When Warby Parker started in 2010, it had a simple pitch: upend traditional optometry by providing an online marketplace where customers can buy prescription lenses at prices that don’t make them want to gouge their eyes out.
Since then, both the company’s mail-order service and the online glasses market it pioneered have exploded. Competing services like Zenni have sprung up, though all players in the eyewear game are still outpaced by the traditional optometry outfits like Lenscrafters. But Warby Parker is now a $3 billion-dollar company, and just last month, it quietly filed to go public. Now, at an opportune moment, Warby is unveiling a revamped virtual prescription-renewal service that it hopes will catch the eyes of even more customers and lure them away from traditional optometrists.
The refreshed service comes with a new app called Virtual Vision Test, which works for wearers of both prescription frames and contact lenses. It provides an at-home vision test similar to what you’d get at an eye doctor, and it can give you a renewed prescription that you can use to buy glasses or contacts.
Download the app on your iPhone or iPad (it’s iOS-only for now), answer a few questions, and find a spot where you can set your device about 10 feet away from you. Then the very short vision test appears. It’s one line of a letter chart, just like you’d see in an optometrist’s office. Cover one eye and read the letters aloud. Cover the other and repeat. The app records your spoken responses so they can be uploaded to Warby Parker’s servers where a doctor can review them. The app also asks a few questions to suss out any red flags that might indicate larger eye health issues. Finally, you’ll snap a picture of your current (or recently expired) prescription. Within two days, Warby Parker says, an ophthalmologist who is licensed in your state will review the results and either move ahead with the prescription renewal or flag it to recommend that you get an in-person examination.
It’s all very quick and smooth. I tested a preview version of the app, and the whole process took about 15 minutes. (The hardest part was trying to find 10 feet of open space in my tiny apartment.) There are some caveats. The service costs $15 for a prescription renewal, though there’s no immediate charge if Warby punts you to an IRL doctor. It’s available in only 29 states, and only for people age 18 to 65. That’s an improvement over Warby’s previous iteration of the app, called Prescription Check, which capped out at age 50. The old app was clunky, too: Operating it took a phone, a laptop, and a credit card that you held up to the camera for scale.
While virtual vision tests have been around for a while, Warby Parker’s renewed focus on customer interaction comes at a pivotal time for the company. As Warby prepares to go public, it has been pouring resources into a business that expands its reach beyond the web: physical stores that offer eye exams and sell eyeglasses. Dave Gilboa, a Warby Parker cofounder and co-CEO, says the company already employs nearly 100 eye doctors across its 145 US stores. According to Bloomberg, Warby plans to open dozens more locations this year.
It may seem like a strange move for a primarily digital company, especially one that was founded on the principle of being an anti-brick-and-mortar glasses dispensary. But Warby Parker’s virtual ambitions reinforce its physical ones. The simplicity of quick online prescription renewals are meant to keep customers coming back. And if the arbiters of Warby’s vision test results decide a patient should receive a full eye exam, the company will happily suggest they do so at one of its physical locations. Ultimately, it all works in service of boxing out the traditional optometrists.
“There are lots of incentives for optometrists to get people back into their office and back into that exam chair so that they can both provide additional exams but then offer them glasses and contacts to sell,” Gilboa says. “We do think that it’s very important that everyone has a regular comprehensive health exam, but we don’t think it’s necessary every year.”
That opinion is slightly at odds with guidance from the more stalwart optical organizations. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that adults under 40 who don’t think they have any vision issues visit an eye doctor once every five to 10 years. Of course, people who wear glasses are encouraged to go more often than that. If you wear contacts, the AAO recommends that you get a complete examination every year.
But some optometry experts worry that just renewing a prescription instead of booking a regular exam could lead to a sort of consumer overconfidence. There is only so much information doctors can glean from an online test, and forgoing a comprehensive eye exam could delay the discovery of any underlying eye health issues.
“If you’re not doing all the parts of the exam, it’s like going to the dentist and saying, ‘Well, I just want to pay for the x-ray to check for cavities but not the cleaning and the checking of the gums and the oral health for cancer,’” says Kathryn Richdale, vision science researcher at University of Houston’s College of Optometry. “You’re taking the risk for yourself to say, ‘I think I’m fine.’ You don’t know for sure if you’re fine unless you actually have a comprehensive exam.”
Of course, getting a full exam every year is not always palatable—or possible—for patients. If your prescription expires but you just want new frames, it can be a pain to wait for a proper exam.
“The convenience is really important,” says Jorge Cuadros, a clinical telehealth researcher at the UC Berkeley’s School of Optometry. “Right now you have to call, make an appointment, go down, take time off work, and then get your eye exam. And then you’re using up so much time when you could just do an online test just to renew your prescription.”
Warby is keenly aware of the service’s limitations. The app can’t detect serious eye issues, like macular degeneration or cancer. Company co-CEO Gilboa says he sees the virtual vision test as a complement to traditional eye exams, not a replacement. The goal isn’t to smoosh all the nuance of a full examination into an app.
“We’re not replicating all of the pieces,” he says. “We’re really kind of unbundling that comprehensive health exam and just focusing on the piece that relates to your ability to see and your visual acuity for both glasses and contact lenses.”
This unbundling of services in telemedicine has expanded during the Covid-19 pandemic, making many health checks much more accessible for many people. But a side effect of that trend is that how patients think about comprehensive health care has become fragmented.
“This is not just in optometry,” Richdale says. “We’re seeing that you can go online and get a birth-control prescription or testosterone or other things. And these companies are in the business of making money. So they’re taking out pieces that they think they can do, because they’re relatively benign and selling them directly to the consumer. You think: ‘It’s glasses. What harm can it do?’”
Companies like Warby Parker can provide copious disclaimers, but that doesn’t mean users will heed them. The easier it is to bypass traditional care, the more easily people can ignore seemingly small health issues until it’s too late.
“The general philosophy in the US seems to be getting away from preventative care and health exams and more toward urgent care,” Richdale says. “You’re kind of kicking the can down the road until one day it’s your problem.”
Experts say the issue isn’t with telemedicine itself but rather how it’s implemented. Cuadros describes an optimal approach as one that extends, but does not replace, the existing care that doctors provide. And that can be best utilized by doctors on a local level. Virtual vision tests can be very useful, especially if it’s in the hands of a doctor who is familiar with your needs as a patient.
“Maybe that person behind the curtain shouldn’t be just an anonymous eye doctor somewhere in the panel of whatever company,” Cuadros says. “But it should be your local eye doctor, the person that you would see anyway. Involve the local eye care providers in the equation.”
Whether Warby Parker can build up enough trust to get people to leave their local optometrist and adopt a hybrid approach to their vision care—half online, half in the Warby Parker store—remains to be seen. But as it expands its presence and capabilities both online and off, the convenience of its online services will be a strong selling point.
Update, July 19, 2021, 1:30 pm: This story has been updated to correct the name of Warby Parker’s new app. It is called Virtual Vision Test.
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