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Seeing the world with fresh eyes: bringing a human touch to physical retail

Joe is 32 years old, is married with a kid, and moved to Toronto 3 years ago. He hasn’t bought new glasses in 5 years, but his old ones broke so he needs a new pair. He walks into a glasses store and wanders from station to station, trying to find a frame that fits his face, which is skinnier than most. He finally finds a pair, and asks the sales associate for an opinion – “they look fine” – and a price – $220. He decides to make the purchase…only to find there’s an additional $225 cost for the lenses, putting the glasses way out of his price range. He keeps browsing and eventually finds a more affordable pair. While he’s a bit disappointed, the optician appears to do a good job sizing him up. He had hoped to have a new pair of glasses that week, but he then learns he’ll have to come back to the store in 2 weeks to pick them up.


Purchasing eye glasses has traditionally been a mundane, and sometimes frustrating, process. It’s a customer experience that glasses owners know too well, and an experience that many of them avoid.

The story of Warby Parker disrupting this experience is well known. They’ve been held up as shining star for digital retailers who reimagined a longstanding process to create a customer journey that resonates with digitally savvy consumers willing to make a purchase without an in-person interaction. In the process, they designed an online customer experience that eliminated many of the pain points that limited customer loyalty and purchase frequency in a stagnant sector.


Andrew is 32 years old, single, and lives in a condo downtown. He’s regularly looking to update his glasses to stay ahead of fashion trends. He searches the internet for the latest in eyewear fashion and comes across a banner ad for a brand one of his friends had recommended in passing: Warby Parker. He is taken aback by the simplicity of the experience. All glasses are priced the same and categorized by face shape, making it very easy to organize frames that will fit him best. He quickly finds a few pairs that he thinks are cool, but has some anxiety over purchasing online. He has never bought glasses without trying them on before! But Warby Parker’s virtual try on and fitting process, combined with the ability to make free returns, gives him enough comfort to give it a shot. He orders two pairs with the expectation of returning them if he doesn’t like either… but ends up keeping both!


Starting Digital

Warby’s initial success was entirely tech enabled. They leveraged an easy platform, a great user experience, and a flexible logistics model to outsource the major costs of selling glasses (showrooms and salespeople) to the customer. They created a complete digital customer journey, from styling to fitting to purchase. If you could see the frames that perfectly matched your face, have complete pricing transparency, and receive and return glasses for free – all from the comfort of your own home – why would anyone want to go back into a store?

Given this success, it may see counterintuitive that much of the talk around Warby Parker today focuses on their move into physical retail. With 60+ stores already opened in North America and more planned, it’s clear they see the bricks and mortar channel as a driver of growth and customer experience. How have they translated the transformative web experience into a compelling offline offering? In short, it all comes down to prioritizing human interaction.

Going from online to offline

Why go into a store? Warby Parker and other eCommerce retailers who have moved to physical channels have realized that the one thing the web can’t offer is human interaction. While Warby’s initial target market loved the virtual experience, a broader customer base (the Joe’s  of the world) wanted to talk to experts, validate that the glasses looked good, and be confident that their prescription would be a match.

We talk all the time about segmentation. In this case, while Andrew and Joe are both millennials, their buying behaviours and life stages indicate that they’re entirely different segments. Does that mean Warby Parker should never try to sell to Joe? No. But it does mean they needed to build a new customer journey that reinforced their strengths while meeting Joe’s unique needs.


Joe walks into a Warby Parker store looking for a new pair of glasses. He’s immediately impressed with the layout. It’s friendly, well-signed, and even though it’s busy, he’s immediately greeted by a young, friendly associate. The associate starts by orienting him on the layout of the store, explains the pricing structure, and points out the sections of glasses best suited to his face shape. Joe tries on a few pairs, finds one he likes, gets fitted by the roving optician and cashed out by the associate on a mobile terminal. He provides the associate some basic data (address, email, etc.) that is used to track his profile for future interactions. He is given a tracking number and an expected delivery date of two weeks. Two days later, he gets an email and in one click can see that his glasses have already been shipped. Two days later they show up at his house…and just like that, his family isn’t bugging him about his out-of-date glasses anymore!


The magic behind Warby Parker’s successful entry into the physical retail word has been the recognition that they didn’t need to replicate the online experience. They just needed to apply similar principles to address the main pain points for customers: pricing confusion, and finding glasses that actually fit your face.  Unlike Andrew, Joe needed to touch and feel his glasses before he bought them.

The best of both worlds

Warby Parker recognized that to grow from Andrew to Joe, they needed to create separate but complementary customer experiences. For digital players moving to the bricks and mortar world, the mantra is to be consistent with, but distinct from, the online brand. How do they do this? It starts with understanding the needs and behaviours of their highest value customer segments and mapping out the optimal journey for each group. The process of building new customer journeys is just like trying on a new pair of glasses. It feels weird at first, but once things come into focus, brands can see opportunity with more clarity than ever before.