From the get-go, Bulletin wanted to be the new Etsy. The online marketplace for unique, handcrafted products was getting to be overcrowded, according to COO Ali Kriegsman, who along with her co-founder and CEO Alana Branston thought they could do it better.
As it turns out, the digital platform they built focused too much on the B-to-B side and foundered, struggling to attract substantial traffic until the pair asked their portfolio of 100 mostly women-owned and women-focused feminist brands what would help them the most. And almost unanimously, the brands said they wanted access to physical retail.
As young, digitally native startups, these brands had neither the financing nor the know-how to secure the funding for the kinds of wholesale orders that would get them onto brick-and-mortar shelves, Kriegsman explained at the Decoded Future conference in New York City last week. But with a growing fan base on Instagram, a brand might finally be at the tipping point where exposure at the store level makes a lot of financial sense.
Two years ago Bulletin swapped its initial emphasis on B-to-B for a customer-centric obsession that helps consumers shop cool, digitally native brands “in a special way.” Its three New York City stores operate on a consignment model so Bulletin isn’t saddled with inventory, and brands avoid the costly wholesale financing associated with traditional retail. Wares range from tees emblazoned with provocative feminist slogans (e.g., “Women don’t owe you [profanity]) to a fragrance called “Tears of Men Who Have Wronged Me” whose notes recall sea salt and driftwood.
Attracting financial backers for its pivot was difficult for Bulletin, which participated in Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator incubator program, Kriegsman said, and to date has raised $2.2 million. “Investors were skittish about investing in retail because of this ‘brick and mortar is dying’ freak out,” she explained. Soon after, though, a number of competitors to Bulletin cropped up, similarly focused on trying to solve the problem of affording access to retail spaces. What’s more, the steady interest from brands means “we’re doing something right,” she added.
Kriegsman said she sees stores of the future as “community-driven” destinations for specific customers and audiences, where technology has no business replacing humans. Bulletin invests heavily in training store staff to help “bring to life” the special experience of shopping its curated, focused assortment.
“If you’re going to get people off their butts, off of watching Netflix and off of e-commerce shopping into a physical space, you need to provide something special,” Kriegsman said, adding, “I hope screens don’t replace that brand experience.”
Realizing it couldn’t sustainably operate on a patchwork of Excel spreadsheets, emails and phone calls, Bulletin built a portal through which brands can access real-time sales data—unheard of with traditional multi-brand retailers, Kriegsman noted. “With direct to consumer, they’re so used to getting analytics on Instagram and Shopify that they want their retail channel to function like the DTC channel,” she added.
This is how brands learn the kind of tweaks that can help them succeed. Does their packaging need an update? Have they effectively communicated the value of their product? Is there some change that would help the product be more of a hit with shoppers browsing store shelves?
“Historically, consignment has been a nightmare for retailers and for brands, so to try and figure that out has been exciting,” Kriegsman said.