Coronavirus and luxury retail: Shopping for used Hermes, Cartier in Covid era

The RealReal exteriorSoruce: CNBCNo matter what it's called — resale, re-commerce, luxury consignment or pre-l

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The RealReal exterior
Soruce: CNBC

No matter what it's called — resale, re-commerce, luxury consignment or pre-loved — the market for secondhand fashion was booming before the Covid-19 pandemic upended the lives, and financial security, of millions of people.

All those clothes in your closet? The ones you haven't worn in years, but just can't bring yourself to get rid of, or even donate? Well, how about selling them? A growing number of consumers in recent years were beginning to view the items in their wardrobe not just as a means of expressing their personal style, but as valuable, tradable assets. That Gucci or Hermes bag costing thousands of dollars and that you once loved, but no longer use? Rather than sitting on a shelf, collecting dust, you can now put it on an online secondhand retail site such as The RealReal, Poshmark or ThredUp, and get cash for it.

Luxury apparel and accessories consignment grew to a $24 billion market before Covid, and has been projected to reach $51 billion by 2023, driven largely — but not exclusively — by millennials and Gen Z. At the high end, there's The RealReal, which deals in authenticated luxury goods from designers such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Valentino. For pure variety, there's ThredUp, which boasts that customers can buy and sell more than 45,000 brands — everything from Gap to Gucci. Other sites, like Poshmark and Depop let customers buy and sell directly from each other.

According to ThredUp, over the past three years, the apparel resale business grew 21 times faster than sales of new clothing. And although 18- to 37-year-olds are adopting secondhand apparel 2.5 times faster than their older counterparts, Boomers and Gen X'ers are also embracing this segment of the market, as Boomers, in particular, declutter their closets and look for ways to get rid of clothing, handbags, and other accessories they've had for years. Each of those demographics has seen its purchases of secondhand fashion increase by double digits since 2017, according to ThredUp's research.

The pandemic has led even more people to consider the future of their closets.

"We've seen a strong uptick in supply, with many people spending more time at home staring at their full closets and looking to earn some extra cash," said ThredUp president Anthony Marino. ThredUp's 2020 Resale Report found that 50% of people are cleaning out their closets more than they were pre-Covid. 

May was a record-breaking month for new site visits, and shoppers spent 2.2 million hours browsing ThredUp in May, a 31% increase post-Covid, according to ThredUp's 2020 Resale Report. 

Cash-strapped, 'uber-casual' lifestyle vs. luxury

It's not yet clear whether a more cash-strapped consumer market is a bullish or bearish sign for the resale sector, especially at the higher-end. More people are interested in selling possessions, but who will be there to buy them in a world where secondhand workout clothes like Lululemon may seem more essential?

"More supply of goods is likely because of Covid, above and beyond pre-Covid, as people no longer believe they have to hold possessions for an entire lifetime. ... In Covid, people are broke so looking at their closet and thinking, 'cash is hanging there,'" said Mark Cohen, the director of retail studies at New York City's Columbia Business School. But he added that everything has been distorted by Covid and it remains "anyone's guess" as to who survives in retail on the other side of the crisis, and that includes newer companies like The RealReal and ThredUp, which for all the buzz surrounding them, he thinks may fail to find a large enough number of consumers during the Covid era. 

"The lifestyle everyone has adopted is uber-casual. Casual on steroids now. The RealReal has cash flow issues if all they are doing is buying without a counterparty to sell to," Cohen said. "'I haven't used a handbag in a year, and I'm broke, and if The RealReal wants it, that will by cool,'" Cohen said of what may be going through a potential seller's mind, but it's the other end of the transaction where the question remains: "Do you really want to have that handbag to wear to a party? It's $6,000 and you can get it for $1,000 now, but you're not going to that party, there is no party."

Milton Pedraza, founder of the Luxury Institute, said more people are going on resale sites to sell their possessions out of necessity, including higher-income people who have lost jobs, "well-heeled people with expensive possessions," especially among the so-called HENRYS (high earners not rich yet), who may be eager to sell their high-end apparel and accessories, or start to do so if anxiety and insecurity continues to rise. But that has created a lot more supply than demand to soak it up. 

Demand for these products will be far less than supply and many middle and upper class people won't admit it, but they are doing it
Milton Pedraza
founder of the Luxury Institute

There will be consumers increasingly impacted by the Covid economic fallout, furloughed or laid off and losing short-term government assistance.

