Is ‘re-commerce’ going mainstream?

Photo: @JoesBoilingPoint via Twenty20
Jan 13, 2020

Knowledge@Wharton staff

Presented here for discussion is an excerpt from a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Rent the Runway’s and thredUP’s success has inspired other entrepreneurs to get into apparel rental and the industry is becoming a market worth billions, according to a panel at The Wharton School’s Baker Retailing Center CEO Summit.

Panelists noted that the shift toward clothing rental and resale mirrors what’s been happening across industries: less outright purchasing and ownership, more limited-time experiences. Sharing-economy businesses such as Spotify, Netflix, Uber and Airbnb come to mind.

“Consumers are evolving and moving toward access models. We’ve seen this of course in music, entertainment, transportation and hospitality,” said John Donoghue, a SVP for corporate development at CaaStle, a logistics platform for retail brands offering subscription rental.

Another factor pushing consumers toward re-commerce is their increasing concern, especially among younger people, about reducing pollution.

On the panel, Jeffery Fowler, president for the Americas at the online luxury fashion retail platform, Farfetch, said he sees re-commerce enabling companies to “do good and do good business.” Mr. Fowler asserted that when shoppers know their clothes can have a second life instead of going directly into a landfill, they’ll feel more comfortable buying and enjoying the attractive, fashionable items they want.

Another speaker pointed out that even though people have long donated used clothing to charities, some of it ends up being destroyed because of the sheer volume of donations.

An executive of a top European luxury brand observed that today’s customers demand environmental responsibility from the brands they shop. The annual salary of his firm’s CEO is linked to achieving specific environmental measures.

The panel’s moderator brought up the question of rental and secondhand when it comes to buying gifts. “Can I buy my wife a used handbag? Is that okay these days?”

The panelists agreed that re-commerce items have so far been considered a purchase for oneself rather than a gift. They speculated about whether giving a rental subscription, for example, instead of new clothing, would increasingly become socially acceptable. If it does, that would be a milestone for consumer adoption toward re-commerce going mainstream.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How much more growth potential do you see in re-commerce? Do you see it extending into gifting, non-fashion categories or other areas?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Once the social barriers are crossed and it is cool to sport a re-commerce item, that will be an inflection point."
"At some point will the cleaning, packing, shipping, last-mile delivery, and back and forth, for example, outweigh the “pollution” advantages?"
"I believe this market is limited by the number of unique occasions for which one needs special apparel. It may even be more limited than that."

Join the Discussion!

13 Comments on "Is ‘re-commerce’ going mainstream?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Neil Saunders

Re-commerce delivers on a lot of consumer needs: it is often cost-effective, is viewed as sustainable, showcases some interesting pieces that are not available through mainstream retail, and delivers a “treasure hunt” experience. For those reasons supply and sales will increase over the next five years.

A lot of retailers will try to jump on this bandwagon. I’d caution that not all will be successful. While the market is growing, getting the resale operation right is complex, especially in terms of the authentication of branded goods, checking of products, and management of the experience. Getting it right is much more than simply throwing some used products on a website or shop floor.

Rental is also growing, but it will remain a much smaller part of the market largely confined to more expensive and occasionally used products that consumers don’t want to invest in buying.

Suresh Chaganti
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
1 year 2 months ago

Growth in re-commerce will be dependent on how personal preferences evolve, and on people being comfortable or even proud about using re-commerce. So long as it is a cost driven preference, it will be limited to very expensive/limited occasion wear – wedding, prom, interviews, etc.

Once the social barriers are crossed and it is cool to sport a re-commerce item, that will be an inflection point. Re-commerce will then extend to gifting and non-fashion categories and lower price points. All sociological trends point towards that inflection point happening. But I’m not guessing on when that might be.

Ken Morris

I believe consignment will be on fire in the next few years. Sites like “The Real Real” are moving mainstream and disposable is despicable.

I see societal trends broadly affecting the way we shop. Paper vs. plastic and bring your own bag are the law in many states, changing food shopping for the better. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Re-commerce is a space that will grow along with our awareness that we need to protect our planet and its limited resources.

Cynthia Holcomb

Re-commerce is bright and shiny at this point. At some point will the cleaning, packing, shipping, last-mile delivery, and back and forth, for example, outweigh the “pollution” advantages? Re-commerce gift-giving, below the luxury price point, is like wrapping up a jacket you wore a few times and then giving it as a gift to a friend. Huh? So much intrigue for the gift recipient. Thank you so much, I always loved your jacket. How did you know?

Re-commerce beyond fashion items gets tricky. Re-commerce toothbrushes, food, mattresses, etc. seem more like digital “flea markets.”

Doug Garnett

I’m concerned about the breathlessly stated idea that this is about “doing good.” Shopping habits adjust because companies deliver value to customers. And the primary value delivered here is that consumers can stop over-spending on one-time wear items (or “few times wear”).

