Trunk Club, the menswear subscription company catered toward busy professionals, is starting to show signs of wear.
On Thursday, Nordstrom—which acquired the Chicago-based company last year for $350 million—announced poor performance from Trunk Club. The slumping sales led Nordstrom to declare that it was taking a $197 million write-down on Trunk Club, a devaluation of its estimated value.
The announcement is telling of the challenges of an oversaturated subscription service market, which is fostering “subscription fatigue,” according to Mohan Ramaswamy, founding partner at Work & Co. While the subscription commerce market exploded in popularity in recent years (it generated $5 billion in revenue in 2014) due to the appeal of algorithmic systems that pair user-submitted data with personal styling, they are struggling to differentiate.
“Convenience is table stakes today,” he said. “People are already hacking Amazon Prime to try before they buy. Offering free shipping and returns isn’t a differentiator. Subscription fashion brands that hinge on trial aren’t bringing anything new to the table.”
The success of Trunk Club has led to several niche offerings for men, all of which are contributing to the fragmentation of the market. They include Bespoke Post, which provides an array of items including grooming products, toiletries and cocktail mixers, and Foot Cardigan, which sends monthly sock styles to users. The array of services makes it easy to test out one service and cancel another. “The business model spread very quickly, and [subscription services] are easy to cut out of your budget because you see a recurring fee every month on your statement,” Ramaswamy said.
Trunk Club isn’t the only company scaling back in recent months. Birchbox, the beauty company that pioneered subscription offerings, announced in June that it would suspend plans to open three brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S. while simultaneously halting expansion overseas and laying off 50 employees.
Other companies have managed to maintain momentum by continuing to innovate and reinvent their offerings. Stitch Fix, one of the most profitable subscription services, launched its first foray into menswear in September, after several years of dabbling in women’s wear. Despite Trunk Club’s faltering, Stitch Fix has continued to thrive as a result of diversified offerings that now include shoes and accessories — it’s estimated that the company garnered $250 million in revenue in 2015, a number which is predicted to double by the end of this year.
“We are innovating in other ways around the client experience that are quite different from anyone else in the market,” said Julie Bornstein, Stitch Fix’s chief operating officer in an email. “The more we know about our clients and their likes and dislikes, the better we can serve them over time.”
Still, the biggest challenge, Ramaswamy said, is that subscription companies no longer hold the same novelty they had at the onset. This is largely a result of smarter e-commerce offerings at the brand level, as fashion companies get savvier at using data and offering shoppers more personalized experiences on their websites.
“For these subscription fashion brands, it’s not about a better online shopping experience. E-commerce evolved to be more focused on curation and personalization,” he said. “The stores you shop at already know a lot about you to facilitate easy trying and buying. We know your past purchase history and trends in similar customer segments to personalize against it.”
Looking to the future, Ramaswamy said that subscription services will have to find innovative ways to reinvent themselves, through partnerships with notable designers or offering unique one-of-a-kind pieces that draw shoppers. He added that companies could benefit from strategies that target specific types of consumers.
“They can structure themselves to be focused around the way people actually buy things,” he said. “The middle-of-the-road model isn’t customer friendly. There are continuous shoppers and seasonal shoppers—so really hone in on those two audiences.”