"Demand for these products will be far less than supply and many middle and upper class people won't admit it, but they are doing it," Pedraza said, and that includes all the white-collar workers, entrepreneurs and gig workers who are now suffering economically. "This is worse than 2008 in a way, spread out among lots of people and unless there is a really big stimulus package, we will see a reckoning," he said. "Across all income segments, unless multi-millionaire, people will feel pain or already are feeling pain."

Luxury market demand in the U.S. may fall more over the next 18 to 36 months, he said. "Right now, lots of brand are depending on China more than the U.S. and Europe."

The pandemic has already been cited in one massive luxury market deal that just fell apart, the planned merger of LVMH and Tiffany. 

The coronavirus has forced the business models of resale companies to adjust to several short-term and potentially longer-term realities: difficulties finding inventory to stock when many fashionistas have fled big city homes (and access to their closets); ways to meet with consignment partners that meet Covid guidelines; the fact that many Americans are hunkered down not just physically but financially and focused on shopping for essentials; and the lack of physical social events that spur high-end apparel and accessory purchases. 

Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of The RealReal
Photo courtesy The RealReal

Investors are not sure what to think of The RealReal right now. While the stock is almost half of the value of its first-day trade after its May 2019 IPO, which led to quick and sizable stock market gains, it has rebounded somewhat from March lows and is trading at roughly the same value that it was afforded by the market at the beginning of 2020, pre-Covid. The IPO priced at $20 per share and saw the company's stock value climb as high as $28 shortly thereafter, but sank as low as $6 in March before being stuck closer to the range of its 200-day moving average of $14.

Revenue decreased 21% for the company in its most recent quarter ended June 30, while its net loss grew to near-$43 million, up from roughly $26 million in the same period a year ago.

Founder and CEO Julie Wainwright has pointed to an improving situation as the company has moved further away from the early Covid shutdowns. She noted in its August earnings that the key market of New York returned to growth in the month of July, even though many city dwellers had fled and lacked access to their home closets, though Los Angeles was still lagging due to California Covid cases, while social unrest and protests during the spring and summer added to market issues.

Supply is recovering at The RealReal, said CFO Matthew Gustke on its August earnings call, but he was not willing to attribute that to any single factor when asked by an analyst about people stuck at home cleaning out their closets.

"We haven't certainly done consumer research to understand the motivation during Covid for people consigning, but our supply trends have been consistently more and more encouraging. So certainly, to some extent, that is -- as people settle into their stay at home routines, they are cleaning up closets and doing that. ... There's a case to be made that once New Yorkers come back, that there could be quite a strong rebound and the surge of supply coming out of New York."

While apparel sales have been down, Wainwright said handbags and jewelry, along with home furnishings and art, are selling better than the company anticipated. "We've always seen price compression and the most impact is in apparel. Well, handbags, jewelry, home art men's have all popped up. Apparel is actually the slowest to recover. ... It's becoming a less important part of our mix ... our mix has changed towards the higher value items, which we do expect to continue."

The RealReal quickly went to curbside pickup and virtual appointments for consignment partners. Prior to Covid, it had inside sales teams and "white glove" treatment. With the virtual appointments and curbside pickup, it sends a van, but the company says the combination is working similar to the in-home consultation. It expects in-home appointments to eventually return, but told Wall Street analysts that virtual plus curbside pickup is a "more efficient and effective" trade-off to white glove appointments.

The company is betting this Covid change is here to stay, with a substantially greater number of appointments per day per salesperson than in the model where they were traveling in between appointments.

"I don't personally see a scenario where it goes back the way that it was where we have the majority of our products coming from in-home appointments. I think the new norm virtual is a large component of the new norm," Gustke told analysts.

Department stores and resale

Not surprisingly, secondhand apparel has been getting the attention of some of the biggest legacy players in retailing.

Stores, including Macy's, Nordstrom, and Gap, tapped into the resale market not only to help them attract younger customers, but also to reinvigorate their own stagnating sales across the board.

In August 2019, Macy's announced a 40-store pilot program with ThredUp to sell secondhand clothing. Nordstrom began selling secondhand apparel, shoes, and accessories at its New York City flagship store, in early 2020.

ThredUp's Marino says his company's partnering with legacy retailers "speaks to the mainstream acceptance of secondhand clothing, and advances resale in a way that's never been done before."

By offering secondhand goods, alongside the new merchandise they sell, retailers are showing that they're listening to customers and serving up the kind of goods they want. They're also trying to get younger customers in the door.

