In this episode of Cowen Insights, Christine Hunsicker, CEO & Founder of CaaStle, and Andy Ruben, CEO & Founder of Trove, speak with Oliver Chen, Retail & Luxury Goods Analyst. They discuss the state of the recommerce market and its growing importance to brands and consumers. They also discuss the explosive growth ahead for resale and rental markets and how brands are navigating new marketplaces in order to adapt to the consumer revolution.
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Speaker 1: Welcome to Cowen Insights, a space that brings leading thinkers together to share insights and ideas, shaping the world around us. Join us as we converse with the top minds who are influencing our global sectors.
Oliver Chen: Thank you for joining us for this podcast on recommerce and the return of the brand with two recommerce leaders, Christine Hunsicker, founder and CEO of CaaStle and Andy Ruben. He’s the founder and CEO of Trove. My name is Oliver Chen. I’m Cowen’s retail and luxury analyst. This is in the next episode of our Retail and Luxury podcast series, and we’ll be diving in today on the topic of recommerce and resale models. From Cowen’s perspective, we’re seeing the emergence of resale come in two primary forms: third-party marketplaces like The RealReal, Rent the Runway, Rebag, and others, and brand-orientated capabilities that enable brands to own and lead the process, which is the bucket that boat CaaStle and Trove fit into.
This is exceptionally important for customer engagement for a new generation. This is a visionary series about visionary ideas. We’re really excited about this. Our work at Cowen has suggested that the resale market could be in the nascent stages of explosive growth ahead. As one, we forecast that recommerce inclusive of resale and rental could double this year to reach 14% of the apparel, footwear, and accessories market versus 7% currently. And this market is growing at 25 to 30%.
Second, a big framework I believe in is what I call the STAR framework, sustainability, transparency, authenticity and body positivity, and recommerce. And we’ll dive into these issues here. We’re really thrilled to be joined here by two leaders which are enabling this growth. Christine Hunsicker is the founder and CEO of CaaStle, which is a rental platform for brands such as Vince, Scotch & Soda, Banana Republic, and other luxury brands. Andy Ruben is the founder and CEO of Trove, which is a resale platform for famous and prestigious brands, including Levi’s, Patagonia, and REI.
So to kick it off, Andy, what consumer revolution is taking place and what does Trove do?
Andy Ruben: Awesome. We are in the midst of a massive transformation in how customers shop. What we see in the numbers is we see this shift toward resale and it’s because of value, and customers, all of us being able to access brands we aspire to. It’s because of experience, and it’s sustainability. What we believe is that third-party marketplaces, like you described, have credentialized the space. And what we’re seeing now is that brands are recognizing this shift in how customers shop. And what we do is we power the platforms for brands who recognize this and decide they want to own… They want to stay close to their customer and they want to own this experience. We make that possible, and in weeks and months, not years. And our belief is that only a brand like Levi’s can do Levi’s resale. Only a brand like Patagonia can do Patagonia resale right. And we make that possible for brands.
Oliver Chen: So what happens with a customer when they go to Levi’s and how do they actually experience Trove and what you’re doing for a brand like Levi’s or Patagonia?
Andy Ruben: Yeah. They experience the brand. So any Patagonia item that a customer has, they walk it back into a store or are they going to patagonia.com and have the ability to mail it back in and get a gift card. Those items come to us. We do all of the end-to-end operations and processing all of the decisions that Patagonia or any brand we work with would make. So which items are acceptable for what pricing? I mean, what condition grade? How do we describe them? How do we photo them? And then they get sold back either in the retailer stores or back on the retailer website, traditionally to new customers who have never bought from the brand. But always wanted to.
Oliver Chen: Andy, why would somebody want a vintage or certified pre-owned item? Why is that attractive and why does it matter?
Andy Ruben: We work with brands that tend to be premium brands, and they’re brands that many of us have been aspired to but just not been able to access based on income or where we are in our lives. And so a brand like Patagonia is a brand that many customers aspire to. And what we see is not just Patagonia, but for all brands. Customers who purchase the resale products, 65 to 70% of those customers are first-time brand customers. So in other words, they’re customers who might have always wanted or admired or appreciated the Patagonia brand but never been in a situation that they got to enjoy that quality of craftsmanship.
