E-commerce

Are You Financing Your Inventory the Wrong Way? Here are 3 Ways to do it Right.

 Make sure to finance your inventory the right way!

Over the past year, we’ve learned that many young companies are financing their inventory completely the wrong way. What’s the wrong way to finance inventory? With venture capital funding. 

Why you don’t need VC funding for your brand

First and foremost, unless you have a completely new business model (like Dollar Shave Club or Birchbox when they were first starting out) or something else that’s extremely innovative about the brand you’re building, venture capital funding is probably not right for you. If you do take VC funding, it should be used exclusively to drive your business’ hiring and marketing needs. These are important investments in growth and worth selling a piece of your company for. But, given that there are many other ways to finance your inventory, selling a big chunk of your company to do so doesn’t make any sense. 

At this point, you might be asking yourself, well if I can’t use venture funding, what should I do? Here are three options:

(1) Your Suppliers and Manufacturers

Our advisor, Lisa Hom, who’s starting a new brand called Kaleido Concepts and has been an executive at multiple $100 mm+ brands, plans to finance her inventory by, “...getting creative when working with manufactures and suppliers. It all comes down to cash flow. The strategy should be to pay your manufacturers for the goods after you sell them. I asked a manufacturer for terms of net 120 days, meaning that I didn't have to pay him for the goods until 120 days after he shipped the product.  So it gave me 90 days to sell it and not have to pay for the goods out of my cash.”

While it may take a bit of leverage to get that type of accommodation from a supplier, most founders don’t even know that they can ask. Many manufacturers feel that they are falling behind and are eager to partner with founders who can educate them on the world of e-commerce. When starting a new brand, you need to talk to suppliers from a place of strength, so getting creative about what your strengths are is super valuable. Moreover, we’ve seen several start-ups partner with their supplier by letting them take an equity stake in the company. Not only does it give you capital, but it also completely aligns your incentives.

(2) A Letter of Credit

Now that you’re in business and actually have sales, you can go get a letter of credit from a bank. The letter of credit will demonstrate to your suppliers that you will be able to pay them. This letter of credit not only allows you to purchase more inventory than you otherwise could, but it also allows you to negotiate better payment terms with your suppliers. Now that you have more inventory, you can drive higher sales, increase the amount guaranteed by the bank, buy even more inventory and do it all over again. So long as the inventory is selling, you’ll continue to be able to use this approach to finance your business.

(3) Inventory Factoring

Finally, although inventory factoring sometimes gets a bad name, there are great companies like Dwight Funding, who are revolutionizing the world of inventory factoring and taking a modern approach to working with young companies. Inventory factoring is when a company takes on debt to finance inventory against its future sales or accounts receivable. This can be especially effective when you work with large retailers like Sephora, Nordstrom and others that commit to purchasing large amounts of product for the upcoming season well in advance. These receivables can be leveraged to get a loan in order to be able to buy the inventory that will support these large contracts. 

What do you need to be successful?

If you pursue these strategies, you need to maintain trust with the third parties you work with by forecasting your demand and inventory needs accurately. If you’re unable to pay your supplier because you’ve vastly overestimated the sellthru rate of your inventory or your factoring partner can’t get a straight answer on what you expect this year, these partnerships won’t be successful. That’s where a tool like Fuse comes in to help you forecast demand and inventory more accurately. Planning inventory and getting it right is our bread and butter. As a scrappy start-up, our tool can help you gain leverage and continue to forecast easily and accurately as you grow your SKU count and monthly order volume without throwing more bodies at the problem. No matter how you choose to finance your inventory, Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.
 

The 3 things ecommerce brands can learn from Amazon Prime Day

 Here's what small ecommerce brands can learn from Amazon Prime Day's success

This year’s Amazon Prime Day was record breaking generating $1 bn in sales. Not only did Amazon beat it’s own Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, but sales also increased 60% year over year relative to last year’s Prime Day. Amazon continues to dominate e-commerce and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But, as we said in our last post, we definitely believe that there is room in the market for digitally native brands to succeed. They just need to compete on a different dimension rather than trying to beat Amazon at the game that it’s mastered - convenience.

As Amazon continues to grow and dominate, we think that Amazon Prime Day has valuable lessons for growing brands that they can apply to their own business models successfully.

(1) The membership model works really really well if you’re fulfilling a real need

While subscriptions of one sort or another have long been in vogue for ecommerce companies, not all of these companies have been successful over the long-term. This year, a record number of customers signed up for Prime Day, demonstrating that the membership or subscription model can work really well, but it needs to have several key components. Namely that the benefits have to be unique, exclusive and drive significant value to the customer. 

