Menswear E-Tailers Peddle Salvation in a Box
Steven Kaplan dreads everything about department-store shopping: the too-loud music, the harried salespeople, the 10 or more brands of identical pants and shirts. The good news is, he never has to go back. “I will literally just go online, push a button, and have something that fits delivered to my door,” says the 31-year-old music entrepreneur. The Brooklyn resident recently signed up with Bonobos, a menswear e-tailer that made its name marketing pants tailored to different body types. “I need someone to tell me what to wear and remember me.”
Fashion is the fastest-growing segment of online commerce, and its growth is being propelled by men. Like Kaplan, more and more guys are fleeing malls and department stores and flocking to websites that claim to have taken the pain out of shopping. Sites such as Bonobos and Thrillist are capturing a bigger share of the $41 billion U.S. fashion e-commerce market with services such as personalized recommendations based on purchase history or brief online surveys. Some will ship a trunk of clothes to a man’s home, so he can pick out the items he likes and return the rest free of charge. “Men don’t hate fashion, they just hate shopping the way it’s designed for women,” says Ben Lerer, co-founder of Thrillist, which bills itself as a “digital lifestyle publication” for men. “The young generation of guys love to shop, they love to talk about the brands they like, and they really care about how they look.” To cater to this demographic, Thrillist acquired the e-tailer JackThreads.com in May.
While women’s share of the online clothing market is still more than double men’s, the guys’ market is growing faster, at a 13 percent annual rate, compared with 10 percent for women, according to NPD Group. And that gap may widen. “It’s an area of e-commerce that companies are only just now starting to really figure out,” says Joshua Goldman of Norwest Venture Partners, which specializes in retail deals. Male-focused online fashion startups are going head-to-head with established brands like Gap’s Banana Republic and J. Crew Group. Online sales of clothing and accessories in the U.S. are expected to grow 78 percent, to $73 billion, by 2016, according to EMarketer.
At Trunk Club, stylists consult with customers via e-mail and Skype before shipping out a trunkful of selections. The Chicago startup raised $11 million last year from a group of investors. Frank & Oak, a Montreal-based men’s website, announced on Oct. 11 that it had raised $5 million from investors. Visitors to the eight-month-old site can sign up to become members at no cost. Then each month they’ll receive a selection of clothes, including shirts and other items that the company designs and manufactures. Thrillist’s first round of VC funding netted $13 million in August. Lerer says his JackThreads customers snap pictures of themselves modeling their new threads and post them on Twitter, which is the best kind of advertising.
The boom in men’s fashion follows by a couple years the success of companies that started by catering to women, like Gilt Groupe and Rent the Runway. Men may be a better target for e-commerce sites because they are more likely to make big purchases in one swoop, while women often browse recreationally and may not buy, says Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners, a Bonobos backer. Men are also staying single longer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, meaning they have more income to spend on themselves. Gilt, a high-end flash-sales site, added a men’s section in 2008. Its typical shopper is 35 years old and single, living in a coastal city and making a bit more than $100,000, says Keith George, who heads the division.
Investors are attracted to these sites because they have a more stable revenue stream than most technology startups, such as ad-supported social networking outfits. “A lot of the other companies are reliant on venture capital and don’t make a lot of money from advertising until they have a ton of users,” says Brian O’Malley of Battery Ventures, a backer of J. Hilburn, which sends representatives to measure men at their homes and then makes customized clothes.
That’s not to say the sites have been glitch-free. The creators of Frank & Oak pulled the plug on an earlier venture, a site called Modasuite that targeted 30- to 40-year-olds, while Gilt has stopped investing in Park & Bond, the stand-alone men’s site it rolled out last year. “I hear about a new menswear e-commerce thought every day,” says Andy Dunn, the founder and CEO of Bonobos, which this year opened a New York showroom where customers can try on its clothes.
In part because they don’t require intensive computer engineering to get off the ground, many of the companies are based outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Thrillist and Bonobos are in New York, where they can more readily tap into the fashion industry. “Think of the computer programmer, and then think of the banker,” Lerer says. “Fashion is much more likely to be a top focus here in New York.”