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NRF 2018: Rent the Runway – focus on data proves use case for clothing rental

Clothing retailers are not traditionally known to rent products to anyone other than celebrities, but retail service Rent the Runway is using data to prove customer demand

Rent the Runway, a retail service that allows consumers to rent designer dresses and accessories, has proved that celebrities are not the only target audience for renting up-market clothing.

Jennifer Hyman, co-founder and CEO of the retail rental service, told the National Retail Federation Big Show 2018 (NRF) that designers were initially wary about the prospect of renting clothes to the public because they thought renting out garments that were also available to buy on the shop floor would “destroy their business”.  

But what started in 2009 as a business for women who looked at their full wardrobe in the morning and still felt they had nothing to wear has become a way for designers to find out more about how their garments are received through customer usage data.

Now many retailers and designers are interested in partnering Rent the Runway because of the data the firm collects after Hyman was able to confirm that a clothes rental service “would not cannibalise the sales of brands”.

She said: “In the past, all a retailer could really tell you was what your sell-through was, but they couldn’t necessarily tell you if the customer actually wore that shirt, how often she wore it, whether it stood the test of time.

“The data that we have now because we are renting clothing over time is so important to the manufacturing cycles of designers.”

Collecting data on particular items of clothing, such as wear and tear information, could help designers to pinpoint any problems with the manufacturing process, which can then be changed to fix problems such as high sales and low loyalty.

“It’s actually helped them make their business bigger,” said Hyman.

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As part of its collaboration with retailers or designers, Rent the Runway allows its partners to run trials with a reduced risk, and react to data collected from these tests. For example, a designer could have a focus on a particular type of garment, such as dresses, and want to try their hand in sportswear to see if consumers reacted well, said Hyman.

They could use Rent the Runway data to “help designers experiment with things outside their traditional business”, she said.

Many retailers are beginning to understand the importance of data, and retailers and designers are both aware that consumer demand is shifting the retail landscape towards digital technologies rather than in-store experiences.

“We are focused too much on stores closing,” said Hyman. “The reality is, stores are closing. Store traffic is going down, and it’s not going to pick up.”

Retailers have fretted for years about falling footfall in the high street, with many opting to close stores, shift towards smaller convenience-style shops or create “destination” stores to provide a showroom experience for brands and products.

Hyman said retailers should spend less time focusing on stores closing and how channels are shifting and do more to cater to the new online and mobile-driven experience that customers are looking for.

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