  one can expect to walk out spending at least $200 - 300 for a pair of glasses

    4.  Charitable donations for each pair of glasses sold

    And with the retail locations, I would say the change is more from a selling and retail environment perspective including:

    5.  Multiple styles are out from behind glass/lock and key, free for customers to try on
    6.  Inviting visual decor, well displayed glasses that make it easy to try multiple styles on my own
    7.  No sales pressure

    Personally, it's not about a "cool" factor.  I've been wearing glasses for 30 years.  I still visit my regular eye doc for exams, and provide my prescription to Warby Parker for the final product.  I don't need to depend on my optometrist's narrow sense of style from which to choose my eye wear. 

    Warby Parker provides me with eyeglasses that I find well made, stylish & current in design, affordable enough to have more than 1 pair every other year, and in fact I can afford multiple styles to indulge my fashion whims, while I am helping a charitable cause, and I can shop in a pressure free environment, that I find comfortable and visually appealing.  

    Working in a visual retail, I have no problem with a new visual aesthetic in eyewear styles and stores. 

  • Genevieve Towne

    as an old school optical diva, I understand the need to get with the times and make tweeks and tucks here and there, but, at the end of the is impossible to " have completely reinvented the eyewear business".  Yes their store is hip and cool and easily recreated across our country. Their "look" will become wildly popular with a certain demographic.  The rest of us will buy our glasses from a reputable private practice where we know and trust the staff and the quality of materials/ measurements. If being "cool" is a prerequisite to buying in their "clone", then count me out. 

  • tiresius

    Unless I'm missing something, the actual "bricks and mortar" store for Warby Parker doesn't seem all that different from the display space of stores such as Lens Crafter.  Granted, the price of the frames is  a lot cheaper-- but what else is all that new?
       That said, I am glad someone is finally taking on the monopoly that is Ottico (under its many guises).  For several years now I have been buying my reading glasses online from a couple vendors offering a wide range of frame styles and lens power-- for less and $20.  Now I have a pair in several reading areas around the house.