About three years ago, most eyecare professionals (ECPs) were buzzing about how online retailing was going to ruin eyewear sales in professional ophthalmic offices. To date, that prediction has not come true. In fact, Rx eyewear sales rose from only 2.4% in 2011 to 2.9% in 2012 (based on The Vision Council’s report “2012 Internet Influence Report,” surveying American adults aged 18 and up). While the sky is not falling due to Internet eyewear retailing, the paradigm is shifting in a way that every ECP needs to understand.

I’ll guess you’ve heard of Warby Parker (WP) by now. They’re the Internet eyewear retailer whose business model was different right from the start. WP sees itself as David battling the mighty Goliath, who, in this context, are a few large companies. The companies have managed to inflate eyewear prices and consumers don’t have other options…until now.

By circumventing the traditional eyewear delivery model using the Internet to sell eyewear, WP purports to give consumers “…higher quality, better-looking prescription eyewear at a fraction of the price.” Part of WP’s strategy is to sell its own line of eyewear brands, thereby sidestepping traditional retailers who sell national and international branded eyewear. It’s a clever strategy, and one that seems to be working.

Even so, this Internet eyewear strategy is not new. What is new and what should be of interest to everyone making and selling eyewear is WP’s newest strategy–what you might call “click-and-mortar.” WP is building retail stores in large U.S. cities where it displays hundreds of frames. Customers can buy these frames but are encouraged to scan through their online catalog for additional selections. They advertise stores and showrooms in New York City, San Francisco, LA, Philadelphia, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Miami Beach, Charleston, Nashville, and Richmond.

WP also has done something very unusual–they’ve placed their optical component in non-optical retail locations. There’s one in my town (Richmond, VA) in a store called the Need Supply Company. What’s offered in this “shop-in-shop” is plano sunglasses and other non-prescription eyewear.

WP’s click-and-mortar paradigm ups the ante for optical retailers. For those who decided not to add an online component to their business it may be time to reconsider that strategy. While most optical retailers are heavily committed to designer and consumer brands, WP is going the other way. Should traditional retailers rethink their branding strategy? And what do you do about WP’s shop-in-shop concept?

WP is changing the optical retail paradigm. It’ll be interesting to see how companies and ECP offices respond.

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