Oliver Chen: Christine, you’ve been a pioneer of a rental platform versus Andy being a resale platform. What’s happening, Christine, with the consumer? And what’s ahead? And what do you mean by clothing as a service?
Christine Hunsi…: So the customer and what we’re seeing, and obviously accelerated by the pandemic, is moving increasingly into a digital mindset. They’re digital first. They’re not discovering product nearly as often by walking through the mall and stumbling upon a store. And what rental provides for this digitally native consumer, especially a new consumer, to echo to Andy’s point, is the ability to try and experience a brand risk-free and not only touch the products that you can see buying and owning permanently, your staples, your core, your utility items, but actually experience the fullness and the breadth of what a brand has to offer.
A lot of the products that brands make are fashion-forward. They’re brighter. They have a better print to them. But they’re a little riskier for the consumer. And it’s those types of products that the consumer experiences most often through rental. And especially for a new consumer coming in and not knowing exactly what they want from the brand, rental’s a great way to experiment across the breadth of what the brand has to offer. And what we do, very similar to what Trove does, is we power brands to run a rental experience themselves under their brand name, under their websites, to own and strengthen that relationship with the consumer, to deepen the engagement with the consumer all under their brand umbrella. And we handle all of the technology and logistics that make this possible.
Oliver Chen: Christine, renting product sounds quite new and novel to many people. Why would people be interested in renting versus owning and what that really means? And who’s interested in this kind of activity, and what’s the purpose?
Christine Hunsi…: The core rental consumer is between the ages of 25 and 55, and she has a job. And I think those are the core characteristics is this is a woman who is showing up into an office every day, needs to present herself in a certain way, and has a love of fashion. The reason she’s renting as opposed to buying is renting allows her to access higher quality goods at an affordable price point.
So five years ago, she may have been scratching that itch by buying Forever 21, H&M, or any other fast fashion brand. That allows her to take a budget and buy a volume of stuff. But it’s cheap stuff.
With rental, you’re able to get that same impulse fulfilled, that same need fulfilled, but with much higher quality clothing. And that’s the real reason she’s renting is she wants to wear a ton of things that Vince has to offer, or she really loves the style of Scotch & Soda, but it does not make sense to buy 100 pieces of Scotch & Soda or Vince a year. But that’s what she’s renting.
Oliver Chen: Andy, why do you think brands that you work with such as Levi’s, Patagonia, and REI are thinking about resale. Why now? And what’s happening that’s the catalyst for this happening?
Andy Ruben: Brands that stay relevant, stay up-to-date with the customer in terms of how they shop. Brands are always looking for ways to better engage or engage in a more full life cycle with the customer. So when we talk about why a Levi’s or an REI would do this, on the buyback side, on the trade-in side, it allows a brand to reach back out to a customer and provide a customer a way to come back into a store or come back online and essentially get money back for something they no longer need, a jacket that they’ve outgrown, a color that no longer fits them, a sport they’re no longer playing. And when they do it, they’re getting money back, but on a gift card and staying with the brand.
On the buying side, it allows a brand to have access to a much larger market without degrading the quality of the brand. So this isn’t a lesser product. It’s the same high quality product, but more affordable. I’m wearing a shirt right now that’s a Tom Ford shirt that I got in the third-party marketplace. I wouldn’t have ever tried this shirt had it not been for a resale marketplace. And I’ve got to say, I really appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of the item. And who wouldn’t? So when you experienced quality products, very few people get to drive a pre-certified Lexus and say, “I can’t wait to go back to a less expensive car.” People appreciate the quality of these items.
Oliver Chen: Yeah. What we really see rising is this idea of recommerce, the circular economy, the closed loop, the post-purchase, the valuation after, and also goods as a service. So that brings up a lot of interesting questions, Andy and Christine. What about incrementality and brands being really afraid of what this represents? Because a lot of business models are created on creating new items and selling new items. So Christine, what does that really mean? I’m sure you get this question a lot for existing brands.