The thing that makes Prime Day so special is that it is available to only Amazon Prime members. Most e-commerce subscription providers tend to provide a subscription for the sake of stabilizing their own revenue and cash flow and not necessarily because they offer something unique, exclusive and valuable to the customer. 

That being said, companies like Stitch Fix and Dia & Co. have been successful because they provide exactly that. In the case of a company like Dia, they’re meeting an untapped market need for plus size clothing and have a unique offering in a space where there’s a clear market gap. Literally the perfect use case for a membership model. 

(2) Don’t be afraid to run experiments

In a way, Prime Day is one big experiment for Amazon. The company has used it to test new product lines and releases or supply chain innovations with the focus shifting slightly each year. Once it becomes clear what worked and what didn’t, Amazon can use the plethora of data to improve throughout the remainder of the year. 

While most e-commerce brands do have a strong ethic of A/B testing whether it’s landing pages, marketing copy or other initiatives, it can be hard to run potentially game changing experiments and take big risks as a small company. But, that being said, what Amazon and other successful e-commerce players like Jet have taught us is that big bets can pay off. In an ecosystem where retail continues to be challenged, those who innovate successfully and take bold steps to reinvent their business models even when they seem to be working will be the ones who come out on top. 

(3) Make sure your supply chain and logistics are in order before ramping up marketing

While in the past Amazon has had some technical snafus related to Prime Day, the company has certainly succeeded in making sure everything went smoothly this year. While Amazon has a particular strength in supply chain and logistics, the lessons from its past technical malfunctions can teach smaller brands a thing or two.

Similar to the Amazon example, you don’t want to spend a ton of time, effort and money driving traffic to your site when that traffic can’t convert due to a shopping cart glitch (back in 2016), or, on the supply chain side, when you’re out of the inventory you’re advertising. At Fuse, one of the most common problems we encounter is a lack of coordination between the marketing and the supply chain teams. 

While marketing may launch a meticulously planned, omni-channel campaign, too often we find that these campaigns don’t take into account critical questions like if the campaign has the desired impact, can the company actually fulfill the orders? Will there be enough inventory to satisfy demand? While it seems obvious in hindsight, it usually takes a crisis or two for e-commerce brands to streamline the coordination between functions. 

As your company grows and scales and focuses on putting these lessons into practice, Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory. 

Is Amazon eating the world?

Groceries spilling out

Just over 6 years, Marc Andreessen famously stated that “software is eating the world.” In e-commerce today, Amazon is certainly eating Whole Foods, but is it eating the world? While the full implications of the acquisition remain to be seen, there are a few things that we can infer from the acquisition and its impact on both food and e-commerce.

Standalone food start-ups will continue to struggle

Since the first tech bubble, standalone food start-ups have struggled to succeed. In the early 2000s, Webvan, a precursor to today’s Fresh Direct and Instacart went belly-up. There are several key factors that contributed to the start-ups failure, but the main one was a lack of scale. Today, despite being tremendously popular among Millennial audiences, food start-up Maple shut down last month. Others, like Munchery, continue to struggle and may not be long for this world. On the other side, the shining success in the industry has been Blue Apron, which announced its IPO. While some attribute Blue Apron’s success to marketing, we attribute it to a laser focus on implementing operational efficiencies and constantly improving with scale. 
 
In general, that will continue to be the theme. Food (and more broadly, inventory) waste has the potential to take a company down and creates notoriously tight margins. In many ways, Amazon, who has made its name operating on razor tight margins, is the perfect acquiror for a food business that tends to experience these issues to the extreme. 

The war between Amazon and Wal-Mart is about to heat up

With a slew of acquisitions recently - Jet.com, Bonobos, Modcloth - Wal-Mart made it clear that it’s making it’s presence known in e-commerce. Amazon has countered with the Whole Foods acquisition and will start going after the bread and butter of Walmart’s business. Not only that, but given Amazon’s expertise in operating on low margins, it’s actually well positioned to decrease Whole Foods notoriously high prices. This will broaden Whole Foods’ reach and put it in more direct competition with Walmart Grocery shoppers. At the same time, Amazon can offer a slew of other attractive food related services online and in stores. 

But can brands still stand-up to Amazon?

As we look to the broader ecosystem, what does this mean for brands and retailers? Is everyone else doomed? While this may be an unpopular opinion, we here at Fuse don’t think so. 
 
As the competition between Amazon and Wal-Mart heats up, the two will tend to converge into two very similar players with limited differentiation in the consumer’s eye. The number one differentiators will be price and convenience. In many ways, while Amazon’s success has put pressure on physical retail, it’s acquisition of Whole Foods actually validates that physical retail isn’t going away.
 
