Growing numbers of online shoppers, the narrative goes, are suffocating department stores, apparel outlets, and everything in between.
Are we headed for a future without retail stores? Bulletin is betting on just the opposite.
This is the cheesiest way to say this but brick-and-mortar isnt dead, its just broken, said Bulletin CEO and co-founder Alana Branston. A lot of physical retail fails because these extremely dated companies sort of throw a store together and sign a 10-year lease.
In other words, it’s not that stores don’t have a future it’s just that they need to look and operate differently. Branston thinks Bulletin can be that future.
The young Y-Combinator-backed startup operates a small chain of New York stores stocked almost exclusively with otherwise online-only brands that pay for the privilege of appearing on their shelves.
Its business model seems to prove that even small digital upstarts still see value in an old-fashioned storefront.
Bulletin’s concept shops stores organized around a unifying topic or theme are sort of like the physical embodiment of a lifestyle blog think: Goop, the store. There’s a guiding mission behind each space that’s more nuanced and specific than your average retail outlet.
And unlike a retail outlet, you’re not going to find the same old stuff. They feature up-and-coming products from otherwise online-only brands that literally cant be found at any other store.
Bland fluorescent-lit department store aisles of dime-a-dozen wares wont cut it in todays web-saturated environment; consumers want stores to provide a unique comprehensive experience that justifies their visit, experts say.
This trend is evident in Amazons sleek, hyper-convenient new stores, Walmart-owned Jet.coms recent pop-up grocery store collaboration with another concept-based retailer, and a host of others who are putting customer service and atmosphere above all else.
Branston and co-founder Ali Kriegsman originally set out to create a shoppable magazine an online publication that would showcase trendy new brands to potential customers.
That business plan obviously morphed as the company evolved, but the editorial roots are still evident in the its DNA.
A lot of the value we bring to the brands and to the stores we create is this idea of curation and this idea of basically playing editor and deciding which brands make sense together, Kriegsman said. It felt like this random journey in the beginning, but it does make sense that we started .
The latest and most topical addition to the companys roster is a store called Bulletin Broads, which opened in Williamsburg last week. Its stocked with items geared towards women from around 30 female-led companies and backed by Planned Parenthood (Bulletin itself is run entirely by five women).
Theres products that are really in-your-face, anti-Trump kind of products. Theres products that are related to feminism, Kriegsman said. For us, it was a reaction to the times and whats happening politically right now.
The company announced this week that its raised a $2.2 million seed round from some high-profile investors, including Flybridge Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Afore Ventures, and Y Combinator. Some of that money will go towards expansion beyond New Yorks city limits with planned projects in Los Angeles and possibly elsewhere.
Perhaps the most novel part of Bulletins business model is that the web-born brands will pay rent to appear in its chic IRL enclaves.
Most of the brands only appear for months-long stints the minimum stay is eight weeks and rent is charged on a monthly basis after that.
Tenants see the stores as a way to launch new products, interact with their customers in person, or build a public profile.
Bulletin offers the chance to do so without the cumbersome long-term commitment of leasing retail space. Kriegsman describes it as a WeWork for brands a reference to that companys communal office space for freelancers and other independent workers.
When you do it right, you can connect with your customers IRL face-to-face, provide them with unique experiences, allow them to touch or try on your product in a very low-risk way versus them having to order it, try it on, and send it back, Kriegsman said.
The Bulletin co-founders arent the first to arrive on this insight. As customer tastes change, a dominant strain of thinking within the retail industry holds that companies need to start reimagining the very concept of a store. Brick-and-mortar retailers must put the “experience” factor above all else. The future of brick-and-mortar commerce is about retail-as-a-service.
The platonic ideal of this type of establishment described by retail industry futurist Doug Stephens in an interview for an earlier story sounds a lot like Bulletins business model.
“It’s a store doesn’t really sell anything. Most of what gets sold is either sold directly from the brand or it’s sold online, Stephens said then. “But the store is just something that is just absolutely incredible it’s virtually such a great experience that you would pay a membership fee just to belong to it.
Bulletin isnt at that membership stage, but Kriegsman and Branston do share the same meticulous commitment to the experiential aspects of their stores. Not every brand that applies for their shelves makes the cut.
First and foremost, they must fit the defining concept of the given store to a tee. They also need to have loyal social media followings that can be drive into the shops. Many of the companys stocking and thematic decisions are also informed by what seems to be hot on social media and in the blogosphere. The decision-making process is not unlike that of your average lifestyle media property.
The idea is for the store to also situate brands in a way that makes for an opportunity greater than the sum of its parts. Brands sometimes work together to hold in-store events, and theres a strong crossover appeal between the dedicated customers of each brand.
With the online magazine, we very quickly learned that online is really oversaturated, Kriegsman said. We just thought, Well there are inherently high-traffic retail spaces that are empty in New York, what if we use the power of the sharing economy to get them into these spaces where they wouldnt necessarily have to spend crazy amounts of money or time building up their SEO or trying to get noticed online.
Old guard department stores might do well to take note.