Christine Hunsi…: Yeah. I think there’s really two reasons brands engage with us. One, they want new consumers. Every brand needs to continue to expand that pie. And rental and resale do a good job achieving that goal for the brands. But it’s not 100% of the customers engaging in rental and resale are new to the brand. It’s not fully additive in that way. So now you’ve got this pocket of people who are your current consumers, and that’s where it gets scary for brands, where they worry that you’re going to take a consumer who was buying full price and give them access to a different marketplace, give them access either to resale or to rental. And that’s actually going to end up cannibalizing the spend that they were previously getting. And so we’ve spent the past two years proving to our 19 partners that we work with, that we do not cannibalize their retail spend. And in fact, we grow their retail spend.
And our share wallet increase for a current consumer of the brand is between 150 and 250%. It is a massive increase in what a consumer is willing to spend with the brand. And the reason for that is when you rent, you are not renting black pants, black blazers, or denim or white button-downs, which is, by the way, what most people buy. What you’re renting are the things you never thought about buying before. However, you still need black pants and denim and white button-downs. And so when that brand is top of mind because you’re getting all of your rental products through that brand, you are more likely when you need a new good to go purchase it from the brand that you’re renting from. And so we retain money with current consumers with the brand significantly higher than retail does on its own, and we grow the share of wallet both through new purchases as well as rental revenue.
Oliver Chen: Andy, what about you? What does that mean to you? I mean, I like both old and new Levi’s, and you’re buying a used Tom Ford shirt. But what about buying a new one, and what about brands that you work with?
Andy Ruben: Yeah. It’s much like Christine just shared. If you’re not where the customer is, you’re going to miss the opportunity to serve the customer. And so we’ve got a lot of data right now from the past four years with the brands that we support, including our [inaudible] Eileen Fisher and the ones we’ve already mentioned. And there has been, with all the data we have, hundreds of thousands of data points, minimal if any cannibalization. What we really see is that when a brand participates in a market like Levi’s and secondhand, the secondhand Levi’s customer’s buying secondhand Levi’s regardless. The difference is when Levi’s decides to offer that authentically as the brand, they then gain this additional purchase occasion and bring that customer through search and through store experience back into their brand.
So it’s really a question for a brand not of cannibalization. It’s a question of being where the customer is and knowing that the customer is going to shop how we want to shop, making sure that you’ve got an ability to serve the customer in that way. And it is an ability to grow into new customers through the new offering.
Oliver Chen: Andy, one hot topic is customers and customer acquisition. And what we’re really focused on is this balancing act between Gen Z and millennials, and also older customers. So Andy, what are you seeing in your customer acquisition data and what this really means for brands and what’s happening with the new customer, large and retail?
Andy Ruben: There’s a notion that says your existing customer base who might choose to buy a $450 item at Eileen Fisher is going to all of a sudden decide to buy used. We haven’t seen that.
What we’ve seen is the customer who’s buying the full-price item continues to buy the full-price item and that having a way that they can bring those items back creates much more loyalty. On the new customer side, being able to offer the quality that the brands we work with already has in the pieces, but to be able to offer that at a more affordable price point is one of the best and most brand-aligned ways to bring customers who wouldn’t be able to afford the full price of these premium brands into the brand picture, to have the customer data to know who they are.
And what we see in the data is we see the customers who are buying used 10 to 20 years younger on average than the traditional makeup demographically of the existing brand customers. They tend to be younger, have less household income, be more mobile, and they definitely are… At the heart of that is the next-gen customers we’re talking about.
Oliver Chen: Christine, at Cowen, we work with a lot of digitally enabled platforms and new platforms. What about, Christine, from a digital customer acquisition point of view, what have you been doing [inaudible] Scotch & Soda select customer as well. What are your thoughts on the customer acquisition opportunity that you’re seeing as you work with these brands?
Andy Ruben: Brands historically have relied on either their store footprint, if they have them, or department store distribution points as the way that they acquire new customers into their brand. It’s been a very physical world environment, a very offline world. And they’ve known for years that they need to be moving more to an online acquisition place. And the pandemic has really accelerated the need for that, and also exposed real weaknesses in skillsets and in this kind of multi-channel acquisition funnel. And so what we’ve been working with our brands on, and what we see in the data, is that the rental offer is so new and so different, and therefore differentiating, that when brands advertise a rental offer and unlimited access to everything we have to offer, ad on Facebook or on Instagram, they are getting outsized engagement on those ads than they do relative to their standard e-com adds.
