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Online Retail Is Beginning to Look a Lot Like Real-World Retail

Sarah Halzack

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Amid the grim march of the retail apocalypse, the industry has derived some hope in recent years from the rise of scores of digital-centric startups. There is cause for optimism, but there’s also reason to be skeptical of the hype surrounding these brands — not just because their business models aren’t proving durable, but also because many of them are now intertwined with the companies they are ostensibly disrupting.

Consider, for example, the November announcement from supermarket behemoth Albertsons Cos. about the future of meal-kit maker Plated, which the grocer paid $200 million for only two years ago. The company said it was ending the subscription model for Plated and that its products would now simply be part of its private-label business. It’s hard to see that as anything other than a concession that the format is a dud.

And that’s not the only meal-kit business that’s gone cold: Blue Apron Holdings Inc. had only 386,000 paid customers in its latest quarter, down from 646,000 in the same quarter a year earlier and 856,000 the year before that. The decline partly reflects a deliberate shift to focus on its best customers, but it’s also an indication that the long-term market for online meal-kits is just not that big.

Dollar Shave Club’s low-priced, subscription-based model for grooming gear was similarly seen as a disruptive game-changer when it captured attention with a viral YouTube video in 2012. Unilever NV acquired it for $1 billion in 2016, a testament to its growing market share. But the Wall Street Journal recently reported that the digital brand is still not profitable and the consumer-products giant “has concluded that selling staples as online subscriptions doesn’t make financial sense.”

Still other 2010s wunderkinds are pursuing growth in ways that don’t look so different than the playbooks embraced by their predecessors. Quip toothbrushes, Native deodorant, Bark pet toys, and Harry’s razors can all now be found in the aisles of Target stores. Men’s clothing from Bonobos and Mizzen + Main is sold at Nordstrom Inc., while beauty brand Glossier recently launched pop-ups at the department store. Everlane has brick-and-mortar stores, as does bedding brand Parachute.

The result is that the term “digital-native brand” is all but meaningless. How could a startup not be digital-native in the year 2019? How are their hybrid online-and-store selling models any different from what mature brands are doing?

This is not to write off this crop of retailers entirely. They have collectively snatched billions of dollars of market share from incumbents and have made some genuinely alluring products, such as the Allbirds sneakers that have spawned copycats. Mall landlords have been forced to rethink their leasing models and floor plans to accommodate their needs. But, so far, these startups are no more than spoilers for legacy brands. They’re not replacing them.

The constellation of insurgents collectively is poised to open 850 physical stores over five years, according to a 2018 analysis by JLL. In other words, the entire group will add roughly as many stores as are in the Macy’s Inc. portfolio. That means their growth doesn’t come anywhere close to offsetting the massive shakeout of established chains. In 2019 alone, Coresight Research estimates, there have been 9,302 store closures.

Also, if these digital brands were finding easy paths to profitability and customer growth, many more of them would probably be going public or agreeing to be acquired for dizzying sums. But IPO hopefuls such as Casper remain on the public market sidelines, and the aforementioned Dollar Shave acquisition and Edgewell Personal Care Co.’s $1.4 billion deal for Harry’s are exceptions, not the rule.

Meanwhile, Bonobos founder Andy Dunn is set to exit a companywide role at Walmart Inc. a little more than two years after the big-box chain acquired his clothing brand, a change that may turn out to be a cautionary tale about the ability of these scrappy virtuosos to apply their skills within retail’s old guard.

All of this leads to a bracing conclusion: The transformative power of the digitally oriented swashbucklers has been overestimated. Would-be investors and entrepreneurs, consider yourselves warned.

To contact the author of this story: Sarah Halzack at shalzack@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

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