Walk into the new Rent the Runway store just off Fifth Avenue in New York, and you’ll first be confronted with an Apple Genius Bar-style customer service counter with iPads and teeming with attendants. Instead of tech geeks, they’ll be fashion stylists, fluid in the language of Marchesa Notte, Oscar de la Renta, and Diane von Furstenberg, rather than software bugs and data retrieval. Garment bags, not sleek devices, will be changing hands over the counter.
The same technology-enabled customer service and near military-style efficiency that have defined the success of Apple stores is also at work in this Rent the Runway, the rental designer clothing startup’s first flagship store. At 5,000 square feet, the store is three times larger than any of the brand’s existing physical retail stores, which will total seven by 2017. It’s also the first prototype of Rent the Runway’s new store layout and business model—one that leverages the company’s access to customer user data through its app and website to design a store that is efficient, convenient, and tailor-made to the company’s more than 6 million members.
Since Harvard Business School classmates Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss co-founded Rent the Runway in 2009 as an online-only brand, the company has raised over $126 million in venture capital and has stand-alone locations in major cities throughout the country. In March of this year, the company launched Unlimited, a new subscription service that allows customers to rent as many as three pieces of clothing at a time, ranging from casual pieces and workwear to the upscale designer gowns the brand is known for. Last month, Neiman Marcus announced that it will be adding Rent the Runway store-within-a-store concepts in select locations starting now and continuing into 2017.
When I visited the flagship store last week, Hyman points out how close we are to Rent the Runway’s first store, also located in the Flatiron district. When that store launched in 2014, it was merely a “pop up” meant to test the idea of adding a physical store to a then all-digital business model. It ended up sticking. “We wanted to learn, how do people use Rent The Runway in the physical world?” says Hyman. “We were blown away by the amount of traffic that we got. We never planned for that amount of demand.”
Today, Rent the Runway stores yield a 20% higher average order value than purchases online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, consumers wanted to try on dresses before renting, drop off and pick up at their convenience, and interact in real life with the stylists that are available to offer guidance through the app. With the new flagship, the company is focusing on enhancing the retail experience using the data they have on how its customers use Rent the Runway and how its services fit in with their lifestyle.
To design the store, Rent the Runway worked with Heitler Houstoun Architects, the firm behind the Dry Bar retail concepts, as well as the contractor Patrick Conlon, who helped build out Warby Parker retail stores. Yet before they even started conceptualizing the design, Hyman surveyed women from around the country on what their “dream closet” would look like. “Basically, everyone’s image looks exactly like this,” she says, gesturing to the main part of the store, which is designed to look like a massive walk-in closet, a la Sex In the City, or the department store-sized closet of Real Housewives star Lisa Vanderpump. “Things that felt very light and airy on the outside but displayed things in an organized fashion and still felt very at home.”
Hyman and her team worked with the architects to design a space with racks of clothes lining the walls, and designer shoes merely for display. The store has no mannequins, sales tables or pricing placards. In another nod to pop culture dream closets, touch-screen displays allow consumers to scroll through outfits like Cher’s whole futuristic wardrobe situation in Clueless. The displays are searchable, so customers can look through Rent the Runway’s total 200,000 items available—and if your selection is not in the store someone will courier it over. The store will keep about 4,000 of those items at a time, but the supply with rotate daily merely to give weight to the dream closet concept.
If the closet concept encourages the browsing and discoverability of a boutique, the RTR bar at the entrance offers the sharing economy convenience the brand was built on. Customers can use the app to request styles from the store be brought up to the bar, so they can run in and out during lunch or between meetings. Alternately, couriers can also deliver them to your home or office. At the entrance, an RTR Post Box offers something like a mail shoot to drop off garment bags. These are the services based on user cases that told Hyman and her team a major chunk of their consumer base used Rent the Runway because of the convenience it provides. For Unlimited subscribers in particular, the quicker they can return one item the quicker they can pick up the next, and the further they can stretch their monthly fee.
Other features of the store include a styling room that operates much like a bridal fitting. You can make an appointment—prices range from $25 to $75, depending on whether your looking for business casual clothing or attire entire bridal party—and a stylist will pick out styles for you, talk to you about your preferences and save the information in what is essentially your personal data profile (accessible on the app).
The Rent the Runway fitting rooms, meanwhile, have a check-in feature so that if the line is too long, they’ll notify you when to come back like the wait for a restaurant. Every aspect of the store has been designed to minimize all of the incidental annoyances of retail shopping—big crowds, untidy racks, packed fitting rooms. Many of the offerings from Rent the Runway are swanky enough to warrant designer department store treatment, but the prices ($75 cocktail dresses, $35 blouses) are more akin to Zara or Topshop, where “ambiance” involves fluorescent lights, loud music, and bleak, heavily perfumed dressing rooms.
Despite the pitfalls of fast fashion clothing and retail stores, Hyman recognizes the appeal of variety and newness that disposable fashion holds, even for Rent the Runway’s upwardly mobile, largely urban customer base. For the brand’s 6 million members, the average income is $100,000 a year, but they often chose cheaper retailers over department stores with designer fashion offerings because it’s convenient for their lifestyle. “I think that’s a cultural shift,” Hyman says. “She wants variety and fast fashion and newness, and that’s why fast fashion has been winning to the extent that they have.”
With its subscription service and new model of retail stores, Rent the Runway is betting big on its ability to shift consumer behavior toward valuing and wearing beautifully crafted clothing, but on a temporary basis. They believe the future of women’s closets are that “50% will be owned, and 50% will be rented,” and they are relying on thoughtfully designed retail stores to get to that goal.
[Photos: via Rent the Runway]