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.
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.
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.
Over the past two months, digitally native startups have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of store closures. Part of this growth was due to the fact that shoppers had fewer options. Now, shoppers have more options as stores open back up in more states. The coming months will prove just how much of the growth direct-to-consumer brands experienced was a flash in the pan.
Over the past year, Facebook hasn't been shy about its e-commerce ambitions. So, it didn't come entirely as a surprise on Tuesday when Facebook announced that it would be launching customizable online storefronts called Facebook Shops, as part of its quest to get customers to think of Facebook and Instagram as their go-to places to discover new products. Shopify is largely considered to be the go-to e-commerce provider from direct-to-consumer brands, and as such, stands to benefits the most right now from Facebook's aggressive e-commerce push.
Now that companies have roughly two months of working remotely under their belts, all CEOs are grappling with if, and when, they should call employees back to the office. Many CEOs are trying to figure out exactly what that will look like. For some, it may mean getting a smaller space. For others, scrapping offices altogether.
Direct-to-consumer startups have been thinking for weeks about how and when they want to re-open their stores. But as the time has come to re-open stores in some states, no one has any better idea of what the right path forward is than they did six weeks ago.
For many direct-to-consumer founders, it's been six weeks of extreme highs and lows -- some companies have recorded simultaneously some of their best and worst sales days within those same time periods. But even companies that have reported record sales haven't been immune from having to lay employees off. As a result, many DTC founders are finding themselves having to navigate situations that they never have been before, and are having to learn new ways of leading.
In some ways, it's starting to feel like the early days of the direct-to-consumer boom all over again. A startup's website is once again its most important sales channel, as stores remain closed. Startups are having to operate with as small of a team as possible. And Facebook is once again a cheap place to advertise. Over the past couple of years, the constant refrain has been that DTC startups need to rely less on acquiring customers through Facebook. As more companies started advertising on the platform, Facebook advertising costs started to rise. Now, as more companies are dramatically slashing their advertising budgets in the wake of the coronavirus, Facebook is becoming less crowded.
Right now, direct-to-consumer startups have to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, and nowhere is that more evident than within their brick-and-mortar divisions. Most of the executives I spoke with this week said that they don't anticipate being able to re-open their stores until the summer. "I think people are preparing models [in which stores] will open as early as July and as late as October," said Logan Langberg, principal at Imaginary Ventures, which has invested in Camp and Everlane. But it's absolutely critical that when stores re-open, DTC brands are ready.
The reckoning was a while in coming. It just wasn't expected to come like this. After all, people on Twitter, that favorite platform of the direct-to-consumer startup community -- and plenty of articles on this site as well -- love to talk about one of a few things: If there's a direct-to-consumer ceiling; the best way to acquire customers, and the inevitable slowdown and burst of the DTC bubble as unprofitable businesses are due to run out of cash, with no investors left to fund them. And thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, that last one seems to have accelerated. "The coronavirus outbreak notwithstanding, there were a lot of issues that were spread out through the rest of the DTC ecosystem going into the first-quarter of this year," said Jeremy Cai, CEO of Italic, which sells luxury bedding and handbags. "I feel like we are settling into a new normal in many ways of being conservative," he said.
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