Retailer interest in what ThredUp refers to as its resale-as-a-service (RAAS) platform has picked up over the past six months. ThredUp is now behind apparel resale experiences for over a dozen brands, with Gap, Reebok, Abercrombie & Fitch and Walmart launching in the midst of the pandemic.

"Forward-thinking retailers seem to recognize that resale delivers the value and sustainability that their customers demand," Marino said.

Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette said at the time of the ThredUp deal the company was trying to reach beyond its core customers by selling styles and brands that it typically doesn't carry.

And while the move is seen by some as a smart way to get a better return on expensive department store real estate, others are less bullish, and doubt whether these efforts will receive much focus, or lead to much success, for legacy players facing immense challenges in the pandemic.

"I don't think selling new stuff next to used stuff is going to turn the tide for any of these department stores," Cohen said. "I don't fault retailers like Macy's and Nordstrom for getting into this market. They absolutely need to attract younger customers."

But he remains skeptical of the department store efforts to make the resale shelves work. "This was Macy's flailing a 'Hail Mary' even pre-Covid," he said. "Department stores are not going out of business tomorrow, but they're grasping at straws by putting a ThredUp in place, trying to be relevant to a customer that already abandoned them." 

"It's going to be carnage out there," The RealReal's Wainwright told analysts about the retail sector. "I think that's going to be our gain during this period of time. And it does make me sad to think the retailers that are primarily a retail company are going to have such a hard time. But we're in a unique position to get stronger due to that."

"Flavor of the day," Pedraza said of the Macy's-ThredUp deal.

He said the biggest issue for department stores in these deals is that the resale business is siloed, whereas the department store needs to sell customers across a dozen categories in a deeper relationship for it to succeed. And he said they tend to pursue these new initiatives as "hobbies."

"They never take it seriously. They are rolling the dice on low probability," said Pedraza.

Luxury market is up for grabs, and Amazon knows it

A quick look at the number of store closings and retail bankruptcies over the past decade is proof of the seismic shifts taking place in this industry, and the pandemic has accelerated the failure rate in the industry.

The pandemic has given Macy's an opportunity, but distinct from mass-market resale: it wants to attract more of the luxury market as high-end retailers go under or close stores.

"Look at luxury right now, look at Neiman's, look at parts of Lord & Taylor," Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette told CNBC in a recent interview on the heels of the company's second-quarter earnings report. "There is opportunity for us. ... Customers have got time on their hands. They can't travel. They were budgeting for travel, and they want to reward themselves," Gennette said. 

"No one knows when this will be over and it will have an enormous impact on the sector," Cohen said. "There's already breakage in the retail business, the drip, drip, drip of bankruptcies and store closings, and layer on top consumers not buying apparel right now, just essentials and home furnishing."

A recent ominous sign that market share is up for grabs in the high-end retail shakeout: Amazon just announced the launch of Luxury Stores, its latest attempt to find a winning luxury retail formula.

Pedraza thinks more luxury brands will take control of the consumer relationship directly using online sales, and that will include the resale market.

"Lots of brands can go direct and all will go direct to consumers at some point. ... We will see more European and Asian groups take back the resale business. Buying previously owned is viable. Brands like Gucci and Chanel are viable and will have pre-owned themselves and may take out the higher end of the sector. Brands can do it so no one gets counterfeits, and they get money and preserve the brand. It will be perfectly acceptable and profitable. Covid has forced everybody to rethink everything."

But for some brands, the upheaval could also include being willing to work with Amazon.

"I've been writing Amazon off forever but if they can guarantee no counterfeits, and control pricing, they will succeed. Brands don't have to worry about logistics. The only question is who owns the customer. High-end, high demand brands will go direct to customers more and more. Amazon can wipe out an online luxury retail platform like FarFetch," Pedraza said.

Technology's rising role in retail

If there's one thing that distinguishes yesterday's musty secondhand shops from today's online entities, it's technology. The ability to quickly and efficiently facilitate the buying and selling of thousands of items from scores of individuals requires machine learning and data analysis that just wasn't possible decades ago.

Marino said the company has recirculated over 100 million items, and is able to process more than one item per second (on average). The company says it employs engineers who formerly worked at SpaceX and Netflix designing its massive logistics and supply chain infrastructure. "Our pricing algorithms can detect the value of any garment in a tenth of a second," Marino said. 

