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Amid Retail Lockdown, DTC Brands Use Personalization and Virtual Consults to Engage

The direct-to-consumer boom continues to rock retail. Amid a global pandemic, the tactics used by these scrappy startups have revolutionized the consumer experience, with the potential to create lasting shifts in the ways that brands engage with shoppers.

In a webinar hosted by PSFK entitled “Why We Need Innovation in E-Commerce,” executives from leading web-based brands weighed in on the challenges of creating personalized experiences online.

While the web is the primary hub for most DTC ventures, many have embraced an omnichannel approach in recent years, blending the charms of physical retail with the convenience and ease of shopping online. But since the coronavirus crisis shuttered brick-and-mortar operations, these brands have returned to their digitally native roots.

Ariel Kaye, founder and CEO of Parachute Home, said the home textiles company opened its first store in 2016 with the aim of bringing the brand to life. Customers were able to form deeper relationships with the label after spending some time in store, she said, and she wanted to keep that aspect of clienteling alive amid the shutdown.

The brand’s relaxed-casual aesthetic has resonated with shoppers, Kaye said, and they quickly graduated from buying bedding to wanting help outfitting the rest of their homes. As Parachute continued to share its unique sensibility with fans through Instagram or catalogs, Kaye found that shoppers wanted to buy into the aesthetic as a whole—not just individual pieces.

The pandemic spurred a fast-tracking of a virtual style consultation program, she said, which has allowed Parachute to learn “a lot more about what [consumers] want from a product perspective.”

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“We’ve stayed authentic, true to our point of view since the beginning,” she added. “We saw an opportunity to share that knowledge about how we make a house a home.”

While the style consultations undoubtedly require more leg-work from associates, who sometimes prep for hours to advise shoppers on products for particular areas of their homes, Kaye said the economics of the program shake out in the end. “The relationships that are coming from these customers are really worth it, despite the time investment,” she said.

Skincare company Deciem, which owns breakout beauty brand The Ordinary, is also using virtual consultations to keep shoppers engaged through the retail lockdown.

CEO Nicola Kilner said building a program to connect with shoppers virtually was “always on the roadmap” for the brand, but efforts went into overdrive in response to the pandemic, resulting in a platform called Deciem at Home.

Personalization is especially important for such an intimate and impactful part of a consumer’s daily routine, Kilner said. Deciem and The Ordinary have always been focused on educating consumers about the different ingredients and treatments available to them.

“The original concept was to build an ecosystem because we saw a gap in transparency,” she said. “There was a lack of education about ingredients, and people believed that price point was equal to effectiveness,” she said.

The Ordinary’s serums and potions start at just over $5—a fraction of the cost of most luxury beauty brands on the market.

While Kilner isn’t sure how long Deciem at Home will last—or if the program will be necessary after the pandemic—she said it was important to provide job security for her employees while operations are in flux. While just 4 percent of product questions and conversations about the brand were taking place on the platform when it first launched earlier this spring, Kilner said the program has now found a “good rhythm.”

“In today’s world, a shopper doesn’t just want to buy a product—they want to join a brand,” she said. “That loyalty is valuable.” Even if shoppers are just taking the time to learn about products—and about their own skincare needs—Kilner said that providing education can prompt future purchases and long-term loyalty.

Emmett Shine, chief creative officer and co-founder of Pattern, a family of everyday lifestyle brands, agreed that personalized interactions and teaching moments can underscore a company’s value to its shoppers.

Pattern’s collective of brands focus on optimizing daily tasks like cooking and cleaning. Products are simply a part of the overall equation, as much of the company’s efforts center on promoting a slowed-down, ritualistic approach to everyday life.

Shine said Pattern aims to find beauty in the mundane. “Our culture can be a bit frazzled,” he said. “There isn’t as much of a narrative in America about how to get off the hamster wheel” of day-to-day work and responsibilities, he said.

Subsidiaries like Equal Parts, a kitchenware brand, allow shoppers to walk through cooking instructions with trained chefs virtually. Another Pattern brand, Open Spaces, makes aesthetic-yet-functional storage solutions. The label’s Instagram page features conversations with real users about their philosophies on creating space within their homes.

“We wanted to bring back a sense of intentionality,” Shine said. Pattern aims to allow shoppers to “cut through the noise” of social media to find the products they actually need—and useful tips on how to make the most of their purchases.