This startup gives online shopping brands an IRL home
What do you get when you cross a glossy fashion mag with a department store?
That’s essentially the nonintuitive question Bulletin co-founders Ali Kriegsman and Alana Branston inadvertently answered as they formulated their Y-Combinator-backed startup.
The pair originally set out to create a “shoppable magazine” — an online publication that would showcase up-and-coming brands to potential customers.
As that spark of an idea eventually evolved into the small chain of trendy brick-and-mortar stores Bulletin now runs, the business plan obviously drifted a bit. But the editorial roots are still evident in the company’s DNA.
The fledgling startup operates a collection of “concept” shops — stores organized around a unifying topic or theme — that are sort of like the physical embodiment of a lifestyle blog. The guiding mission behind each space is more nuanced and specific than your average retail outlet, and they feature up-and-coming products from otherwise online-only brands that literally can’t be found at any other store.
“A lot of the value we bring to the brands and to the stores we create is this idea of curation and this idea of basically playing editor and deciding which brands make sense together,” Kriegsman said. “It felt like this random journey in the beginning, but it does make sense that we started [with the magazine pitch].”
The latest — and most topical — addition to the company’s roster is a store called “Bulletin Broads” that opened in Williamsburg last week. It’s stocked with items geared towards women from around 30 female-led companies and backed by Planned Parenthood (Bulletin itself is run entirely by five women).
“There’s products that are really in your face, anti-Trump kind of products, there’s products that are related to feminism,” Kriegsman said. “For us, it was a reaction to the times and what’s happening politically right now.”
The company announced this week that it’s raised a $2.2 million seed round from some high-profile investors, including Flybridge Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Afore Ventures, and Y Combinator.
Some of that money will go towards expansion beyond New York’s city limits with planned projects in Los Angeles and possibly elsewhere.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of Bulletin’s business model is that the web-born brands actually pay for the privilege of appearing in its chic IRL enclaves.
That may sound surprising if you’ve followed headlines about the bloodbath online shopping is currently wreaking upon traditional retailers. But it turns out that even as shopping in general increasingly moves online, digital upstarts still see value in an old-fashioned storefront. It’s a way for them to launch new products or brands, interact with their customers in person, or build a public profile.
Bulletin offers the chance to do so without the cumbersome longterm commitment of leasing their own retail space. Kriegsman describes it as a “WeWork for brands” — a reference to that company’s communal office space for freelancers and other independent workers.
“This is the cheesiest way to say this but brick-and-mortar isn’t dead, it’s just broken,” Branston said. “A lot of physical retail fails because these extremely dated companies sort of throw a store together and sign a 10-year lease.”
“When you do it right, you can connect with your customers IRL face-to-face, provide them with unique experiences, allow them to touch or try on your product in a very low-risk way versus them having to order it, try it on, and send it back,” she continued.
The Bulletin co-founders aren’t the first to arrive on this insight. As customer tastes change, a dominant strain of thinking within the retail industry holds that companies need to start reimagining the very concept of a “store.”
Bland fluorescent-lit department store aisles of dime-a-dozen wares won’t cut it with today’s web-saturated environment; consumers want stores to provide a unique comprehensive experience that justifies their visit, experts say. The future of brick-and-mortar commerce is about retail-as-a-service.
This trend is evident in Amazon’s sleek, hyper-convenient new stores, Walmart-owned Jet.com’s recent pop-up grocery store collaboration with another concept-based retailer, and a host of others who are putting customer service and atmosphere above all else.
The platonic ideal of this type of establishment described by retail industry futurist Doug Stephens in an interview for an earlier story sounds a lot like Bulletin’s business model.
“It’s a store [that] doesn’t really sell anything. Most of what gets sold is either sold directly from the brand or it’s sold online,” Stephens said then. “But the store is just something that is just absolutely incredible … it’s virtually such a great experience that you would pay a membership fee just to belong to it.”
Bulletin isn’t at that membership stage, but Kriegsman and Branston do share the same meticulous commitment to the experiential aspects of their stores. Not every brand that applies for their shelves makes the cut.
First and foremost, they must fit the defining concept of the given store to a tee. They must also have loyal social media followings that they can drive into the stores. Many of the company’s stocking and thematic decisions are also informed by what seems to be hot on social media and in the blogosphere. The decision-making process is not unlike that of your average lifestyle media property.
Most of the brands only appear for months-long stints — the minimum stay is eight weeks and rent is charged on a monthly basis after that.
The idea is for the store to also situate brands in a way that makes for an opportunity greater than the sum of its parts. Brands sometimes work together to hold in-store events, and there’s a strong crossover appeal between the dedicated customers of each brand.
“With the online magazine, we very quickly learned that online is really oversaturated,” he said. “We just thought, ‘Well there are inherently high-traffic retail spaces that are empty in New York, what if we use the power of the sharing economy to get them into these spaces where they wouldn’t necessarily have to spend crazy amounts of money or time building up their SEO or trying to get noticed online.”
Old guard department stores might do well to take note.