A new company called Brandshop, launching in April, hopes to help emerging brands tap into secondary markets where they have less exposure.
Started by Laura Martin Mills (a former business director at Cynthia Rowley) and Hillary Crittendon (once a retail consultant at McKinsey & Company), the business is billed as a Match.com for retail: It pairs over 50 hot up-and-coming women’s apparel brands like Novis and Lemlem with a vetted host network open to showing their products at “minishops” in their homes.
The catalyst for the launch was both women leaving behind their fashionable enclave of New York City for Richmond, Virginia, where they found that shopping, especially for newer brands, was much more of a challenge. “I found that my options here, in terms of the type of brands I’m interested in, were extremely limited and somewhat depressing,” said Martin Mills. “My main option is a 15-minute drive to the mall and 10 minutes of circling to find parking, just to be able to go into a big-box department store, which is not an enjoyable experience for me nor the way I like to shop.”
After speaking to several other women in communities across the country, they realized they weren’t alone. “Women were consistently telling us that, unless [something] was more convenient or more enjoyable, they weren’t going to get off their couches — they were going to shop online,” said Martin Mills.
Brandshop founders Laura Martin Mills and Hillary Crittendon
Not that there was a problem with that, at least for consumers. “Shopping online [is] great, but busy women were going to their two or three favorite sites — sometimes Net-a-Porter or Moda Operandi — and they weren’t finding their ways to the sites of new, young designers,” said Martin Mills. Those designers, despite being widely regarded in the industry and sold in some of the country’s best stores, still lacked the distribution power and marketing reach to access customers outside of their savvier bubbles.
If they were being sold in these regional markets, it was usually at the hands of department stores, which restricted how and what products were being displayed. “We wanted to give [designers] a little more control over that and access to the pockets of women across the country,” said Martin Mills.
Enter Brandshop, which Martin Mills and Crittendon have been testing quietly in cities large and small, from Chicago to Wilmington, North Carolina, for the last 12 months. In short, participating brands are able to log onto the company’s digital platform and browse through each of the hosts: They can read their bios, peruse their Instagrams and learn where they shop most. From there, they can apply to be sold at their favorite hosts’ events on the shared event calendar. Hosts, who Martin Mills describes as “stylish and well-connected in their communities,” then rank applicant brands in preferential order.
Once a month, Brandshop uses this information to match brands with the host network’s various events. When both parties confirm, brands are required to select products and send them to their host — but Brandshop tackles all other logistics, including marketing, sales and accounting.
The key to such a marketplace working is quality hosts. As for how they screen their hosts, Brandshop was vague on details but hinted that it was through word of mouth.
The events, or “minishops,” as the brand refers to them, are reminiscent of the once-popular trunk shows used by big-city designers to court suburban consumers. Taking this route now is an unusual choice, but not necessarily a bad one.
“The model isn’t revolutionary, but it’s still relevant,” said Rachel Krautkremer, an insights and strategy director at Cassandra, whose recent Shop report found that 36 percent of U.S. youth (ages 14-34) and 39 percent of young women have bought a new product based on a recommendation from a friend or family member. “The company’s success will likely be determined by the quality of the brands and the connections of its influencers, rather than its business model.”
Photo from a Brandshop “minishop” cocktail party
Martin Mills and Crittendon are weary of the trunk show comparison and stress that individual hosts are restricted to only two events a year. That keeps them from seeming like multi-level marketing-style representatives, simply trying to cash in on their social circle. “We never wanted it to feel like these women were aggressive sales people who were trying to make an income for themselves,” said Martin Mills, who found that Brandshop’s target hosts — a higher-end contingent, not lacking for funds — were more interested in donating their proceeds to a charity of their choosing, which is now the standard practice.
Not that they see any shame in others utilizing the traditional trunk-show model.
“After moving outside of New York, we [found that] some of the most interesting shopping opportunities in our market were through people’s private homes, and featured brands from emerging brands to some incredibly established designers,” said Martin Mills. For these events, layouts were typically left up to the hosts; Brandshop, however, wants to make sure each of its minishops is, well, on brand. It ensures the merchandising and decor aesthetic are constant (streamlined, modern, features neon signage), whether the host is in Seattle or Austin.
This consistency is especially reassuring to the duo’s roster of brands. “Hilary and Laura have impressive backgrounds, which gave us the confidence that the events would be well-executed,” said Lauren Schwab, the co-founder of Negative Underwear, a lingerie brand that worked with Brandshop on minishops this past year in Atlanta and Charlotte. “Brandshop offered me the opportunity to get in front of like-minded customers in the South, a region in which [my cofounder] Marissa and I don’t currently have much exposure,” said Schwab, of their choice to participate.
Agathe Blanchon-Ehrsam, the chief marketing officer at Vivaldi, thinks Brandshop could be onto something: “They’re offering a compelling value proposition to the fashion labels on the platform and providing them greater access to customer data that will help them improve their product.”