What’s missing from everyday fashion rental subscription services?

Photos: Express Style Trial; NY&Co. Closet
Nov 14, 2018
Nikki Baird

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article from the blog of Nikki Baird, VP of retail innovation at Aptos. The article first appeared on Forbes.com.

Online fashion rental has taken off in recent years. The initial focus was on high-end accessories and apparel for “once in a lifetime” events like weddings or pregnancy, but that has now extended to making high-end labels approachable to average budgets, giving a wear-it-and-move-on fashionista the opportunity to look like she has the closet of a Kardashian.

The next round in fashion rentals looks to target the more everyday shopper with Express, Ann Taylor and New York & Co. all launching businesses. Each follows the exact same model (unlimited exchanges, pre-paid shipping, free laundry) with different assortments and price points for a three-item subscription. NY&Co comes in the cheapest at $50 per month, followed by Express ($70) and Ann Taylor ($95).

I decided to try NY&Co, placing 13 items into my “on the rack” list. Three items soon arrived, but the whole experience was a letdown.

Even opening the box failed to hold the same anticipation that, say, StitchFix holds. I don’t know what StitchFix will send me. I know that all the things in the NY&Co box will be things I picked, so that “Christmas morning” feeling was diminished.

But the major problem for me is the vague uneasiness that accompanies such services, which is pretty much a little whisper that says, “You don’t own these.”

NY&Co’s box did offer options to purchase the rental items at a steep discount that adds some value to the proposed $600-per-year subscription service. But I’m not wearing something exciting, like for a special event, and I’m not wearing something that makes me feel special, like a high-end label that I would never buy on my own. (I still have the heavy satin bridesmaid dress in my closet from the last wedding I was in, which I think is going on 10 years ago.) And I find, without that kind of value equation — even with the potential discount on items I might keep — it’s just not as satisfying as owning.

As someone who admittedly has a subscription box addiction, it was a feeling I did not expect.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think of the business potential of everyday clothing subscription services such as those described in the article? Do you think consumers are changing their notions about ownership and are increasingly open to renting products that have traditionally been purchased?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Collaborative consumption is something that resonates with Millennials and Gen Z as does thrift shopping and value-based purchasing. "
"The concept of ownership has changed and continues to change."
"...much of the apparel out there still caters to those who wear smaller sizes — this is where subscription service retailers really need to get their act together..."

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10 Comments on "What’s missing from everyday fashion rental subscription services?"

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Charles Dimov

What Nikki articulates is the same feeling most of today’s shoppers feel. The clothing rental market is still quite new. As such, growth is a wide open opportunity. Even for retailers that sell their products, companies like REI are offering pre-used goods. It can bring in shoppers to consider your products, who might not traditionally have been a customer. Interesting prospects.

Neil Saunders

The concept of ownership has changed and continues to change. People are slightly less materialistic and more concerned with sustainability, so rental services will continue to grow across all categories. However, I agree with Nikki’s view that the appeal is somewhat diminished for everyday apparel. There is little thrill in receiving more mundane products and there is little value in renting things which are of relatively low value. Indeed, it’s probably more wasteful to rent everyday things than to buy them and wear them regularly.

Ralph Jacobson

I think the obvious direction is toward subscriptions versus ownership for everything, yes everything. There is no more pride in ownership for many consumers, and those merchants that can provide the instantaneous satisfaction to those seeking it for specific goods, including fashion apparel, have an unlimited opportunity at this point.

