While some direct-to-consumer startups have reported that their online sales have tripled or doubled since the start of the pandemic, not every retail company is benefitting from the e-commerce gold rush. In March and April, demand for certain products like travel accessories and wedding attire all but evaporated as those activities became impossible to do under stay-at-home orders. So companies that sell these types of products are doing something they swore they never would before: offer a sale.
A number of direct-to-consumer startups have reported huge revenue growth during over the past several months, in some cases acquiring double or triple the amount of new customers that they did during the same period last year. Now, their focus is on keeping those new customers. Even though retention is important for DTC startups year-round, it is especially so during the pandemic, as more customers are buying certain types of products online for the first time.
In March, the fundraising environment for direct-to-consumer startups was "downright frozen," as Michael Duda, managing partner at hybrid accelerator agency and venture capital fund Bullish, put it. Now, March seems like a lifetime ago. Over the past six months, many direct-to-consumer startups in categories ranging from home improvement, health and wellness, and food have struck it big, reporting that their online sales have doubled or tripled while customer acquisition costs have decreased. Consumer investors are starting to close deals again, while investors that had previously soured on DTC startups because of high customer acquisition costs are starting to change their tune.
All big-box retailers are now trying to become tech companies. That's the takeaway from the news that Walmart is teaming up with Microsoft to submit a bid to acquire TikTok. Acquiring TikTok could help Walmart grow its advertising business astronomically -- and that could be a boon for e-commerce startups looking for somewhere else to spend their money besides the Facebook-Google duopoly.
Despite their affinity for shirking traditional retail practices, there's one that direct-to-consumer brands can't shake off entirely: the belief that the customer is always right. Or, more commonly, DTC startups like to follow in the footsteps of Amazon, and declare themselves customer-obsessed. But when customers behave badly, it's often retail workers that pay the price. In order for DTC startups to truly champion diversity and inclusion, they have to train their store staff on how to handle racist or belligerent customers.
During the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., e-commerce has become a lifeline for businesses to stay afloat when many non-essential stores were ordered closed in April and May. Now, changes being made to one of the backbones of the e-commerce landscape -- the United States Postal Service -- threatens to create a huge headache for retail and consumer startups .In mid-July, many businesses started reporting packages were taking longer to get to customers, which coincided with new cost-cutting measures that the USPS could implement. Every e-commerce business, from mom-and-pop shops all the way up to Amazon rely on the USPS in some way, and any changes in service or prices could wreck havoc on small e-commerce businesses.
DTC Twitter is obsessed with Tweet threads. Or, at the very least, they are frequently cited as recommended reads in industry newsletters like 2pm Inc. and Lean Luxe, and often serve as inspiration for further discussions in Clubhouse, Slack, or virtual events. Heavy Twitter usage is not unique to the DTC startup scene, but these Tweet storms are a good a mirror to expose the strengths and weaknesses of DTC startups.
During the coronavirus pandemic, direct-to-consumer startups in categories ranging from personal care to athletic apparel have reported tripe-digit sales growth. The big question though, is how much it will last, as coronavirus cases start to rise again in some states like California and Texas, forcing other businesses to close once again. Five direct-to-consumer startups said they aren't seeing many signs of headwinds -- yet.
Shopify has a bevy of competitors, like Magento, WooCommerce, Salesforce, Microsoft Amazon and BigCommerce, which just filed to go public this week. But no one company yet has emerged as the biggest threat to Shopify's position as the go-to e-commerce platform for DTC brands. Shopify's dominance says a lot not just about the state of other e-commerce platforms, but also about the state of DTC brands.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DTC startups have responded to events of the past week in a couple of ways. The first is by affirming their support for Black Lives Matter on social media, and pledging to fight against systemic injustice. Some brands followed that with pledges to donate to organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Movement for Black Lives Matter. Now, the focus needs to shift to building diverse companies.
One thing is true for nearly all conversions on Amazon: They’re captured by products on page one of the search results. And a significant share of purchases go to just the top few results.
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