And look. Rental’s not right for everybody. That’s okay. But for every ad that an Express or a Banana Republic serves about rental, they’re also accruing quite a bit of e-com revenue off of that. It’s driving a lot of new people not only to their rental business, but also directly to their e-com business. And so we look at rental as a critical part of a multi-channel acquisition strategy to bring in new consumers to the brand. It’s a differentiated offer, and it’s something that makes consumers pay a little bit more attention to what you’re doing and gets you to cut through the noise as a brand. And I think this is one of the most exciting things that we’ve seen during the pandemic is that the brands who are offering and heavying up on their rental spend during the last nine months are actually accruing significant outsize benefits to their e-com businesses.
Oliver Chen: Thank you for that. A key hot topic, and a very important topic to me as well is profits with purpose as well as sustainability and rethinking this broader purpose of shareholders and stakeholders and thinking about stakeholders. So Andy and Christine, what are your thoughts about how your business models fit into this idea of sustainability? Andy?
Andy Ruben: Sure. Customers, especially next-gen customers, are no longer accepting marketing messages in place of true innovation from brands and retailers. We’re expecting, and what society and especially next-gen customers are expecting, is true innovation. My experience, having gone back to being the first in starting sustainability at Walmart, when you look at the 100 billion items we as a… in clothing, 100 billion items we produce every year for 7 billion humans, the ability to get more use out of what we’ve already made is one of the most important things we can be doing in terms of fashion and apparel and accessories, especially when what we’re really talking about in doing that is we’re honoring the best-made, the most premium pieces because what we’re able to do in this model is we’re able to appreciate them more, to love them more, to get more use out of them, because when we’re wearing items fewer times, when that’s not the right item for us, the ability to hand that item back and get something you want right now and have someone else be able to enjoy and appreciate that peace is a far more significant benefit sustainability-wise than anything else we’re seeing out there.
Oliver Chen: Thanks for that. And Christine, what do you think about this angle and how this younger customer really values this and what it means for CaaStle?
Christine Hunsi…: I think rental’s big advantage is that when you own something, that item sits dormant in your closet, not being used most of the time. You’re only wearing two to three pieces of clothing on any given day. You have hundreds in your closet. What rental does, it allows that item to be out with different people, many, many different people. And when it’s out, it’s actually being used. So you have increasingly high utilization of the goods far beyond anything that happens with owning, and that is inherently more sustainable. The clothing is always out being productive and being worn. And when it’s not being worn by you, it’s being worn by somebody else. And so that hits the environmental impact actually quite strongly.
And I think the younger consumers or anybody who’s consciously-minded understands that one, if I’m buying higher quality pieces, the manufacturing conditions of those pieces is significantly better. The fibers being used in the clothing is significantly better. So if I can get myself out of oil-based fast fashion and products and into higher end pieces, I’m doing something good already for the environment. And then if I’m part of a collective that is able to maximize the utilization of these goods, that is also doing something exceptional and good for the environment. And so I think you do have this angle for about 20% of consumers where sustainability is actually really critical in their purchase patterns.
Oliver Chen: In that vein, Christine, what about supplier demand and matching supply and demand? And what do your business models mean in terms of how that’s happening? One of the fundamentals of retail is supply and demand. And also, we’re seeing an increased need for speed as well as rethinking entire supply chains. Christine, what are your thoughts?
Christine Hunsi…: The interesting thing about our models, we really drive towards experimentation, which means people are willing, consumers are willing to try so many more items than they’d ever be willing to buy. So they build these really large online closets. And then we fulfill the boxes through what people have individually curated. At any given point in time, we are actually sitting in our warehouse on very few items because our goal is to have all of the clothing out there being productive. It’s the opposite of an e-com model. On e-com, your warehouse is constantly stocked and you’re trying to sell it and move it out. We are actually keeping the inventory under our various brands that they have out and being productive at any given time. And so as long as we’re predicting demand relatively well, we know how many units in general we need to support that base. And then we keep that inventory out with clients being productive.
So we actually have a much easier time matching supply and demand because of the model itself than any e-comm or buying model would have because we don’t have a huge amount of concentration on very specific items. We don’t have items that sit around in the warehouse for weeks or months on end. There is this constant flow going out and coming back, which just drives for higher productivity of that inventory. It makes it easier to balance supply and demand.
