Two years ago, nobody had ever heard of Warby Parker, the upstart online eyewear retailing company launched by four Wharton buddies who thought eyewear was a good target for market disruption. Recently, Warby Parker was featured in GQ (and endorsed by the publication), received highly favorable write-ups in Forbes, Fortune, and the New York Times, and was the subject of a glowing piece on CBS News. The company has also received widespread vitriol and scorn from the optical industry at large.

It’s little wonder that optical people hate Warby Parker. The online retailer has come up with a proposition that is a virtual sharp stick in the eye of every brick-and-mortar glasses purveyor out there.

First off, Warby Parker offers reasonably well-designed “quality” eyewear products for less than $100, including Rx, under its own brand—most of it in the vintage variety. Second, the company is strongly committed to high levels of customer service; after visiting the Warby Parker Web site and using its virtual try-on system, a consumer may select a kit of up to five frames to try on for real, selecting one and returning the rest. Also, the company claims that if the consumer needs an adjustment, they’ll pay a conventional optical person to do it (or so the rumor goes).

Third, the company plays to the altruistic sensibilities of its target market, the under-40 crowd, with a “buy a pair, give a pair” program which provides for charitable eyewear donations by the company for every pair purchased by the consumer. And it works the social media angle with savvy.

But the one ingredient in the Warby Parker formula that has been most potent, and no doubt most aggravating to the traditional optical industry, is the notion that consumers shouldn’t pay hundreds of dollars for glasses, because glasses don’t cost hundreds of dollars to produce. A Warby Parker employee, an intern at that, offered this comment to the Forbes reporter: “(Glasses) are a little bit of plastic, metal, and glass—so why the heck do many pairs of glasses cost more than an iPhone?”

This is optical’s Achilles’ heel. Consumers don’t appreciate the value of conventional eyewear because the industry has done little or nothing to educate them. As such, the “glasses cost too much” argument gets ‘em every time.

Warby Parker is expanding and growing dramatically. The company has opened a New York showroom and a number of try-on kiosks around the country. They’re probably not making money yet, but they’re probably not going to go away.

You can hate Warby Parker with passionate intensity, but you can’t fault the company for doing what optical has failed to ever do: explain the value proposition to the buyer.

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