Last year, many direct-to-consumer startups saw record sales -- but they also struggled to produce and ship enough product to keep up with customer demand. If the first few weeks of 2021 are any indication, those issues are likely to continue well into the new year. Since the beginning of the pandemic, startups have been scrambling to find ways to speed up production, mostly by adding more suppliers and placing orders for products further in advance. A year later, and the problems persist.
The direct-to-consumer startup boom has also fueled the rise of a number of secondary industries — for example, buy now pay later services. Affirm just went public this week and if its Wall Street debut is any indication, it’s got some staying power. Affirm disclosed in its S-1 that it generates nearly 30% of its revenue from just one company: Peloton, one of the darlings in the DTC space. But the relationship between buy now pay later services and DTC startups runs deeper than that.
For the DTC brands still betting on physical retail, expansion is on hold right now. But those in booming categories, such as homeware, are finding opportunities to expand into brick and mortar through wholesale partnerships. One example is Parachute, which launches at 65 Crate & Barrel stores this week.
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.
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.
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.
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