Oliver Chen: And, what about the resale market and supply versus demand?
Andy Ruben: Yeah. For resale, the whole market, it’s a two-sided market. So you’re always dealing with both supply where you get the item, how much you pay for that item to get it back, and then the resale, the secondary sale of the item. One of the things we do for our brand partners that is of significant value is the pricing algorithms that are used for both the buyback price as well as the resale price. And we found the same thing that Christine has mentioned is I’ve been in retail for 20-plus years, and I’ve never seen sell-throughs that look like this. They’re exceptionally high. And the reason for that is obvious when we step back is that when we are buying back pieces from customers’ closets, these are the items that sold really well the first time.
So it’s not exhaust inventory. This is the items that people wanted the first time and they want a second time. And so the pricing is important, but the quality of the items speak for themselves, being the best items that customers already chose to buy the first time.
Oliver Chen: Yeah. Then there’s unique challenges to scaling the supply, in our view, as we think about resale. So here’s a three-part question. I’m an analyst, so I ask these three-part questions. What’s been the most fun? What’s the least well-understood? What’s the hardest part?
Andy Ruben: The part of my role that I love the most is watching brands take this customer-led shift, the shift toward buyback and resale, but do it as a brand. So again, I mentioned only Patagonia can invent this in Patagonia’s style. Only Levi’s can do it in Levi’s brand. That’s been the most fun because every brand has to do it authentically as a brand. And when they do, they win. They win against the third-party marketplaces, they hold onto their customers, and they take that revenue back for their products.
The second part you asked about, what is the least well understood, for the resale market, it is all about supply. We work with the most premium brands out there, and we would buy their product. Anybody would buy their product back. The question is right now, we spend a lot of time talking about where you buy a Patagonia jacket from when you’re looking, when you’re in the market for a new Patagonia. We don’t spend time yet asking the question, when you’re done with an item like a Patagonia jacket, who you choose to sell it back to. Do you sell it back to The RealReal, Thredup, REI, Patagonia? And what we will see over the next five to seven years is we will see an increasing competitive race for the closet.
And the question for brands that aren’t ahead is that it will become increasingly hard to set the notion that when you’re done with your item, if you send it back to us, we want it back. And the brands that are off the front of that are going to set this mentality with the customer that when you buy a high quality piece, when you buy from Eileen Fisher, when you’re done with that item, you bring it back, and that race for supply is going to become increasingly significant over time.
Oliver Chen: What’s the hardest part of this?
Andy Ruben: The hardest part is seeing from the brands that we work with. And again, we work with incredible brands right now. Seeing how much benefit is out there. And it’s become easier in the last year. But trying to explain how great that benefit is for brands that are still observing it from the sidelines but haven’t yet seen the data for themselves. So essentially, it’s watching the markets slowly show up and watching the shift is third-party marketplaces have really made use of this customer trend. Waiting for and explaining and watching brands realize for themselves how important this is to not let their customers end up on a third-party marketplace, but rather, keep that customer in their brand buying and trading their product back in.
Oliver Chen: Christine, where are you having the most fun with this entrepreneurial journey?
Christine Hunsi…: I think a model innovation. I think anything that is a new consumption or new monetization method and bringing that to light is by far the most exciting. It’s a new economy. That is very easy to want to evangelize because it’s, new and it’s revolutionary. And so I think that’s the most fun part of my job is being able to talk to brands and executive teams about the potential. I think the thing that’s least well-understood about the rental marketplace is how it is accretive to the business overall and it’s complementary overall, that it’s not cannibalizing, that this is an important piece of the fullness of the customer life cycle journey, and that you need to take a longer-term view of customer relationships in looking at the impact that various business models have. In any kind of subscription business, it is all about LTV and how much profit you are generating over the lifetime. And that is not the way transactional businesses usually look at customer behavior.
And so we’re introducing a new vocabulary, a new vernacular, a new set of metrics that are not well-understood at all by the current business models because they haven’t had to be understood. And so that requires quite a bit of education, and it requires a willing ear to suspend disbelief on all the metrics that they used to look at are not applicable to this business.
