In the five days following Thanksgiving, there's usually a wave of retailers offering anywhere from 20% to 50% off of their products. But this year, the wave of brands offering deals between Black Friday and Cyber Monday will feel more like a never-ending tsunami as brick-and-mortar retailers try to make up from revenue lost during the spring. Still, eight direct-to-consumer startups Modern Retail spoke with said that they plan to swim against the current, and don't plan to offer any steeper discounts during Black Friday than they did last year.
Eight years ago, startups turned to Shopify primarily to sell products online. Now, a startup might turn to Shopify to help fulfill orders, get some cash for their business, or use its point of sale system when it opens a physical store. As the startups that launched on Shopify, like Allbirds and Glossier, have grown up, Shopify's influence over the e-commerce ecosystem has ballooned. Now, the company is at an inflection point. The bigger that Shopify gets, the more calls the company faces for it to launch services that solve the biggest pain points of its merchants -- but it could risk diluting Shopify's focus.
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.
For many direct-to-consumer brands looking to sell and ship their products through someone's website besides their own, there's still only one dominant choice for them in the U.S., and that's Amazon. Despite the emergence of dozens of direct-to-consumer startups in every category from cookware to mattresses to pet food, no marketplaces have emerged to focus solely on these direct-to-consumer brands. That, in theory, leaves an opening for a new marketplace to create an alternative to Amazon for these direct-to-consumer brands.
One of the dominant moods of 2020 has been paralyzing uncertainty, and it's been particularly prevalent this week as Americans wait for the results of the presidential election. The election isn't the only thing on direct-to-consumer startup executives' minds -- after all, once the election is over, Black Friday is right around the corner. But Election Day also can't be business as usual.
There's a new most-talked about acronym in the DTC world these days: SPAC, which stands for special purpose acquisition company. SPACs give startups an alternative way to go public, without going through the traditional IPO. In a SPAC, a group of individuals raise money in order to acquire a company with the purpose of taking it public. At least one direct-to-consumer startup, Hims has already opted to go the SPAC route. But investors caution that SPACs won't entirely replace the traditional IPO process.
Many direct-to-consumer brands have long held off on selling through Amazon. But they can't completely ignore its orbit, as Amazon still sets the conversation in e-commerce. There's a laundry list of DTC brands that have still held off on selling through Amazon -- Glossier, Warby Parker, Allbirds and Away to name a few. But, a few trends emerge among the digitally-native brands that have taken the leap to selling through Amazon.
In conversations with a handful of direct-to-consumer startup executives about their holiday marketing plans, the biggest concern cited was figuring out when was the right time to run holiday ads. Both to ensure that customers order far enough in advance so that they get their products by Christmas, and to ensure that they are spending their holiday marketing dollars most efficiently. The executives Modern Retail spoke with said that for the most part, they weren't that concerned about rising digital advertising costs, either because they've been able to further diversify their ad spend away from digital this year, or customer acquisition costs are still lower than they are last year.
Despite experiencing record e-commerce sales during the coronavirus, DTC CEOs are trying to prepare for how to handle some worst-case scenarios over the holidays. Specifically, fears over shipping delays and how to compete with deep discounts are keeping them up at night. As they've had to do throughout the coronavirus outbreak, they're trying to figure out what unexpected scenarios to plan for.
There's no shortage of "last chance" sales hitting email inboxes these days, as desperate retailers like Gap and Macy's are trying to squeeze some much-needed revenue out of shoppers. But that also makes it harder for younger startups to grab customers' attention, when every retail company in the world is trying to email them. So, some startups are turning to text message instead to promote sales or key events. Thinx, used text messaging to promote its 30% off sale in August, while Lensabl is encouraging customers to get their first-time discount via text message instead of email.
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.
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.
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.
With in-person sales largely out of the picture this holiday season, brands must adapt to deliver the frictionless experiences that online consumers expect and demand.
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