Retail Report: Warby Parker's First NYC Outpost

With shopper behavior sensors, a train station-inspired eye exam appointment board and uniforms designed by Kate Spade's niece, the eyewear startup's first brick-and-mortar shop is a sight for sore eyes.

After three years of sprouting from an optical online social good startup to a booming lifestyle brand, Warby Parker has opened a flagship store in New York City. It's the first offline retail location for the vintage-inspired selection of eyeglasses -- Ryan GoslingSophia Bush and Olivia Wilde are all fans of the frames, while Ashton Kutcher has invested in the company. 

The decision to place the retail store in SoHo was an obvious choice, not only because the location is just blocks away from the company's headquarters, but also because of the brand's ethos.

"Ultimately, SoHo has been an epicenter of art and culture for a really long time," CEO Neil Blumenthal tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It has the perfect mix of native New Yorkers and tourists, so we’re able to expose the brand to a ton of people. And it’s literally a few blocks away from where the Beat writers used to hang out; they used to drink in bars on Bleecker Street."

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Located at 121 Greene St. the Warby Parker flagship is quite the sight. The startup worked with design firms Reform-Creative and Partners & Spade to create an open-concept retail store for both shopping and events such as dinners, screenings and lectures, since the space boasts 18-foot-high ceilings, complete with a skylight 20 feet wide. The brand's classic bestsellers and new collections are displayed on back-lit shelves and separated by color-coordinated books selections from 14 independent presses -- items that are also for sale. Custom-made brass library lamps, large reading chairs, matte-finished ladders from Putnam Rolling Ladder Co. and a terrazzo floor remind customers of the company's original inspiration of literature in New York City, since it was at the New York Public Library where co-founder Dave Gilboa found the Warby Parker name while thumbing through Jack Kerouac's unpublished journals at an exhibit of the author's archive.

"It was there that we discovered Warby Parker -- characters Warby Pepper and Zack Parker merged for Warby Parker’s name," says Blumenthal. "And Warby Parker’s also all about the literary life well lived, this combination of fun and creativity and purpose. So we thought that if we built our store to be representative of that, it would be true to the brand, and it would be exciting and fun."

Following the interactive purchasing experience that the startup offers online, customers can test-drive their frames in a photobooth inside the store. Non-prescription frames can be bought on the spot, while prescription pieces are filled by Warby Parker labs, later available via store pickup or delivery. For those in need of an optometrist, eye exams (at $50 a pop) are conducted onsite as well and can be reserved online. The day's appointments are impressively displayed on a timetable reminiscent of a train station. Though New Yorkers may be immediately reminded of Grand Central Station, this inspiration roots back to the founders' days at Wharton.

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"We developed this electronic appointment board that’s modeled after a Solari train station schedule -- when we were in graduate school, we were down in Philadelphia, and at the 30th Street station, they have one of these boards that click, click, click," Blumenthal explains. "So we created that where you book an appointment online, and you see your name and the appointment up there. Every 15 minutes, it updates: click, click, click."

The staff is outfitted in navy blue monogrammed uniforms designed by Whitney Pozgay (niece of Kate Spade) and inspired by street-fashion photographer Bill Cunningham's "bleu de travail" French worker jacket. As they help customers, hidden sensors gather data about how people shop in the space: where they go while inside, how many frames they try on, and even who walks in with a smartphone. 

For Blumenthal, the store opening was reminiscent of when the company launched in February 2010 with features in Vogue and GQ. The team was small then -- founders Blumenthal, Gilboa, Andy Hunt and Jeff Raider, plus a handful of early employees -- but managed to hit their first year’s sales targets in three weeks and sell out of their top 15 styles in four weeks. Warby Parker now boasts a team of about 175 people, and it welcomed more than 4,000 visitors to the new store during its opening weekend.

"We literally had lines down the block, and it was the same thing -- running around, trying to help customers," he says. "It’s been pretty awesome. It’s just like the first customers that were so excited about the brand, but now they walk into the store."

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These days inspired by the frames of Michael Caine, Buddy Holly and the Man of Steel himself -- "Clark Kent is the most iconic glasses wearer of all time, and Superman is the most iconic do-gooder of all time, so he’s definitely a hero of ours!" Blumenthal says -- optical trends are expected to dial down for summer 2013.

"You’re now seeing a little bit smaller frames, a little more delicate than I think in the years past," says Blumenthal. As for design, put down the prints and crystallized frames from last year, but hang onto the transparent pastels. "Now, it’s still about color, but it’s slightly more muted and not as transparent, I would say. It’s fun colors that the light plays through, so they have translucent properties, but they’re still substantial enough that you see the color, you feel the color."

What's next for Warby Parker, besides a potential partnership with Google to design its glass frames? Blumenthal tells THR: "We do have a few other stores in the works; you’ll probably see two stores open in the next two months." Though he wouldn't say where, the Boston Business Journal put the clues together for a location to open in their city very soon.

Warby Parker is located at 121 Greene St. in New York.

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