A ThredUp warehouse.
Source: ThredUp

While the RealReal uses human authenticators to examine and price the luxury goods it puts up on its site, which has attracted some controversy, companies dealing with lower-priced goods — and lots of them — need to rely on technology to make their business models work. 

"The ability to make communication easier between buyers and sellers is the primary role of technology in this space, and one of the reasons why this segment been able to grow so fast," Pedraza said.

But he thinks the industry remains a long way from the AI that will  make the biggest difference in terms of customer satisfaction and profit margin. On the supply chain side of things, technology is advanced, but in terms of transactions and location data and browsing data that allows retail companies to personalize the shopping experience so well it increases sales and decreases cost, such as returns, "the AI data is not there yet," he said. When the industry can combine data and emotional intelligence, it will be a great client experience and the economics will improve, but not even Amazon is able to do anything near that AI future yet, and data privacy concerns still loom as a potential long-term issue.

Luxury, and resale, will survive Covid

Some of the trends that industry experts say fueled the secondhand market boom won't change due to the pandemic.

Secondhand clothing stores have been around for decades, but there is a growing number of consumers and a radically diminished stigma attached to the secondhand market. Pre-loved or vintage fashion is now considered not only hip and cool, but environmentally responsible as well, says Jill Standish, senior managing director at professional services firm Accenture, and head of its global retail practice.

Millennials, she says, "want to own high-end brands, and the ability to get them for a fraction of the price in the secondhand market is especially appealing to them," and a greater move to digital sales during Covid-19 can help the resale sector, which has a strong online presence.

I think consumers are saying it's OK to take something that's been idle in someone's closet and buy it. They understand that's got to be better than to keep producing everything new.
Jill Standish
Accenture senior managing director

Younger shoppers not only care about how their clothes are made, but the impact they're having on the environment once they get rid of them. Resale — and, in fact, the whole circular economy — extends the lifespan of an item. ThredUp's research with GreenStory shows that returning just one clothing item back into the circular economy extends its life by an average of 2.2 years and reduces its carbon, waste, and water footprints by 82%.

"Consumers are shopping with their values," Standish said. "They care about climate change and the impact of apparel on the environment and that's why they're more attracted to pre-owned and pre-loved clothing."

A world where social media documents our every move (and every outfit), and landfills are overflowing with mountains of discarded clothing, supports the rise of resale. "I think consumers are saying it's OK to take something that's been idle in someone's closet and buy it," she said. "They understand that's got to be better than to keep producing everything new."

Longer-term, Pedraza is bullish on the return of luxury buying. "We will be dressing up again, at some point. The way we went, athleisure ... my working hypothesis is that handbags and other accessories will be desirable. There is a feeling that we won't be back to normal dressing up and going out. It may become less prevalent, but it will still be popular," he said. 

But he is less sure about the business models of the resale start-ups, since customer acquisition costs are high for what can easily become a commoditized business, and customer retention and return costs add to economics that are not better than traditional retail store economics.

"No one has Amazon skills. Even Amazon, if it didn't have Amazon Web Services, lots of its profit would be gone," Pedraza said. "Low margins, fighting competition, and when fighting to acquire customers and having to discount, it's not a very profitable model long term. There will be a few winners but they will consolidate and have thin margins. It will take attrition for winners to emerge and now is not a good time."

It could be even worse for a start-up, though: they could be Rent The Runway. With the need to rent high-end apparel and accessories for events like wedding no longer a part of most people's lives, Rent The Runway has had to make recent moves to refocus its business on digital, closing all of the physical stores it had expanded into. It laid off staff early in the pandemic and cut investment spending, but it also has raised more capital since March, though at a lower valuation. "That business is nowhere. It needs a new model. It could easily be 2022," before this situation is back to normal, Cohen said. 

But on the other hand, the RealReal's focus on accessories as a bright spot during Covid, as apparel sales fall, is nothing to get too excited about, Cohen said. "They have to put on as happy a face as possible," said the retail expert, though he added that when the Covid shakeout is done it could be one of the eventual winners. "If they have a great client base on both sides, and can sort and authenticate, and have the supply chain, the logistics right, and automate, then I think they can make money for sure, and they have the brand name now."

ThredUp has been the subject of recent reports it may pursue an IPO early next year. It declined to comment on that.

"ThredUp has the motivation to do an IPO to raise cash, that is obvious," Cohen said, but whether investor interest will be there remains to be seen, he added.
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