DTC Era   /   June 7, 2022

DTC Briefing: For travel brands, this summer finally feels like the ‘Roaring 20s’

This is the latest installment of the DTC Briefing, a weekly Modern Retail column about the biggest challenges and trends facing the volatile direct-to-consumer startup world. To receive it in your inbox every week, sign up here.

Many e-commerce companies have been the victims of bad timing over the past two years, but perhaps none moreso than travel brands. 

Travel brands were among the hardest hit when stay at-home-orders were first issued, with luggage brands like Away and July reporting that sales dropped more than 90%. And while travel numbers started to creep back up last summer following the vaccine rollout, on most days, TSA travel numbers still hovered well below 2019 levels. 

But now, even as fears of a recession loom, travel has come roaring back. Over Memorial Day, 2.3 million people passed through TSA checkpoints, compared to nearly 2.5 million on the same day in 2019, and 1.9 million in 2021. In turn, travel brands are among the most optimistic crop of direct-to-consumer brands right now: they’re betting big on seasonal collections this summer and spending more on inventory. They’re also investing in bigger brand-building efforts, like opening new stores, to take advantage of the fact that more people are thinking about traveling than they have at any point over the past two years. 

“We felt this year like summer travel was going to be a really, really big season,” Adeela Hussain Johnson, president of Shay Mitchell-founded luggage brand Béis, told Modern Retail. “We thought it would happen last holiday season — and we saw a little bit of it — but we think this is actually what we are calling ‘the Roaring ‘20s 2.0.’”  

Hussain Johnson told Modern Retail that Béis views roller suitcase sales as a leading indicator of travel, and sales of Béis’ roller suitcases have been up 180% since January, and up 539%compard to May of last year. 

To Hussain Johnson, that — along with a sales spike in some of Béis’ other best-selling items like the company’s weekender bag — indicates people are starting to stock up on or replace core travel items as they start to travel more.

“We’re starting to see, I think just people moving — like people moving around a lot more, and people getting to the point where they are wanting to see people they haven’t seen [in a while],” Hussain Johnson said. 

In anticipation of this summer being a bigger season for travel, Béis launched a new summer collection featuring a backpack cooler and other gear designed for trips to the beach, in bright colors like citron. Hussain Johnson described this and other seasonal collections as a way for Béis to “create an incremental reason for people to come back to the brand.” But, she added that promoting Béis’ core items like its roller suitcases and weekender bag will continue to be a big focus over the summer.

The company is also hosting its first-ever pop-up at the Grove in Los Angeles, which will run through June 19. 

“The big reason [for the pop-up] was really brand awareness and engaging with our consumer,” Hussain Johnson said. “We weren’t ever expecting this to be a huge revenue play.” 

July, a luggage brand that was founded in Australia in 2019, but recently expanded to the United States, is also betting on stores to raise brand awareness in its home country as people start to travel again more. The company currently has two stores in Australia and is set to open a third in September. 

In addition to its Australian stores, July is still primarily reliant on digital advertising in both markets to raise brand awareness, co-founder Richard Li said. But, he said that July — named after the most popular travel month for Australians — is taking a slightly different approach in the U.S. versus Australia. In Australia, Li said that July’s advertising is much more focused on the aspirational, with creative featuring people in nice destinations with July suitcases.

Compared to the U.S., Australia has much stricter travel restrictions in place for longer — the country only started allowing entry to fully vaccinated tourists on February 21. 

Put together, Li said July’s messaging in Australia is around encouraging people to fly and “book that travel today.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Li said the company is much more focused on highlighting the differences between July and other established luggage brands — namely, that July has a bigger product range than some competitors, that includes tote bags and backpacks in addition to roller suitcases. And, like Béis, July is also releasing seasonal collections to get people excited about travel again — namely, a limited-edition magenta collection that rolled out on the company’s site last week. 

But, the boom times for travel don’t mean that luggage brands are immune from all of the other headwinds that direct-to-consumer brands are facing. Hussain Johnson said a key focus for Béis this year is ensuring that the company isn’t too reliant on one marketing channel, particularly in light of the iOS14 rollout last year. In addition to its first-ever pop-up, Béis is also testing billboards for the first time in Los Angeles and exploring podcasts and direct mail.

“We are really investing a lot of resources and time to ensure we can test and learn from some of these outlets,” Hussain Johnson said. Both Hussain Johnson and Li also said that keeping enough product in stock amid ongoing supply challenges was another pain point. 

But despite all of these challenges, these brands are still in expansion mode. Li said that July, for example, has about 25 employees right now, but is looking to add 10 more. 

“Even though the damage from Covid to the travel and hospitality industry was huge, at the same time we saw a lot of opportunity,” Li said. 

Foxtrot names former Drybar and Taco Bell exec as president and CFO

Foxtrot announced a new executive hire this morning: Liz Williams, who formerly served as the CEO of Drybar, is joining the modern convenience store chain as its president and CFO. Before her stint at Drybar, Williams was also the president of international at Taco Bell.

In her role, Williams will oversee operations — which entails human resources, as well as finance — and new store development, and the company’s culinary innovation program. In January, Foxtrot announced that it had raised a $100 million Series C, largely to fund new store expansion. Foxtrot currently has 21 stores across Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Dallas. Next, the company plans to enter Austin, Texas.

In addition to new store expansion, Williams said another big area of focus for Foxtrot right now is expanding its stores’ assortment of freshly prepared food — in particular, to encourage people to pick up last-minute meals at Foxtrot during all hours of the day.

But as Foxtrot expands to more markets, Williams said that her biggest priority is to ensure consistency across all locations.

“What consumers love is when they fall in love with a brand and they get to go to one location, and have a great experience, and then they love it when they can go to the next location and have just as good of an experience, so it really is that consistency that consumers love,” she said.

What I’m reading

  • Thingtesting breaks down three unique ways that direct-to-consumer brands get their products in front of new customers, featuring Omsom, Parachute, and Noshinku
  • Apple announced at its annual WWDC on Monday that it is launching its own buy now, pay later service, to compete with Affirm, Klarna and other fintech startups.
  • Pinterest announced on Thursday that it has acquired AI-powered shopping startup The Yes. Co-founded by Stitch Fix alum Julie Bornstein, The Yes launched its app in spring 2020 and featured products from a number of DTF brands including Everlane and La Ligne.

What we’ve covered

  • Gopuff wants more people to add a pizza or a burger to their orders. For the past year, it’s been building out a freshly prepared food delivery arm, called Gopuff Kitchen, and recently brought on new executives to lead the division. 
  • David’s Bridal recently acquired Anomalie, a startup that helped brides build custom dresses. Now, David’s Bridal plans to fold Anomalie’s technology into its website.
  • Online pet retailer Chewy reported better-than-expected earnings last week, thanks to sales growth in essential categories like consumables and health care. Moving forward, Chewy plans to invest more in pet health care, by launching pet insurance. 
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