And I think the hardest part, especially over this past year, has been there’s so much opportunity out there. The consumer is increasingly value-oriented and will be so for the next number of years. However, brands have had real difficulties to overcome during these past nine months. There have been real challenges, especially with their store fleets, the massive move to digital, being caught out with a ton of inventory and not knowing exactly how to move that in the best way that wouldn’t damage the brands longterm.
And so with our current brands, we’ve had to be very good partners. And in some cases that means being very patient. It’s been great to see during this pandemic, we’ve actually launched seven or eight new brands during the pandemic because a lot of companies are realizing they need to be in this place of value orientation going forward, engaging with the consumer in a certain way. But there have been real challenges that our brands have experienced that we’ve needed to be pretty patient and good partners in order to support them in the best way.
Oliver Chen: So final question for the panel is why did you start this business and what can listeners know about you that you can’t find online? Would love some context on both of those questions. Andy, you want to kick it off?
Andy Ruben: I started this business because I saw a smarter way of doing things that just made sense. You see it in premium cars. We don’t buy a car, and when we’re done with it, we just leave it sitting on the curb. You drive it back to the dealer and maybe they resell it as pre-certified. And increasingly, I mean, I was seeing items that I was looking to buy when I know that someone down the block or across San Francisco or somewhere else, someone else had that exact item sitting in their closet unused. And I realized that as brands did that, this would be a way for brands to more completely engage with customers and keep customers loyal to and in their brand by offering value in this way. So I mean, primarily for all the reasons we’ve talked about, for sustainability, for brands really winning, in a space as a customer, my access to nicer things, and to be able to get more things, to have access to more things, it just is a smarter way. It’s a smarter way to operate as a society and for the goods that we really value.
Oliver Chen: Christine, why did you start the business and what are some fun things about you that we can’t figure out online?
Christine Hunsi…: When we took a look at the apparel industry and the evaporation of profit… Literally no one makes money in apparel unless you’re at the super high end or the super low end. It all evaporated in 2008 and never came back. We felt like there was a new monetization and consumption method that not only would be better for the consumer, which is super important. It’s just a better way to experience clothing. It’s an important thing to add onto what you buy, but it actually has massive profit implications for brands. And we started the company in a very ambitious way of actually helping every company in the apparel space make money. We thought in probably a very ego-filled way that rental, when fully recognized, could save a lot of the apparel industry. And that’s why we did it. We did it because we thought that anything that benefits the consumer and benefits the retailer will ultimately benefit us. A very rising tide lifts all boats mentality.
And that’s exciting. Apparel is a huge industry. It’s a multitrillion-dollar industry. Anything that you can do to affect that size of an industry is worth doing. And that’s why we started it. Fun fact about me, I don’t know. I don’t know what people consider fun. I am a self-proclaimed expert jigsaw puzzler. I can pound out a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in probably about two and a half hours. And I often have to do them while I’m on calls in order to have something to distract myself so that I don’t get too antsy on calls. Not right now, but I will often be having a conference call while doing about two jigsaw puzzles a day. So [crosstalk]
Oliver Chen: We need a tour of your jigsaw puzzle collection and also a webinar. And I want to play Tetris with you later, too. Andy, what’s a fun fact about you that listeners can’t find online?
Andy Ruben: Well, in school, I was an engineer. And I never expected to get into business. Took a first job with Proctor & Gamble and really fell in love with the people aspects of business. And I think what’s continued to engage me is the ability for business to create change in how we all operate in the world and what the world looks like around us and how we interact with it. And I really never looked back. But if you told me that when I said I would never get into business, that I would someday end up running strategy for Walmart, I would have laughed. And it’s one of those you can never really see where a career goes looking forward. I feel like it makes sense looking back, but not always looking forward.
Oliver Chen: Well, I really appreciate everyone’s time in this visionary series. Andy and Christine, you’re clear visionaries about what’s happening. And this is a visionary topic where we see so much opportunity, goods as a service, thinking about post-purchase sustainability, rethinking supply and demand in retail, and also engagement for a new generation and what that means for our shared passion of retail and retail leaderships, and making sure that everybody’s innovative and servicing customers in these important ways. So thanks for joining me. And everybody, thanks for tuning into this podcast. Feel free to reach out to me, Oliver Chen, or Andy or Christine, and we’re more than happy to talk. Thank you.
Speaker 1: Thanks for joining us. Stay tuned for the next episode of Cowen Insights.
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