Case Studies

Chris Costa – Warby Parker

Construction director has an eye for retail growth

They’re among the few items you wear on your face, and that makes buying glasses a big decision.

You want to be sure they look good and fit right, and that’s easier to do if the glasses shop is a pleasant place to be.

As the director of construction for Warby Parker, Chris Costa ensures the lighting in stores is good, the layout flows well and the environment is “unique and delightful.” In short, he wants people to feel comfortable as they pick new lenses and frames, not some mix of dread and indecision.

While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily paused construction, Costa and his team are opening dozens of new stores in 2021.

“I have to balance the main priority of keeping projects running and opening stores on budget and on schedule while also always keeping a focus on ways to lower costs,” he says. “The other challenge is creating an environment and processes that will be scalable as you, your team and the company continue to grow.”

Meeting new markets

Warby Parker, headquartered in New York City, is an eyewear brand with dozens of stores in over 30 states as well as a few in Canada. While the brand is known for its online shopping and at-home try on options, its brick-and-mortar locations continue to grow.

As of August, Costa and his team had opened 20 new stores in 2021, putting them more than halfway towards the expected 36 for the year. Many are in cities where the company already has a presence, but it’s entering new markets too, including San Antonio, Texas.

“This is a really exciting chance for us to meet all of our San Antonio customers in real life,” he says. “We’re excited to bring a bit more convenience to our south Texas customers and meet anybody in the area who may not know about us yet.”

Opening a new location usually takes six to eight months, from planning to finishing touches, with construction taking 10 to 12 weeks. Costa oversees construction as well as procurement of interior features, such as lights and flooring. He and his team manage the general contractors, coordinate with vendors and secure permits and inspections.

“I provide an environment with what I hope is a good balance of autonomy and accountability,” he says. “I also see it as my responsibility to earn my team’s respect and support, which happens when they believe you also have their best interests and growth in mind.”

Back on track

It’s also been Costa’s responsibility to keep his team safe.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Warby Parker’s construction sites were temporarily shut down, but it eventually safely finished all its projects and opened 10 stores last year. When back on site, Costa had to ensure safety protocols, such as temperature checks and social distancing, were followed by all parties who entered the project sites.

“As the pandemic progressed through the initial phase to where we are today, it’s required a lot of thoughtfulness to work through safety factors, as well as a level of rethinking the standard way we were used to working,” he says.

Costa says both he and his team have been flexible as guidelines have changed state by state. He’s also had to navigate slowdowns with acquiring materials and with government offices, which provide permits and inspections. Last year, some of the new buildings were inspected virtually rather than in person, which Costa says he never thought would be a possibility but was ultimately safer.

Another challenge last year was maintaining team morale, he says, which he adds was made easier by having a supportive boss himself. Costa kept spirits up by listening to his team and keeping their needs in mind when making decisions.

“I always put myself in the shoes of the person who will be executing the work to evaluate how it will impact them,” he says. “I determine how it will add value to the overall goals and whether it will require more training or support.”

Building a career

Costa began his career in human resources at a retail company where he then moved into a recruitment position. From there he recruited himself for a role on the construction team. Having grown up with a father who worked in construction, Costa gained experience as well as technical skills from working with him.

Over the ensuing 22 years, Costa has worked in project management and store construction at Nike, rag & bone, Burberry, Coach and Phillips Van Heusen. He says he enjoys the fast-paced nature of the industry, the ability to travel and the opportunity to try new things.

 

“Most of the retail brands that I’ve been fortunate to work for were relevant in retail and their specific market, which always lead to interesting ideas and initiatives in physical retail stores,” he says.

He joined Warby Parker in 2019 and says it’s fun and rewarding to work there.

“Warby Parker, as an organization, is a really an authentic and genuine company,” Costa says. “They strive to not only put the best interests of the business front and center of every decision they make, but also the interests of all their employees as a whole and as individuals.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VIII 2021 Edition here.

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