Jason Del Rey

Recent Posts by Jason Del Rey

An Unlikely Startup Enters the Point-of-Sale Business: Warby Parker

Warby Parker has its roots in online selling. But as the venture-backed eyeglasses maker prepared to expand its footprint in physical retail — it opened its first two standalone stores this year, with two more on the way this summer — the company’s management started to think about some of the major components of traditional retail stores, including point-of-sale systems.

And it didn’t like what it saw.

Collin Hughes

So the New York-based company has made the rare — and somewhat risky — decision to create its own point-of-sale system, with the aim of creating flexible software that will be equal parts payments management and customer management.

Warby came to that decision just six weeks before the launch of its New York flagship store this spring, after determining that working with one of the 30 different point-of-sale-related vendors it met would mean nonstop customization to reach the payments and customer service experience it envisioned.

“Even though we felt like we found the best vendor, we realized it just wasn’t going to be a long-term tech partner for us, and the only way we were going to be able to get what we needed was to build it ourselves,” Kyle Ashley, Warby Parker’s director of retail, said in an interview.

Warby Parker’s needs that make existing point-of-sale systems insufficient can be broken down into two categories: Payments and customer-relationship management.

On the payments side, Warby Parker said it wants the ability to charge a customer when their order ships, rather than when it is first ordered in-store. And Ashley said that capability isn’t offered in most off-the-shelf systems.

It also wants the flexibility to enter in prescription information at the time of sale, as well as to use a technology that limits mistakes in the input of prescription information. Another capability it seeks is the ability to attach an image to an order in the system — for example, taking a picture of the eyeglass prescription, so it has it on file.

On the customer-relationship management end, there were several unique needs, as well. For one, Warby Parker hopes to be able to track and compile all of the company’s interactions with a given customer in one spot, whether it be email communications; items viewed by the shopper on the website; or billing, shipping and payment information pulled from any purchases that customer has previously completed online. The vision is that retail workers will be able to view the full history of the relationship with the customer right from a tablet in-store.

“We want to be more informed than others when working with the customer,” Ashley said.

And, ideally, the system would allow Warby Parker to save information about an in-store customer interaction — photos of glasses on the customer, for example — to pass along to the customer if they don’t purchase in-store, but want some reference to complete an order online when they get home.

For now, development of the system is very much a work in progress. For the launch of the New York store in April, the technology team pieced together a short-term solution on the hardware side that consisted of a Google Nexus tablet, a case that one of its engineers crafted with a vacuum-forming tool, and a credit card swipe reader. Long-term, the in-store hardware component of the system will consist of either an iPod touch or an iPad mini, along with a device from a yet-to-be-chosen vendor to accept credit cards.

On the software side, Warby Parker has been customizing existing tools that its e-commerce platform provides. But this is only a short-term solution. The company is in the process of choosing a software development vendor to help it create a native app that will house the software features of its point-of-sale system of the future.

It remains to be seen whether this is something other young retail or e-retail brands end up pursuing, as they look to stand out from larger, more traditional retail brands. Most of them, though, don’t have $55 million in venture funding nor a tech team of 30.

But the increased costs associated with building a system versus licensing are only short-term concerns for Warby Parker. Within a year or two, Ashley said, the costs should be a wash.

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