We've been reading how brick and mortar retail is dying. But is it? No. It’s just changing.
The fact is that people still like to shop in stores. We like to hold and touch products before we buy. We like the browsing experience in a store. Sure, there are a lot of things we can buy online without giving much thought. But when we're looking for something special - a gift, a memento, a piece of jewelry, a personal splurge, a quirky thing for our home - people still want to do this in an actual, real life store with real life other people and real life salespeople helping them. Not from a computer.
Ali Kriegsman and Alana Branston, the founders of a startup called Bulletin, are banking on this. Their business, according to a Fast Company article profiling them last year, is like the "WeWork" for retail - a brick and mortar shop (actually a few shops) where brands vie to get placement on their shelves and pay a monthly subscription for the privilege. Kriegsman and Branston came up with a genesis of the idea in 2015 and then by 2017 morphed it into a retail space for all of these craftspeople, artists and entrepreneurs to sell their wares to people who still appreciate shopping on Main Street (actually Union Square and other locations in New York) and not on Etsy or Amazon.
“We get invited to pop-ups and markets all the time, but the numbers don’t really work out if we have to staff it ourselves," one Bulletin seller told Fast Company. "Compared to paying someone to sit at a table all weekend, paying ‘rent’ at Bulletin and letting them staff the place and sell the items is a no-brainer.”
Bulletin’s stores were such a success, and the waiting list of brands and the network of other retail stores looking for products to sell became so long that Kriegsman and Branston decided to pivot. Sure, they’re still selling products from their stores. But those spaces are limited. Why not an online marketplace where they match mostly (but I imagine not exclusively) women-owned brands with hungry retailers based on various data inputs like the retailer’s historical sales data, social media data and current best-sellers and take a 5% fee when a match is made?
That's the hope. And it's a good enough concept that the company, after raising a seed round of $2.2 million in 2017, was able to recently close a $7 million financing deal that included Foundation Capital, Kleiner Perkins and a few other well-known venture capital firms. If it works, the model is sure to be duplicated by others and could very well have a very disruptive effect on retail distribution. Of course, a middleman is needed to make the connections. But that process can be automated and turned into an online transaction that leverages big data to make a better match and then adds future conveniences like shipping and payment.
"With this evolution and new financing, we are now able to serve the millions of digitally native brands that are struggling to find affordable, sustainable solutions for omni-channel growth," Branston said in a press release. "In testing this marketplace model last year, we were absolutely blown away by the early traction and demand from both retailers and brands. It's been really gratifying to see how this new product has increased retailers' sell-through while giving brands the brick-and-mortar exposure they need to engage their existing D2C customers, acquire new ones and learn about product performance across various stores and environments."
No, folks, brick and mortar retail is not dead. Like office space, taxi services, overnight accommodations and the music industry, it's just changing. And like WeWork, Uber, Airbnb and Spotify, innovative companies like Bulletin are creating new ways for consumers to buy these products and services, and new opportunities for entrepreneurs that may never have had that chance to sell those same products just a few years ago.