Retail reinvention


In a lively session on the last day of NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show, Warby Parker co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal and Tina Sharkey, co-founder and CEO of Brandless, talked about reinventing retail for a new age. The session was moderated by Nicholas Goad, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group.

Goad began by sharing with the audience some research his company has recently performed and explaining some of the differences Boston Consulting sees between the current retail landscape and that of the recent past. One thing retailers need to cultivate today is an appetite for disruption. “What is emerging is really an everyone-versus-everyone future,” Goad said. “In the past, retailers stayed in their lane and competed against others in that lane, building scale and efficiency.”

Then came the disruptors, selling not only faster and cheaper, but selling different products. “I don’t think that will be enough,” he said. “In the future, there will be no lanes. Retailers will be adjusting their assortment to whatever the customer mission is.”

Goad cited a grocery retailer who discovered that what mattered most to its customers as they thought about where to shop were quality and price. “In other words, the value of what they were getting, along with freshness. What drove their decision wasn’t necessarily about the brand so much as about the underlying quality.”

Sharkey, a cofounder of iVillage and the former CEO of BabyCenter, focused her presentation on ways Brandless is building its online community. She began with a photograph of an orange that had been hollowed out and filled with Brandless’ gluten-free brownie mix. “One of our community members had taken it on a camping trip and baked it, inside the orange, on a campfire,” she said. Having done this, the community member took a picture of the brownie-filled orange and posted it on Instagram, at which point it took on a life of its own

“Our community found their friends and started to tag each other, saying ‘Wait a second, let’s do this, I love this idea.’ So that brownie and that orange and those tags — and there were thousands of them — was exactly what we started Brandless to do, which was to co-create something alongside an extraordinary community of creators and empower them. The path to purchase is way less important than the path to passion, and the path to connection, and the path to authenticity.”

While it is still the leading purveyor of online prescription glasses, Warby Parker now has stores in 30 states, as well as in Vancouver and Toronto. A recent innovation is the Prescription Chat app, through which, using a smartphone and a second screen, online customers can give themselves a vision test. The results are reviewed by an ophthalmologist who sends the customer a valid prescription.

“We’re constantly working on better experiences,” Blumenthal said. “We want to be customer-focused but medium-agnostic, because mediums change and technology evolves. In terms of having an impact, we still give a pair of glasses away to someone in need. In New York City, we’ve been distributing glasses in about 240 schools to kids that need them.”


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