‘We’re looking at it as department stores 2.0’: Why Bulletin’s retail model is catching on

Digitally native brands are increasingly seeing the importance of a brick-and-mortar presence, but even a pop-up is out of reach for many out the gate. Multibrand retailer Bulletin is catching on as a solution.  

This summer, Bulletin, which houses female-led brands exclusively, will open a third location, a flagship in NYC’s Union Square. Stores in Williamsburg and Nolita opened in late 2016 and August, respectively. The company is often described as a WeWork for retail. “We’re looking at it as department stores 2.0,” said Bulletin’s co-founder and CEO, Alana Branston.

About 150 companies, spanning categories including apparel, accessories and living (mugs, notebooks and greeting cards), now sell at at least one location. Twenty percent of those have signed on to sell at all three locations, and there is a wait list of 1,000 brands itching to get on board. Each pays a membership fee of upward of $300 — the Nolita and Union Square stores cost more, and there’s a discount for brands selling in more than one location — in addition to giving Bulletin 30 percent of all sales. Ten percent of profits are donated to Planned Parenthood. (The company reports a 500 percent increase in sales in the past year and, to date, more than $80,000 raised for Planned Parenthood of New York City.) In exchange, the brand receives a number of amenities beyond a physical retail channel: a staff well versed on the brand story, professional merchandising, real-time access to sales and customer data, consulting on product and assortment, marketing and an at-the-ready event space.

“Big DTC companies, like the Reformations and Warby Parkers and Modern Citizens of the world, can raise venture capital and open these physical spaces they own and operate, and have to take the leap on,” said Ali Kriegsman, Bulletin’s co-founder and COO. “The brands we work with are not in the position yet to open their own stores. They’re throwing a ton of money into acquisition marketing and just praying someone discovers their website. With us, their product is being dropped like a pin in a high-traffic area.”

Inside Bulletin’s Flatiron pop-up, open for the holiday season (Photo: Seth Caplan)

Kriegsman and Branston know the struggle of online retail. Former executives at branded-content company Contently, they first launched Bulletin in 2015 as a shoppable digital publication featuring the same feminist-skewing products they sell today, interspersed with “beautiful, long-form” content on the brand’s backstories. But limited resources made getting shoppers to the site a challenge. After being accepted in the Y Combinator incubator program and interviewing partner brands about their goals, they revamped their business model to accommodate. They’ve since grown to a team of 30, including sales associates.

Polly Rodriguez, CEO of Unbound, a brand of “sexual lifestyle goods” including vibrators, signed on early and sells at all locations. She said, to keep product prices down, she only considers wholesale opportunities for customer acquisition; though she’s had temporary deals with Goop and Tamara Mellon, and recently signed a “a big PO” with Urban Outfitters, 85-90 percent of her sales remain direct-to-consumer. She uses Bulletin to drive customers to her own site and engage the NYC community.

“Alternatively, we’d be doing pop-ups,” she said, “but we can’t afford to do that year round. And, for customers, there’s always going to be this demand for brick-and-mortar and discovery.”

She attributed Bulletin’s success, in large part, to the ability of the team to curate, noting the values of all featured brands are aligned. Customers know they’ll find something “feminine, edgy and interesting,” and company founders can rest assured their products will be displayed alongside like-minded brands.

They also don’t have to worry about loss of cachet due to sales and promotions. Compared to other wholesale retailers, Bulletin has an advantage in that it owns no inventory, said Maggie Braine, director of product and brand experience: If something isn’t selling, she just asks the brand to trade it out for something else. “I came from J.Crew, and we became a sale destination,” she said. “We won’t have that problem; with this model, there’s no risk to us.”

In addition to onboarding brands, choosing products, managing inventory and consulting on product development and potential in-house collaborations, she works closely with the in-store staff — most of whom come from the hospitality industry or Planned Parenthood — to educate them on the brands carried and ensure they’re providing her with constant feedback. Weekly, they fill out a form detailing the brands that are performing well, top-selling items, and items that aren’t working and why. She provides that feedback to the brands at least weekly — though often weekly, depending on a brand’s ability to be responsive.

To automate Braine’s responsibilities — which were largely carried out through shared Google Sheets, emails and phone calls, and often kept her working until 2:00 a.m., she said — she and Branston recently developed a tech platform, named Bulletin Omni, launching this week. Member brands can now apply to sell on the portal, load their SKUs for approval and be selling in stores within five days.

“Because we operate on consignment and this membership model, no wholesale platform made sense for us,” Kriegsman said. “We really needed a system that was affordable, that our brands could use and that form-fitted how we operate our stores, so we created our own.”

She and Branston see it as the key to scaling their model. They have plans to expand their focus beyond female-led companies, possibly to stores catering to men and wellness. They also see the possibility in making the platform available to like-minded companies, like a Shopify for retail stores.

For now, though, they’re focused on their flagship opening, for which they’re working with an exclusively female team — 47 total workers, from architect to interior designer — for the first time. “We want to elevate women and help their businesses grow,” said Branston, pointing to current #MeToo and Times Up movements. “If we change where the money goes, we can make a big difference.”

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