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Posted: 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011

Warby Parker fills the gap for cheap, stylish eyeglasses

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I wear glasses that come from China. I bought them from Zenni Optical, one of many competing websites out there in the marketplace for cheap spectacles.

Zenni has a no frills, no customer service business model that allows them to sell prescription glasses at unbelievably cheap prices, about $12-15 (with shipping) for single-vision lenses. (Bifocals might run you $35 and progressives $47.) The thing is there's absolutely no service if something goes wrong with your order or your glasses.

Entering a fractured marketplace

In the marketplace, there's this gulf between hard discount online retailers like Zenni that offer prices that make you think they're missing a zero off the end and full-cost traditional sellers. Even a regular discounter like Costco will charge you a ton more than Zenni for prescription glasses. But you'll get service for that price too.

Recognizing the huge gap between the two extremes, some entrepreneurs got together to do a discount eyeglasses site called WarbyParker.com that offers the hippest glasses, great customer service and good prices. Talk about filling a need in the marketplace.

Warby Parker does not offer $15 glasses. They offer very hip and happening single-vision lenses for $95, with free shipping and returns. (No bifocals, though. This company is geared to young, hip stylish types who don't want to spend $400 on glasses.)

Keeping the focus on the customer

The business model is similar to what Zappos has specialized in. You get a good selection of stylish stuff, great customer service and they'll take anything back if you don't like it.

With Warby Parker, you go on the website and you pick out frames you think might look good. Then they send you a five-pack of frames so you can try them on. They also give you a return mailer that they pay for. If you don't see anything you like in your first shipment, you ask for another five.

The financial trades are reporting that Warby Parker is booming and has now received $12 million in additional funding from investors.

Are cheap glasses worth the cheap price?

I don't care about the styles that Warby Parker offers because I'm have no fashion sense. But I love the idea of choice, customer service and a decent price. It forces the traditional eyeglass places to respond. And the winner in all this is the consumer.

One annex: When I injured my eye playing laser tag recently, the doctor who attended to me said to stop it with my cheap Chinese eyeglasses. He insisted you need a true eye care professional fitting glasses for you. That's the professional opinion I've heard again and again.

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