Shelley E. Kohan
Collaborative consumption is something that resonates with Millennials and Gen Z as does thrift shopping and value-based purchasing. There are a few reasons why this is the case for the digital natives which should be explored. They are more environmentally conscious and would like to see “fast fashion” replaced by slow fashion (albeit this same generation contradicts itself being one of the largest consumers of fast fashion). The digital natives also pride themselves on finding authentic curated products which are worth more to them than the mass market sameness found in our over-stored marketplace. Another reason that collaborative consumption is growing is the fear of debt held by Millennials which means they are not apt to quickly build up credit card debt to finance their wardrobe. Combining all these factors, the rental or joint ownership model is an attractive offering to those generations. However, with that said, it will be a challenging model for the discount or low price retailers as the cost of returns, repacking and other operational costs associated with a rental model… Read more »
Bob Amster

Being, admittedly, one of the worst consumers in the world, I venture to say that the rental model — while not for me — is a good model for the special occasion, which is very limited. To how many special occasions do I go for which I need a special something? It doesn’t matter, the answer is a tuxedo and I own one. For women, it is quite different, as each special occasion is an opportunity to wear something different without having to purchase it, but it is still a limited market.

Georganne Bender
Subscription services like Rent the Runway offer items that I probably would not buy on my own — I don’t need expensive designer dresses every day. And I agree with Nikki about the element of surprise that comes with a Stitch Fix box that doesn’t happen when I choose items on my own. Women come in all shapes and sizes, but much of the apparel out there still caters to those who wear smaller sizes — this is where subscription service retailers really need to get their act together if they want to connect with female consumers. If I wear a size 10 in one garment and a 12 in another I am not going to be comfortable subscribing to any service. And I just don’t see the point of an Ann Taylor or New York & Company subscription service. Both of these retailers fill my inbox each day with deep discount offers. To me it makes more sense to just buy the things I want rather than go through the hassle of choosing and… Read more »
Brandon Rael

The subscription services model has taken off and is resonating with consumers across the luxury, fashion, and health & beauty spaces. However in order to retain that level of excitement, brands have to continue to impress, entertain and mix up the assortments on a personal level that will inspire the customer to stay with the model.

The move to a shared economy has ascended across so many industries, and the old concept of ownership has been diminished to an extent. This also applies to the fashion industry. I am in full agreement with Nikki that the subscription model has worked extremely well for Rent the Runway, and other companies, yet for everyday clothing, the excitement simply isn’t there.

Ricardo Belmar

I think Nikki hits exactly the two points that have made subscription services appealing to consumers – the element of surprise, and the idea of using a product you otherwise would not buy. With everyday apparel, we’re talking about items that the consumer would already be inclined to buy which most likely they would use quite frequently. So the appeal of opening the box and seeing something unexpected is gone, and the items themselves, once opened, don’t carry that awe-inspiring “I can’t believe I have this” feeling either. That leaves the price as a deciding factor for many consumers to opt into these subscription services. While that may work for some, I suspect this is an experiment that will need continued tweaking to find the right price point and service combination that works for a critical mass of consumers such that the retailer finds it financially worthwhile.

David Naumann

Subscription rental programs don’t seem to make sense for everyday clothing. As Nikki mentioned, there is no excitement and the value proposition is not compelling. For everyday clothing, fast fashion and off-price retailers now offer consumers very inexpensive options for basic apparel. In some cases, it is so reasonably priced that consumers can just wear a garment a few times and discard or donate and buy something new. This allows them to keep their wardrobe fresh without having to wear and item that has been worn by someone else.

Subscription rental programs make total sense for luxury brands and apparel items for special occasions. I suspect the everyday clothing brand rental services mentioned above may be short-lived.

Jeff Miller

I think there is definitely a place for apparel subscriptions, but can’t see them really succeeding on the low end of the market where you can just as easily buy from a discount or fast fashion retailer or even try Amazon Wardrobe. There is also something special in finding that perfect outfit for an occasion that these rental type programs from these specific retailers who all use the same platform don’t quite hit on enough. As Nikki articulates, the experience needs to be special and continually prove value for someone to continue to subscribe.

"Collaborative consumption is something that resonates with Millennials and Gen Z as does thrift shopping and value-based purchasing. "
"The concept of ownership has changed and continues to change."
"...much of the apparel out there still caters to those who wear smaller sizes — this is where subscription service retailers really need to get their act together..."

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