Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Curious Emptiness of Renting Everyday Fashion

NY&C Closet Home pageWebsite Screenshot by Nikki Baird

Fashion rental – beyond men’s tuxedos – might have been a thing before the internet, but it was really that ability to transact online that made it possible for rental to take off. In the early days, the focus was on high-end accessories and “once in a lifetime” events like weddings or pregnancy. That has extended to making high-end labels approachable to an average budget, or giving a wear-it-and-move-on fashionista the opportunity to look like she has the closet of a Kardashian, without need to have the actual closet.

The next round of rental, though, looks to target the more everyday shopper. In the last twelve months or so, Express, Ann Taylor, and NY&Co have all launched rental businesses. They all follow the exact same model, driven by the same CaaStle platform, but with different assortments and different price points for a three-item subscription. NY&Co comes in the cheapest at about $50 per month. Express comes in second at about $70 per month, and Ann Taylor tops the list at $95 per month.

After looking at the assortment offered on all three, I opted to try NY&Co. I put 13 items into my “on the rack” list, and waited for the first box to arrive. It came more quickly than I expected, and when it arrived, I found three of the items I had selected, two “priorities” and one that I had not marked as a priority – two shirts and a sweater. It’s interesting to note that as I was selecting items, some of them were not available because demand was too great – basically, the waiting list was too long. And I expect there is some kind of forecast of the likelihood that people will buy the item rented and thus take it out of rental circulation that limits the availability.

However, even opening the box did not hold the same anticipation that opening the box for, say, StitchFix holds. I don’t know what StitchFix will send me. I know that all the things in the NY&Co box will be things I picked, so that “Christmas morning” feeling was diminished. And once I opened the box, there was actually a moment of disappointment: I like these, but I don’t own them. And I immediately found myself questioning the value of even the $50/month – at that rate, I could spend $300 in spring, and $300 in fall and keep everything I buy, probably 6-7 items each time at NY&Co purchase prices.

I’ve worn two of the three items so far. I loved the sweater. After I wore it, I set it back by the box that has the return shipping bag with a little reluctance. The primary value pitch of everyday rental, at least on the “How it works” screen is unlimited closet, with new items every week, along with unlimited wear, free shipping & returns, and free laundry, including dry cleaning. At the very bottom is a note that you can purchase items you love at “a discount”. Even if I wore the sweater two more times before returning it, even the prospect of not washing it just didn’t seem like a payoff.

Item #2 I did not like as much, and it will happily go back in the box to return. Additionally, I was worried to check out the “buy and keep” price on the sweater, because the platform doesn’t give you any idea on what price you can pay to keep it until you have it in your possession. To that end, I was pleasantly surprised – the sweater was offered at 70% off retail price. Even if I pay to keep it, I’m probably only spending a few dollars more than I normally would be willing to pay (if I count the rental fee plus the purchase price), and to be fair I do have the utility of the two other items even if I don’t keep them. That level of steep discount is not expressed well in the pitch to join (which is pretty heavy-handed – none of the services will reveal the price until you create a log-in), and it has frankly eased my feeling of “money wasted” that I initially had when I opened the box.

But now there’s a kind of pressure, that the clock is ticking on that third item, because I can’t return the box until I’m ready to do something with all three. And when I ordered the third item – a thin, short-sleeved blouse – it was unusually warm in Denver, and now it’s not. So now I have to decide: should I send it back unworn? Should I hang on to all three, even though I will only wear one again and most likely I’m going to buy it? While I like math, I don’t like to mix my fashion with too much math! It all comes back to a vague uneasiness that accompanies the items, which is pretty much a little whisper that says “You don’t own these.”

I’ll keep the subscription through NRF’s Big Show – you will undoubtedly see me there wearing something from my January box (or even my soon-to-be sweater addition to my wardrobe). But I’m not wearing something exciting, like for a special event, and I’m not wearing something that makes me feel special, like a high-end label that I would never buy on my own, or for an occasion where I know I would never wear it again (still have the heavy satin bridesmaid dress in my closet from the last wedding I was in, which I think is going on 10 years ago). And I find, without that kind of value equation, even with the potential discount on items I might keep, it’s just not as satisfying as owning.

As someone who admittedly has a subscription box addiction, it was a feeling I did not expect.



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