Over the last 10-12 years, DTC brands became a force to be reckoned with, as more customers turned to the convenience and cost-effectiveness of try-before-you-buy and automated subscription models. Traditional retailers and brands that were already shifting their retail strategies to compete with digitally native DTCs ramped it up during the pandemic. And consumers, seeking comfort in a time of uncertainty, sought out familiarity with the brands they already knew and loved.
Consumer Trust in Traditional Retailers and Brands Increased During the Past Year
According to a Scalefast report, consumers ranked digitally native DTC brands as the most reliable category of retailers prior to 2020; 15 months later, traditional retailers and brands have taken a lesson from the DTC playbook, and 41% of consumers now consider traditional retailers most reliable. In fact, digitally native DTC brands are losing favor with consumers because of their inability to deliver on the consumer expectation of fast deliveries and a seamless experience.
Where Digitally Native DTC Went Wrong
Digitally native DTC brands were singularly focused on acquiring customers. As disruptors to the market, the focus was on peeling customers away from traditional retail and brands. They spent all their VC funding on ads to attract new consumers. And it worked. But along the way, the digitally native DTC market became saturated. To be heard and seen in a way that would attract a new customer required more and more money pouring into digital advertising, which drove up the cost of ads and visibility.
This was summed up nicely in an article about the fall of the DTC on Marker at the beginning of the pandemic:
The investors bankrolling these companies are discovering one thing in common — that most of their money is going to expensive and ever-rising customer acquisition costs (CAC) via Google, Facebook, and Instagram. As one DTC investor has put it starkly before: ‘CAC is the new rent.’ And even after these startups get on the treadmill of paying digital rent, they are then finding themselves also paying actual rent. After all, the most effective billboard is an outdoor L.A. luxury mall or an expensive SoHo storefront, which can cost some $60,000 a month.
Growing a Customer Base from Scratch Is Costly and Difficult
Digitally native DTCs drove up the cost of customer acquisition without investing in any way to retain the customers they acquired, or to meet the needs they promised their customers and their VCs. DTCs were great at landing customers onto their websites to make a single purchase, but retention rates were so low that the cost of CAC became astronomical – and only grew higher due to the increasing costs of digital advertising. More and more money was required to get the same number of eyes on an ad – to the point where CAC was costing more than the LTV of each customer. In fact, that seemed to be the entire focus of some DTCs: Buy up enough media ads to divert people to the website for a quick sale with no plan for how to keep them. And for some DTCs, retention wasn’t even a solution. How often do consumers replace their mattresses or their luggage, for example?
Traditional Retailers and Brands Have Lower Customer Acquisition Costs
As the pandemic drove consumers back into the arms of recognized and cherished brands, and just as traditional retailers and brands were kicking omnichannel and integrated retail into high gear, the opportunity became clear. Adding DTC doesn’t require the same type of investment from an existing brand or retailer as it does from a digitally native DTC. And consumers don’t care where you started. A third of American consumers see no difference between digitally native DTCs and traditional retailers. All they want is to get what they want, where they want it, when they want it.
Digitally Native DTCs Are Not Sustainable without Brick-and-Mortar Locations
Digitally native DTCs are struggling, more so since the pandemic. The ones that are surviving are partnering with traditional retailers (becoming brand manufacturers or wholesalers) or are opening locations (becoming traditional retailers). This substantiates what I’ve always said: pureplay is not sustainable. Digitally native DTCs are opening retail shops and pop-ups or are getting placed on the shelves of traditional retailers. Omnichannel, or more accurately, integrated retail, is the only cost-effective business model for the long run in most cases. Retail Dive outlined the major movements in these two directions, all driven by the difficulty in acquiring new customers in an affordable way:
Target brought in brands ranging from Casper to beauty brand Versed. Nordstrom formed partnerships with Glossier, Away, Bonobos and Kim Kardashian West’s Skims shapewear brand, among others. And Crate and Barrel launched an exclusive, limited-run collection with Parachute to sell online and in 65 of its retail stores.
Other brands opted for pop-ups or permanent locations of their own. In 2018, Casper announced plans to open 200 stores across North America, while Adore Me around the same time said it had plans to open 200 to 300 locations over the next five years. Commercial real estate firm JLL previously anticipated digitally native brands could open some 850 stores by 2023.
Why Traditional Retailers and Brands Should Consider DTC
Consumers expect to be able to find the products they want and need anywhere they happen to be shopping, whether that’s online, on their phones, in an app, or in your store. Moving into DTC only makes sense for traditional retailers, especially given the past year in which most retailers survived by already taking those first steps. A comment from Peter Smith on Retail Wire reminds us (the emphasis is mine):
What can sometimes get lost in the DTC conversation is the need for an integrated and seamless experience for the customer. They shop where and when they want – and that clearly works both online to bricks and bricks to online. So the only thing better than a great online experience is a consistent online and bricks experience. What should never get lost, however, is the significant advantage for brands executing DTC to control the brand experience for the end-consumer. It is no accident that more brands are reclaiming that right (critical to survival) in the face of indifferent end-user experiences with many bricks partners.
Benefits Beyond Brand Control
For traditional retailers and brands, there are major advantages of going direct to consumers, beyond just controlling the brands from start to finish. These benefits include: