Stores were part of Warby Parker's plan since the beginning, even if the founders didn't realize it.

Warby Parker is a classic digitally native vertical brand, selling online directly to consumers as a way to cut down costs. But co-founder Dave Gilboa revealed on Tuesday as part of his Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition keynote presentation that stores have always been part of the eyeglass brand’s plan.

Warby Parker, No. 174 in the Internet Retailer 2018 Top 500, launched with blurbs in GQ and Vogue, which resulted in a 20,000-deep waitlist within days. The retailer was envisioned as an online-only retailer, but shoppers wanted access to the limited inventory even if they couldn’t get the glasses right away.

“We started getting calls from strangers all over Philadelphia,” Gilboa says. “People were saying ‘I read about you in Vogue, and I really want to try on these glasses but you’re completely sold out. Can I come to your store to try on a pair?’ And I said ‘Sure, the store is my apartment, but come on over.'”

Gilboa jokes that the apartment was their “first store,” with customers still using the online checkout to complete their orders. But those initial conversations with customers led Gilboa and co-founder Neil Blumenthal to realize that customer interaction would be vital to their brand.

When they moved to New York, they dedicated a corner of their sixth-floor office to a showroom, but the office building’s management started to get upset when most of the elevator traffic was from Warby Parker customers.

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“All of the sudden we realized we were generating millions of dollars in sales from this sort of store in an office building,” Gilboa says. “That gave us the confidence to explore all these other kinds of physical retail.”

The eyewear retailer now has more than 70 stores and plans to end the year with 90. But the expanding physical retail efforts don’t mean Warby Parker is eschewing its online roots. With its online backbone, Warby Parker is well-positioned for omnichannel operations. Shoppers who find styles they like online can “favorite” them to have the frames ready when they get to a store for a try-on.

And it works the other way as well, with employees offering to take pictures of customers with frames on in stores that are then emailed back to the customers with links to buy the frames. Gilboa says this reduces the friction for many users, who may not know their prescription or insurance details when they wander into a store. More than 60% of those emails result in some kind of transaction, according to Gilboa.

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