Warby Parker in some regards may be considered a pioneer in ophthalmic e-commerce, and overtime has slowly been becoming a giant in the ophthalmic industry. They have found a niche in ophthalmic e-commerce for more than a decade and have grown their brick and mortar presence as well with over 150 storefronts in various cities across the country and in Canada.
And though they were among the first to really focus on exclusively the online glasses game, they now have plenty of competition from companies touting prescription eyewear with low cost and high fashion. These include EyeBuyDirect, Zenni Optical, Liingo Eyewear, GlassesUSA, 39DollarGlasses, and Felix Gray—just to name a few.
Like many successful companies, Warby Parker pivoted by adding brick and mortar stores, becoming a public offering, and veering from their original, simple pricing by offering several add-ons, each at a cost. While these steps combat some of the issues I will highlight, it has also taken them further from their original mission and model, which I will discuss later.
This article, originally published in 2015 and updated for 2021, is not meant to deter consumers from purchasing spectacles from Warby Parker. In fact, I believe that for particular patients, spectacles from Warby Parker can be valuable and sufficient for their needs. However, there are some specific types of spectacle lens wearers that Warby Parker just cannot accommodate, at least not yet. Even with their storefront expansion, customers without a store nearby or those who plan to be strictly online consumers may want to consider the following issues before purchasing spectacles.
All high index lenses are not created equal
For an additional fee of $30, Warby Parker allows individuals an option to select “High Index” lenses if they have a “strong prescription.” Individuals with truly “high prescriptions” should receive further education on the benefits of high index lenses and on the purpose of a higher index lens. There are varying levels of high index lenses, and Warby Parker does offer an index of 1.67 (+/-4.0 or higher total power) for their upgrade fee. For an additional fee of $130, they also offer a 1.74 high-index lens recommended for those with a stronger prescription (-8.0 or higher total power).
However, patients with high prescriptions (or those who are borderline) could be better served by some kind of optical consultant presence advising them on lens choices, not simply allowing them to check a box.
For those high prescriptions who do not believe they need high index, who receive no recommendation or instruction, surely they will be disappointed once they receive a -10.00D lens in polycarbonate. These particular patients generally require expert recommendations in careful frame selections and ophthalmic lens materials.
Of course, we all know, all high index lenses are NOT created equal.
We have all had that patient with meticulous visual needs and preferences. How many times have you had a patient who purchases new glasses with the same Rx to discover they cannot tolerate the new spectacles. Meticulous frame adjustments and matching base curves can be paramount for these patients who may find themselves unsatisfied and eternally frustrated with Warby Parker’s cookie-cutter approach.
Progressive lenses (PAL)
Warby Parker offers progressive lens options to consumers. Anyone who has purchased progressive lenses (and especially those who have fit patients for PALs) knows there is a preciseness to the fitting process. Where you mark the beginnings of that progressive corridor can majorly impact the visual outcome. Some patients need the progressive corridors marked a little higher than “standard” or a little lower.
How is the progressive corridor being measured for consumers purchasing PALs online? From my research, this does not appear to be measured at all when purchasing this lens option online, at least not from a trained professional.
One size does not fit all
Glasses are an extension of your body. They should fit and flatter the contours of your face.
Currently, Warby Parker offers a “Home Try-On” option, which allows you to choose five pairs of frames from eligible lines to try on at home and then either order or send back in the original box with the included prepaid shipping label.
Prior to ordering, customers take a short quiz asking face width; frame shape, color, and material; and date of last prescription. The question to determine actual fit is the basic face width of either narrow, medium, or wide. Medium is described as “average,” while wide is described as “broad” and extra wide as “especially broad.” The majority of frames just come in these options, though there are a few frames available in narrow and extra-narrow. However, many of these are not available for Home Try-On.
The first-time glasses buyer would benefit from more guidance in the fitting and frame department.
Most people are not perfectly symmetrical. An ear is higher than another, an eyebrow lower than the other, a nose that is a little too wide or too narrow. People are not perfect.
It is extremely common that most people need some sort of frame adjustment when picking up their spectacles or after a week or so of wear to provide a better fit and a better visual experience. If ordering online, who provides that service?