It’s long been silly how expensive the things we rarely wear have become. So tux rental has been around for a very, very long time. This is an extension of that business but across a wider range of goods and customers.

I doubt that it will extend much. The core problem being solved is one of rarely worn expensive clothes. We should resist marketer fantasies that it’s much more than that.

Gene Detroyer

I believe this market is limited by the number of unique occasions for which one needs special apparel. It may even be more limited than that. I don’t think that party dress or that special suit that one might wear just a couple of times a year even qualifies. It is more like the wedding, or prom, or gala event.

Hmmm? Wedding? Didn’t I rent what I wore for my son and daughter’s weddings?

Ryan Mathews
First of all, doesn’t the future of “re-commerce” depend a bit on the health of the overall economy? And as Gene Destroyer points out, there has to be a viable consumer “use case” to sustain the system. So when I started my career one wore dress shirts, ties, suits, and polished shoes — even if one were a lowly journalist. Today I “go to work” most days in a tee shirt and jeans. Since Carhart is my designer of choice … sorry Armani, Carhart is the home team if you live in or around Detroit … I don’t really have much need for “re-commerce.” That said, no question it’s a growing industry, the real question is what are the hurdles that could constrain growth? The quick answers seem to be the economy, demand, a redefinition of social status, style, and an increase in consumer sensibility around what some see as the “excessive” cost of fashion production. My crystal ball is out at the polishers, so it’s impossible to say where this one lands long-term. As… Read more »
David Naumann
David Naumann
CEO and President, Cogent Creative Consulting
1 year 2 months ago

The combination of environmental consciousness, economical choices and the desire for variety are all contributing to the growing trends of used clothing stores and apparel rental services. Rental and used items have been common for sporting goods and now sportswear. These trends may extend to other categories that have high price tags and are infrequently used.

Ralph Jacobson

Although they are not-for-profit organizations, I’m a bit surprised the management at the Salvation Army, Goodwill and other organizations don’t merchandise a “premier” line of goods with perhaps a rental option. Perhaps there’s not much LVMH merchandise, however there are plenty of other higher-end brands at those outlets to take advantage of.

Ananda Chakravarty

This is not going mainstream, but it will continue to grow. Despite the hype and market innuendo, predictions, etc., fashion is driven by daily engagement. The best products are not the ones where you buy the apparel to wear it at a special event. Rather the best product is the adored fashion item you go to the special event to wear. Re-commerce will not replace the fashion trends and the eco-consciousness is not the savior. Department stores like J.C. Penney are not turning around due to the ThredUP relationship. Companies like RealReal are struggling to make a profit. The business model for re-commerce is missing the business component. At best, it will turn out to be something like the used aftermarket auto parts industry. An important part of retail, but not the driving institution by any means.

Morgan Linton

I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to re-commerce. Consumers are starting to become more aware of how brands deal with returns and approach sustainability.

Re-commerce itself as a term now provides a completely different way to talk about something that just a few years ago we would call “used.”

As consumers continue to push for greater transparency from their favorite brands I think, in response, brands will start to see re-commerce as an increasingly better path. So when it comes to growth I think re-commerce is just getting started which means extending into other areas like gifting and non-fashion categories is very much on the table.

Shikha Jain

Two considerations when thinking about “winning” in the re-commerce space. Which consumer segments do we want to win in? From a generation perspective, Millennials and Gen Z (so younger people) care more about the environment and as they become a greater part of the demos and workforce, companies will shift to meet these trends.

Secondly, as with almost any sharing service, delivering upon the value promised will be critical. For sustainable apparel, it’s about the transparency. How much of the clothing is made from recycled material? What about the production process? What about sustainability in the services around the core product? For example, are we trading one devil for the other if clothing is sustainable, but if we get and return cardboard boxes every month?

Steve Dennis
At one level, making certain products more accessible to more people (or expanding spending among those who already buy certain brands) has obvious appeal, much in the way that off-price does (or most obviously, traditional thrift stores). It’s simple price elasticity. What really makes the difference goes beyond the laws of supply and demand is the story such purchases allow the story to tell. For higher-end customers, shopping at Poshmark and TheRealReal has story value beyond getting something at the Salvation Army, Ross or Marshall’s. That story can be how savvy a shopper they are, the steal they got on a brand not found in traditional off-price or the good they are doing in the world. People buy the story before they buy the product, and re-commerce is no different. But the scalability beyond a certain level is a real issue, as is the case with most of these business models and re-commerce will begin to face growing pains on overhead, customer acquisition costs and being able to profitability roll-out physical locations. Moreover, the sustainability… Read more »
"Once the social barriers are crossed and it is cool to sport a re-commerce item, that will be an inflection point."
"At some point will the cleaning, packing, shipping, last-mile delivery, and back and forth, for example, outweigh the “pollution” advantages?"
"I believe this market is limited by the number of unique occasions for which one needs special apparel. It may even be more limited than that."

Take Our Instant Poll

Using a sports analogy, where do you see re-commerce in its growth trajectory?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...