After months of Instagram posts about how "we're all in this together," and turning their factories into production centers for masks, direct-to-consumer brands are finally starting to return to business as usual. That's particularly evident by the number of new startups entering the market. But they playbook they're following is rapidly changing.
As part of Nike's plan to increase the percentage of its sales that come from its direct-to-consumer, the company has been opening a slew of new stores in order over the past couple of years to boost sales. Now, the company is unveiling a new retail format that it hopes will make its stores a more regular destination for shoppers. Called Nike Rise, they serve as a hub for local sports enthusiasts, by hosting new in-store events as well as through the addition of new app features.
All retailers that rely heavily on brick-and-mortar stores have had to pivot their business models in recent months, and toy store startup Camp is no exception. But what's unusual about Camp, which has five stores, is that it doesn't rely just on sales of toys in order to drive revenue. Co-founder and CEO Ben Kaufman previously told Modern Retail that only 20% the business comes from toy sales. The company also makes money in-store sponsorships and ticket sales for in-store activities like interactive storytimes and arts and crafts sessions. But since the coronavirus has forced Camp's stores to close for months, Camp has had to figure out ways to move those sponsorship deals online.
Despite experiencing unprecedented sales declines, some retailers are still willing to open their wallets. At least, Lululemon proved it was when the athleisure brand announced last week that it was acquiring Mirror, a connected fitness startup that it had previously acquired, for $500 million. The news was largely celebrated as a "win" for the direct-to-consumer community. But it may also gives some startups a sense of false hope.
This weekend, beleaguered athleisure brand Outdoor Voices added a familiar face from the direct-to-consumer world to its board. Ashley Merrill, the founder of sleepwear brand Lunya, is joining Outdoor Voices as chairwoman of its board of directors, and also participated in a funding round for the company through her investment platform, NaHCO3. Merrill's addition as chairwoman comes after a few months' worth of public relations headaches for Outdoor Voices.
At-home fitness has been having a moment particularly over the past few months, and startup Mirror was able to cash in big on it. On Monday, Lululemon announced that it was acquiring the connected fitness company for $500 million. Mirror had raised $72 million to-date, and is projecting over $100 million in revenue this year. "I think this should be considered one of the big wins in the direct-to-consumer space," said Web Smith, founder of e-commerce newsletter and website 2pm Inc.
Stitch Fix has long maintained that its business model is a blend of art and data science, with its stylists, who represent the artistic side of the company, ultimately deciding which clothes to send to clients. But 11 current and former stylists Modern Retail spoke with said they felt like the artistic side of the company has been devalued, following the announcement earlier this month that Stitch Fix was laying of 1,400 of its California stylists between now and the fall.
As malls prepare to welcome back shoppers, the types of experiences that they are willing to step out of the house for has changed. Rather than spending hours rifling through racks of clothing, some shoppers are turning to curbside pickup. Instead of spending a Saturday at the movie theater, they may stop by a restaurant that's open for outdoor dining. And that means some malls may have to reconfigure their space to make way for new types of attractions.
Direct-to-consumer startup founders have found themselves in a number of unprecedented situations over the past three months -- from having to keep their company afloat while stores were closed to having employees confront them about racism within the company. Many of these same startups have also found themselves in hot water for how they responded to these situations. The issue at hand is simple: customers feel like these companies aren't practicing what they preach.
As the apparel industry struggles to return to its pre-covid level of sales some secondhand clothing startups have been thriving as shoppers become more price conscious. ThredUp released its annual report on the state of secondhand clothing, and said that from mid-March to the end of May, its weekly gross transaction volume has grown 20% compared to the same time period last year. And it's not the only secondhand clothing startup seeing growth.
While the first generation of DTC brands waited years to launch retail stores to build up their online business, newer DTC brands have been much more eager to launch stores within their first couple of years in business. Many of them are now cutting back on the number of stores they had planned to open in the next year or two. But they are also rethinking what it will take to get their customers to come to their stores, and where their customer will be.
Startups with products that have been in-demand during the stay at home orders over the past few months are using the opportunity to introduce their products to a national audience. It's a tricky time for retailers to advertise right now, but for those who are confident in their messaging, there's a better chance that they can get viewers to remember them as other companies pull back.
Retail customer service lines have remained busy over the past couple of months, fielding questions about shipping delays, how to return items when stores are closed, and inquiries about sizing and material from first-time customers. A number of direct-to-consumers startups say they are seeing an uptick nonetheless and have had to change things up a bit.
Retailers are now being called upon to better diversify the products they carry on their shelves. At the end of May, Aurora James, founder of Brooklyn accessory brand Brother Vellies, launched the 15% Pledge, calling on retailers to up the amount of shelf space dedicated to products from Black-owned businesses to 15%. Last week, the movement scored its most significant win to-date, when Sephora announced that it would sign the pledge.
Over the past two weeks, there's been a flood of direct-to-consumer startups issuing statements about steps they will take to better support the black community, and build more diverse companies. But venture capitalists have remained largely quiet. "People are scared -- even though they want to do the right thing, they're worried that people are going to inevitably drag them down with, 'well look at your website,'" said one consumer investor.
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