The Return of Rental | BoF Professional, News & Analysis


Within hours of the UK government’s announcement that lockdown restrictions would lift on June 21, Hurr, a London-based apparel rental company saw its website traffic surge — and it hasn’t stopped since.

Its revenue tripled in February, when the announcement was made, compared to the month prior, and the fashion startup said it expects sales to double again in March as consumers secure an outfit from Hurr’s 7,500 rental options, such as a Nanushka dress or a Jacquemus handbag, in anticipation of their first restaurant excursion or dinner party.

With the pandemic’s end in sight, rental retailers are optimistic about recovery. After a tough 2020, Rent the Runway chief executive Jennifer Hyman told BoF the company’s number of active customers is on track to exceed 2019 figures by the end of the year, and currently has about 50 jobs open. Nuuly, the rental service operated by Urban Outfitters, echoed that new subscribers are on the rise in recent weeks.

The Covid-19 crisis hit rental hard. Many services saw an immediate impact when lockdowns began last spring, with customers pausing or canceling their subscriptions en masse. Ambika Singh, founder and chief executive of rental company Armoire, said she was nervous in early March 2020 that the company might lose nearly its entire customer base. It forced some to shutter entirely, like occasionwear platform Armarium, which closed in March of last year, while Bloomingdale’s too halted its rental service My List.

“People were thinking it was armageddon for rental,” Singh said.

But a year later, rental entrepreneurs say the category is tracking as hot as ever. Despite early traumas, the pandemic may actually have boosted the relevance of rental. Consumers are demanding more sustainable fashion options, and have realised that owning a big closet may be a waste of space — a behaviour shift that’s benefitting resale as well. The e-commerce boom at large has also been a plus for rental services, according to Dave Hayne, Urban Outfitters’ chief technology officer and president of Nuuly.

“People are more accustomed to relying on online services, whether it’s food or anything else that we’ve seen grow in the past year,” he said. “That comfort level will carry [Nuuly] into new opportunities and new segments of people’s consumption.”

Changing Consumer Behaviour

Instead of maintaining a bursting wardrobe full of fast fashion blouses and dresses worn only once or twice, consumers today are more inclined to reduce garment ownership and instead use rental programmes to dress for occasions, such as in-person work meetings and weddings, according to Andrea Wasserman, a veteran retail executive who’s now the head of global commerce at Verizon.

“We have learned throughout the pandemic that we can live with less,” she said.

But as the West slowly reopens, consumers will want new outfits for parties and dinners out, exercising pent-up demand to see and be seen. Along the way, rental could be one of retail’s biggest winners.

“We’ve doubled down on our belief in the circular economy and the normalisation of wearing secondhand clothing that would come out of Covid-19,” said Hyman. “Today, even when people are still sheltering at home, they’re starting to dress differently because they want to activate a new life.”

Rental is quickly becoming a lucrative revenue stream for brands, too. For luxury brands, rental could represent 10 percent of revenue by 2030, according to a recent Bain & Company report. When an item gets rented 20 times, for instance, it generates a profit margin of more than 40 percent, the report found.

Budapest-based Nanushka began its partnership with Rent the Runway in 2019 and has since signed with two other rental platforms, Hurr and menswear rental company Seasons. Items that endure several rentals “can generate higher revenue per item than by selling them,” the brand’s chief executive Peter Baldaszti told BoF via email. He added that rental is also a platform for brand discovery, particularly for consumers who can’t yet afford a brand’s products at retail value.

A Growing Assortment of Models

When Rent the Runway launched in 2009, it offered shoppers an affordable alternative to buying handfuls of new dresses for occasions every year. Seven years later, it began pivoting its business model to subscription, where consumers can pay a monthly fee to access a number of items. By 2019, its subscription services — including a $160 plan for unlimited rentals — accounted for more than half of its revenue.

Today, Hyman said subscriptions are still the company’s “hero product,” though it retired the unlimited plan in September, instead offering four, eight or 16 items per month, with options for users to modify their plans on per-month basis.

Others, however, are banking on one-off rentals as the most relevant model in a post-pandemic environment. Hurr founder Victoria Prew said that in a recessionary environment, shoppers may be turned off by a recurring bill. Instead, they could spend £38 for four days worth of a Ganni dress. In the UK, too, consumers aren’t yet used to clothing subscriptions, Prew said.

“We sit on data that if we could get someone to rent one piece, then a couple of pieces and if statistically we can get them over the third rental, they become a customer for life,” she added.

More and more services are offering varying levels of membership. Rent the Runway, for one, has rolled out a resale side where customers can opt to buy something at a discounted rate without having to rent it first. Armoire introduced last September a seven-piece “capsule” membership to supplement its $250 unlimited subscription and $79 four-piece membership.

For many of these rental companies, the pandemic was also an opportunity to improve tech capabilities and user experience. Armoire’s Singh said new efficiencies in warehousing and other operational tweaks have boosted its gross margin by at least 58 percent. Rent the Runway is working on merchandising improvements and personalisation, Hyman said, while Nuuly had time to update its customer service offerings and study its marketing efforts to pinpoint the most effective ways to acquire customers.

“We’re now in a position to burst in the spring,” Hayne said, “to grow with a renewed customer interest because of all the previous improvements we made over the last year.”

Market Share for Everyone

Even as more established rental players suffered last year, the category still saw growth. CaaStle, a software provider that powers rental services for brands like Express and Vince, said it added seven new clients over the past year, including Ralph Lauren.

There’s investor faith in rental, too: Seattle-based Armoire closed a small round of funding late last year, Hurr is in the middle of fundraising with hopes for international expansion in 2021 and Seasons raised $4.3 million in funding last November.

Small niche rental startups also saw new opportunities in the market, including men’s streetwear rental company The Rotation or accessories subscription programme Vivrelle. The Rotation, which carries brands like Aime Leon Dore, Supreme and Heron Preston, has seen members have doubled since September. Vivrelle, which lets customers rent a Chanel handbag or Cartier ring for $99 a month, posted triple-digit growth in revenue last year.

“People really adopted this idea that there’s no need to own [everything] and our members have adopted this as a lifestyle change,” said Wayne Geffen, who co-founded Vivrelle alongside his wife in 2018.

The Rotation, meanwhile, taps into a market that critics traditionally saw as impenetrable: rental for men. But according to the two-year-old startup’s founder, Zayn Fostock, the rental model has a benefit that’s unique to men: a remedy against buyer’s remorse. Research has shown that men are more likely to make impulse purchases, and as a result, more likely to regret buying a new piece of clothing.

“[The Rotation] lets them wear designer clothing without having to pay the price and also never have the fear of buyer’s remorse,” said Fostock. “And if they like something enough to buy it, they can buy through us at a discounted rate.”

Rental is still a young market and will likely grow significantly in the next couple of years, according to Wasserman. Even as more players enter the field, everyone will have an opportunity to gain market share.

“I don’t think it’s ‘winner takes all’ in any case,” she said. “I think of it as becoming more like the overall retail industry, where there are different companies that cater to different tastes and price points.”

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