There's two competing narratives right now taking shape in the direct-to-consumer space: one, that venture capital funding is starting to fall out of favor with DTC startups. And two, that it's a great time to raise venture capital funding as a consumer startup, as more investors are finally waking up to the fact that there's a huge opportunity for these companies as more people do more shopping online. But these two concepts aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Some DTC startups are still raising venture capital money, they're just doing so later on. Or, if they take VC funding, they are taking steps to ensure their cash lasts longer.
New DTC furniture brand Model No. is attempting to corner a market looking for high end designs at affordable prices. But its differentiator, CEO Phillip Raub said, is the automated 3D printing process, which allows for faster assembling and shipping times, along with zero waste manufacturing.
Outdoor furniture company Outer pays its customers to turn their backyards into "showrooms," which prospective new customers can check out as they're deciding whether or not to buy a sofa or a rug from Outer. It's something that the startup has done since launching in mid-2019. But 2020 was the year in which Outer started to prove that its model has traction. The company did more than $12 million in sales in 2020, up from $1.1 million in 2019. Now, the company plans to lean on its customers more to help fuel its growth, as it seeks to expand the showroom model.
Direct-to-consumer startups were among the biggest beneficiaries of more people doing their shopping online in 2020, with some startups like Brooklinen and Prose reporting that their sales more than doubled or tripled this year. Now, going into 2021, DTC startups are out to prove that the sales growth they reported this year isn't just a flash in the pan.
The DTC bubble was supposed to pop in 2020; instead, it became even more inflated. Fears that the pandemic would lead to a dip in consumer spending never panned out for most DTC startups, as the people most likely to be their customers -- young professionals working from home -- subsequently spent more of their money shopping online. Over the course of the year, companies in categories as disparate as hair care and bedding reported that their sales doubled or tripled over the course of the year, even as stores were ordered shut. Now, going into 2021, direct-to-consumer startups are trying to figure out how to best capitalize on the growth they saw this year.
In 2020, new-to-market startups started to do away with branding tactics that have historically been popular on Instagram. Pastels and Sans Serif font have been replaced by bright colors and oversized lettering, while startups are centering their social media centering their social media strategy around busting taboos or reaching customers that have historically been overlooked. As the direct-to-consumer startup space has gotten more crowded, startups have found that they need a different proposition than just creating a new e-commerce experience for mattresses or luggage -- and that requires a new branding playbook
Companies like Airbnb and DoorDash have recently gone public and become the darlings of Wall Street, but there are some players that are notably outside of the current inventory bubble: DTC brands. What began as a warning in 2019 has become a reality in 2020 made more acute by the coronavirus. Most consumer-facing retail startups quite simply won't reach the scale worthy of mid to late stage venture capitalist dollars. In the DTC, that means the mindset is shifting -- and alternatives are being sought out.
The year is coming to a close -- and what a whirlwind 12 months it has been. Even amid a global pandemic and volatile industry shifts, operators and executives alike still loved to fall back on buzzwords and jargon. Marketers are still using the word "experiential," for example, even though it holds a vastly different meaning compared to one year ago. Meanwhile, executives just love to mention how we're all adjusting to "the new normal" to explain any missteps. Here's Modern Retail's non-exhaustive list of words and phrases often said -- and their actual meanings.
Overall, greeting card sales are down somewhere around 11.6% this year. But there are some reasons for optimism for the industry. The declines in the past several months were not as bad as at the height of the pandemic. And Shutterstock has estimated that holiday card sales would be up 7% this year compared to 2019. A lot of that might be driven by the fact that greeting card businesses have finally figured out how to efficiently sell online -- in part by catering their e-commerce stores to last-minute gift buyers.
Thanks to record e-commerce sales, it's been a good year for direct-to-consumer founders. Except, maybe, for founders of direct-to-consumer razor startups. Months after the FTC blocked Edgewell's proposed acquisition of Harry's, the FTC announced that it would be suing to block another proposed acquisition in the razor category: P&G's intended acquisition of women's razor startup Billie, which was announced in February. Founders and investors that Modern Retail spoke with pointed to the fact that the razor industry is highly consolidated, and even two blocked acquisitions in this category would not spell trouble for other DTC startups looking to sell to a CPG conglomerate.
Nuun, the maker of dissolving hydration tablets, recently launched a loyalty program to attract and retain monthly subscribers. With perks like discounts and exclusive product previews, the company said the new loyalty program helped attract and retain an enthusiastic customer base -- as well as played an integral part in helping make DTC a larger portion of its channel mix.
After surviving the Black Friday rush, direct-to-consumer brands have a new challenge at hand: how to ensure their holiday sales aren't hampered by long shipping delays and going out of stock on certain items. Founders say that they are trying to incentivize customers as much as possible to order early, as well as giving as many details as possible about warehouse and supply chain challenges, in the hopes that shoppers will be as patient as they were in the spring.
Since launching earlier this year, DTC furniture brand Sabai Designs has been on a mission to incorporate its Instagram followers' feedback into the design process. This process of releasing color and design combinations that early followers voted on has resulted in high conversion rates. However, Sabai also found there are advantages and drawbacks to crowdsourcing design ideas from social media.
Levi Strauss & Co has been building out its direct-to-consumer business for years, seeking to lessen its reliance on struggling wholesale partners. But that still didn't fully prepare the denim brand for the new shopping methods every retailer would have to embrace during the coronavirus. For example, Marc Rosen, who joined the company six years ago from Walmart and is now the president of Levi's America's business, told Modern Retail that Levi's had yet to roll out buy online pickup in store. But once its stores closed due to stay at home orders, it had to get the service up and running in a matter of weeks. Rosen spoke with Modern Retail about how the coronavirus has accelerated Levi's tech roadmap.
One year ago, Clorox launched a direct-to-consumer supplement label called Objective Wellness. Now, Objective is taking another page out of the DTC playbook by partnering with Gravity Products, the maker of the weighted Gravity Blanket. The two are selling 'beauty sleep kits' on each of their respective websites. The move shows that even big CPGs are taking cues from the DTC playbook.
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