The new model for retail? Libraries, says Warby Parker co-founder

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Neil Blumenthal explains how the company designs its stores to make customers feel welcome.

This winter, sales at brick-and-mortar stores slid 10 percent as shoppers took their business online in droves. And yet some online retailers, such as Warby Parker, are doing the reverse and opening up new shops. The company already has about 50 stores, and plans to open an additional 25 this year.

It might seem like a counterintuitive business approach for 2017--even more so when you consider where the eyeglass company draws inspiration for the design of its stores: bookstores and libraries.

That's right: While bookstores close across the country and libraries see huge declines in foot traffic, Warby Parker is betting that customers want to spend time in stores that resemble them.

Neil Blumenthal, the company's co-founder and co-CEO, says the demand is there. "The stores we've already opened are overcrowded," he says. "We know we're leaving money on the table."

Peek inside a Warby Parker store:

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LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: Warby Parker co-founders Neil Blumenthal (L) and Dave Gilboa attend Warby Parker's store opening in The Standard, Hollywood on August 15, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Warby Parker)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: A general view of the atmosphere at Warby Parker's store opening in The Standard, Hollywood on August 15, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Warby Parker)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: A general view of the atmosphere at Warby Parker's store opening in The Standard, Hollywood on August 15, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Warby Parker)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: A general view of the atmosphere at Warby Parker's store opening in The Standard, Hollywood on August 15, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Warby Parker)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: A general view of the atmosphere at Warby Parker's store opening in The Standard, Hollywood on August 15, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Warby Parker)
At the eyewear store Warby Parker, in New York, you can have your picture taken with different frames to see which ones you like. Warby Parker is an eyewear company where most glasses cost about $100 with the prescription. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 29: A general view of atmosphere at Warby Parker's holiday spectacle bazaar - leftover launch is held on November 29, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 29: Guests look at optical frames and sunglasses by Warby Parker during the Warby Parker's holiday spectacle bazaar - leftover launch on November 29, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/WireImage)
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Blumenthal is betting that Warby Parker can buck retail trends by redesigning the in-store experience. It starts with the look of the stores themselves, which feature marble terrazzo floors and dark wood or gold-trimmed bays--elements that build a "strong foundation" for a good customer experience. Even though Warby Parker's frames start at $95, customers used to spending $500 or more tend to treat the purchase as a commitment. "Everything we do," Blumenthal says, "needs to reflect quality."

For the bays where the glasses are on display, the company borrows an idea from bookstores, with shelves that often go nearly to the ceiling and sliding ladders that staff can use to grab hard-to-reach pairs of glasses for the customer. A help desk in the back, which Blumenthal compares to Apple's Genius Bar, pays homage to the reference desk at a library: Staff members sit at the large (often wood or marble, and minimalist) piece of furniture, armed with a desktop computer and ready to assist.

Warby Parker's employees stroll around the store, iPad in hand. They can access customers' accounts when prompted to see what frames they've saved, and they answer questions and can check a customer out when they're ready to buy. Workers are trained not to spend too much time looking down at their tablet during these interactions.

Blumenthal says it's important for workers to let the customer know they're there if needed without overstepping. "No one wants to be followed around the store," he says. "You never want the customer to feel like they're better off shopping online."

He points out that many eyeglass stores keep the actual frames they sell up front, but under lock and key, meaning a staff member needs to assist a customer who wants to try a pair on. "This optimizes for loss prevention," he says, "instead of for the shopping experience." Warby Parker keeps its for-sale inventory in the back room, and display-only pairs up front, so that customers can freely sample frames. The company trains its staff to spend as little time as possible in the back room so customers aren't left hanging up front.

In addition to training, Warby Parker puts an emphasis on testing. "At any given time, we're running 10 two-week pilots across the store," Blumenthal says. One test might vary the location of a button on the tablet-based checkout screen; another might experiment with where certain varieties of frames are displayed. Testing is how the company learned that people prefer trying on their glasses in full length mirrors instead of the small ones that eyeglass stores usually offer. "You're a whole person," Blumenthal says, "not just a head."

So far, the design seems to be working: Warby Parker, which was founded in 2010 and opened its first retail store three years later, is reportedly valued at over $1 billion and will have have more than 70 locations open by year's end. The retail business, however, is an ever-changing picture, so whether the company has hit on a long-term formula for success is far from certain.

"Our goal is to make sure our customers to feel welcome in our stores," Blumenthal says, "and that we're able to help them as quickly and easily as possible."

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