If you happen to be near a brick and mortar Warby Parker store, perhaps this may not be a huge issue, but for some consumers, they are left stranded, or frustrated, especially if they are purchasing online to avoid going into a brick and mortar location to begin with! What happens if the arms, bridge, or nose pads fall out of alignment from normal daily wear that so often happens. Where do you go for adjustments?
Warby Parker graciously offers to reimburse you once (up to $50.00) within the first 30 days of owning your glasses for the cost of getting an adjustment from an optical shop or eyecare center. However, you may be hard-pressed to find someone willing to adjust your spectacles purchased from somewhere else, even for a fee, as liability for damaging or breaking a frame from somewhere or someone else is always an issue (despite making patients sign liability agreements).
It should be noted that to accommodate for COVID restrictions, Warby Parker did release an instructional video via YouTube walking customers through a few simple adjustments that could be made at home, which is pretty cool.
Supporting your local businesses
What better way to support and show thanks to the people who service you and tend to your visual needs?
The doctor who comes in on a Saturday night to look at the angry red eye that surfaced during the day or the doctor who skipped lunch to squeeze your emergency in despite a packed schedule. This is the doctor who needs your help, and these are the people that you depend on for service and eyecare. Why not support these people, and allow them to continue serving you?
While it is true that glasses can be extremely expensive, it is also true that glasses can be very affordable. There are frames and lens materials of equal quality and style to that of Warby Parker that can be purchased at comparable costs, especially when utilizing vision insurance. There is a common misconception that private offices charge consumers more than online entities.
It is true the costs of various products in private offices can be much more than online, however, it is often because those products are of superior quality.
So how do I feel about Warby Parker as a company?
Warby Parker is a fantastic company—their return policy and industry awards prove that—and there are many things they do very well.
We can all learn from their marketing and sales. They appeal to the millennial, offering a product that is both cool and convenient. The Warby Parker model showcases convenience that many of us crave with the ability to order glasses online and try various frames for free. Their customer service, return policies, and overall accessibility is truly incredible.
They are also dedicated to making a positive impact in communities worldwide Prior to COVID-19, with their “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” program, for every pair of glasses purchased they distributed a pair of glasses to someone in need. In response to the pandemic, they pivoted to provide personal protective equipment to healthcare workers.
In fact, I had a patient tell me that she preferred to purchase her glasses from Warby Parker because “they have a great business model, and it is all for a good cause.” My only question is, can I hire their marketing team?!
For the non-complicated glasses wearer, Warby Parker can be a great resource. While the quality of their frames and lenses cannot be compared to that of a private lab or frame manufacturer, it does not have to be.
That was then, this is now
What set Warby Parker apart in the beginning was their innovative approach to eyewear sales, commitment to affordability, and their standing as an independently owned, private company.
Now, with a full-service brick and mortar presence and in-house optometrists, they have become similar to the other corporate players . Warby Parker also now accepts insurance and recently filed an initial public offering making its shares on a stock exchange available for purchase by the general public. It will be interesting to see how that may or may not change the overall direction of the company and what they stand for, which was part of their allure when they got started.
But perhaps in deepest contrast to their original goal is the fact that their $95 base price only covers single vision, non-prescription, and readers with additional charges to upgrade to blue-light filtering and light-responsive lenses. Progressive lenses come in at $295. I thought the whole point was to make eyewear affordable? Perhaps these prices are still affordable as this is always relative, but it certainly feels like prices are creeping into those “standard and what you find everywhere” prices.
For a lot of consumers, the frames and lenses provided by Warby Parker are more than sufficient, without the higher price tags. From a consumer standpoint, we have all purchased “generic” items because the lower price tag is appealing, and the product works “good enough.”
However, recently, I used my vision insurance to get new glasses—single vision with solid Rayban frames including polycarbonate and anti glare for $70, delivered to my door. Companies like Warby Parker are no longer the only option for affordability and convenience.
And at the end of the day, you can dress a Ford up as a BMW, but it is still a Ford. The same can be said for Warby Parker and how they market their spectacles. However, a Ford is still a pretty good car and does what most people need it to do.