New DTC toolkit   //   June 24, 2024

Why TikTok-viral brands are embracing brick-and-mortar retail

Athleisure brand Halara may have started online — luring droves of Gen Z shoppers with its trendy style options and affordable price points on TikTok — but now it believes it can win over non-online shoppers by opening stores in the real world. 

Last month, Halara unveiled its first pop-up store location in New York City. It’s the first of at least four pop-up locations slated to open in the U.S. by the end of the year, Gabby Hirata, Halara’s global brand president, said in an interview with Modern Retail at the time. Halara was founded in 2020 by Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Joyce Zhang. Although Halara is only four years old, the Singapore and New York City-headquartered brand has amassed a huge following on social media, racking up more than 660,000 followers on TikTok alone thanks to the “TikTok made me buy it” phenomenon.

At the same time, the platform that turbocharged the early success of Halara is facing a ban in the U.S. if TikTok doesn’t divest from its China-based owner ByteDance. For Halara, physical retail is a chance to grow its fan base. To do that, the brand hopes to earn the trust of shoppers who are more dubious of the company — whether that’s due to the brand’s TikTok fame or its relative newcomer status.

“When we ask potential customers why they haven’t purchased Halara, we often hear, ‘I don’t know if I can trust this social media brand. Is this a real mature brand?” said Hirata, citing customer surveys and focus groups the company regularly conducts. 

Halara isn’t alone. It joins other digital-native retailers that went viral on TikTok but are now looking to brick-and-mortar retail to build credibility beyond the video-sharing app. 

Gen Z-centric brand Cider, for example, opened its first pop-up in the U.S. last fall in New York City. Meanwhile, another popular brand among Gen Z, Edikted, recently opened its third store location at the Mall of America.

To be sure, the transition from online sales to physical retail is nothing new. Direct-to-consumer brands from Warby Parker and Allbirds to Casper and The RealReal have all opened brick-and-mortar stores in recent years after finding early success selling their goods online. But retailers like Halara represent a new generation of digital brands that are looking to scale beyond the confines of social media, according to Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at Publicis Groupe.

“This new crop of companies aren’t so much DTCs that went viral but actually social-first brands that built their initial brand awareness and demand via social media, fulfilled some of that demand and now they’re trying to scale through all the other tactics that are available to them,” said Goldberg. 

In other words, they’re a different breed from the consumer startups that came up during the DTC boom of the last decade, many of which were flush with venture capital funding that has since dried up. Ultimately, that could end up being a blessing in disguise for the new guard of social-first brands as now-troubled DTC businesses like Outdoor Voices struggle to grow profitably. 

“If you’re born in a more constrained market where you have to learn financial discipline early, that better positions you to weather the ebbs and flows of the business cycle than companies that built themselves in a boom time and then struggled to develop discipline later,” said Goldberg. 

It’s a stark contrast from the lightning-fast growth strategies pioneered by DTC brands of yesteryear. Look no further than Allbirds, the maker of wool sneakers, which in 2021 described lofty plans to open “hundreds of potential locations in the future,” in its filing for an initial public offering despite consecutive annual losses. In March, the shoemaker said it will close 10 to 15 of its U.S. stores this year. Similarly, DTC darling Outdoor Voices shuttered all 16 of its store locations in March. During its most recent earnings, mattress company Purple also said it plans to slow the pace of store openings to focus on making its existing fleet more profitable. 

All told, this new wave of social-first brands will likely expand into brick-and-mortar retail at a more gradual clip, Goldberg said.

Like Halara, apparel start-up Collars & Co, which found early success on TikTok, has made a push into brick-and-mortar retail. Last year, Collars & Co opened its first storefront in Chicago and has since opened two more locations in Boca Raton, Florida and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

“If a brand has three locations, it definitely gives a sense of security to the customer that these guys are not some fly-by-night Chinese outfit,” said Collars & Co’s founder and CEO Justin Baer.

Earlier this month, research firm Morning Consult released its Most Trusted Brands 2024 report. It surveyed between 1,158 and 35,280 U.S. adults, depending on the brand. The brands were ranked by a net trust score, determined by the share of adults who trust the brand minus the share who distrusts a brand. While TikTok scored 20.5 with Gen Zers, the platform scored -3.3 with other adults. It’s precisely that more distrustful crop of consumers that Halara hopes to woo with brick-and-mortar retail. 

While Halara’s trendy styles and attractive price points — items range from $9.95 to $84.95 — appeal to younger consumers, the brand never intended to only cater to that single demographic, said Hirata. Halara aims to appeal to “women from all walks of life,” she said, including mothers, pet owners and millennials. Although the brand’s fanbase has widened since Halara first went viral, Hirata said physical stores will help attract a new set of customers. 

As Hirata put it, “To have permanent physical locations is one of the suggestions our customers have given to us to build our brand identity and awareness and trust around the world.”