By 2020, Millennials will account for 20% of retail sales. Unlike prior generations, Millennials are looking for unique experiences and deeper connections to the brands they shop with. While Amazon and Walmart will always win on convenience, brands that work hard to facilitate unique experiences, value props and bespoke feeling (if not actually bespoke) products will continue to speak to Millennials. What’s more, creating these brands online is easier than ever today and there is so much more flexibility in what a brand’s physical presence needs to look like. It doesn’t have to be a fully stocked store, but rather, it can be a showroom or pop-up. 
 
In the early days of e-commerce, all brands were essentially competing on convenience. But, today, as e-commerce becomes more and more ubiquitous, it’s clear who’s poised to win on convenience. In many ways, this can be liberating for brands given that instead of competing on faster shipping, they can compete on delivering the brand experience Millennial consumers are searching for. 
 
In short, we don’t believe that the rest of retail is going away, but we do believe that retailers have to get smarter not only on brand, but also on the operations side. As tools like Fuse continue to grow, scale and become more ubiquitous, brands can help themselves compete against larger players who have vastly more resources. No matter what type of brand you’re building, Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

What's our ROI?

When we first started Fuse, we had several key hypotheses as to how we could improve the way inventory planning is done by retailers today. First, we were convinced that it’s impossible to plan a growing business in Excel. As the volume of data and the number of SKUs grow, it’s easy to make errors in Excel and, in fact, impossible not to when you’ve linked several spreadsheets and Excel is crashing mid-save. Excel’s capabilities are limited, and thus planners must rely on backward-looking metrics like sell-thru and historical growth rates, which don’t accurately paint a picture of their growing business. Second, an algorithm can better detect anomalies and accurately estimate seasonality than a human whose attention is divided amongst the many other urgent priorities of the day.

After working with our early customers for some time, we’re proud to say that both our hypotheses were correct -- we’ve found that the ROI of using Fuse makes a meaningful, material difference on both the revenue and the cost side.

10% More Revenue

On the revenue side, we’ve found that Fuse helps our customers achieve 10% more revenue. We did a deep dive into our customers’ biggest quarter - Q4. First, we took a look at stockouts in Q4. We defined a stockout as zero sales with 95% confidence. This means that we excluded instances in which zero sales could have legitimately meant no demand for the product. Second, we assumed that our customer’s revenue target for Q4 was equal to actual Q4 sales. In reality, given the number of stock-outs our customers experienced (more on that below), the revenue target was likely most definitely higher than the sales figures actually achieved. Finally, at Fuse, we always encourage our customers to modify the forecast by including relevant details like product launch dates, products that are phasing out, as well as other information they might know about their business that an algorithm doesn’t. For purposes of our analysis, however, we excluded that information. 

Even assuming the above simplifications, we found that our customers could have made 10% more revenue and avoided 450 stock-outs (on average) during Q4 if they’d followed Fuse’s algorithm. In fact, one of our earliest customers who joined the platform in Q4 had zero stock-outs in Q1

What does this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that Excel is definitely not the right tool for growing businesses to plan inventory. In addition, it also means that even without additional input from our customers, Fuse’s initial predictions (based on seasonality) can achieve dramatically better results for our customers.

Reduce Overspend on Inventory by 3x

What we often find with the growing companies we work with is that a significant stock-out in the past, or paranoia about stocking out, leads to panic overbuying. This ties up precious capital and resources in inventory that could be deployed elsewhere. 

In Fuse, we use a forward-looking weeks of supply target to help customers maintain a lean inventory buffer. We often find that many of our customers are managing their buffer using sell-thru (which is backwards looking) or a historical weeks of supply target. For a growing business, these backward looking metrics don’t reflect current trends, and can lead to dangerous overbuying. However, with Fuse, it’s now possible to look forwards instead of backwards, thanks to our accurate forecast and real-time actualization of sales.

We took our customer’s forward-looking weeks of supply target (based on Fuse’s forecast) and applied it to create a recommended inventory buy and replenishment recommendation. What we found was that on average, our customers were overstocked in almost 200 products and spending 3x what they needed to on inventory. By following Fuse’s recommendations, our customers can dramatically reduce their inventory spend and more efficiently manage their working capital, freeing up cash for initiatives that will grow their business, like customer acquisition.

Conclusion

Our data shows that prior to Fuse, our customers were buying not enough of the right SKUs and too much of the wrong SKUs. With Fuse, our customers can switch this around and invest more capital on the right SKUs and less on the wrong SKUs. At Fuse, we’re here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory. 

Should brands shift to pop-ups and showrooms over traditional stores?

 Pop-up shops can be just as effective as permanent stores.

In a previous post, we highlighted five reasons why e-commerce brands still need a physical presence, but we don’t think that that physical presence needs to be traditional store. Two new models, the showroom and the pop-up have emerged, and we think they can be just as effective if not more so than a traditional physical store.

According to Pop-Up Republic, pop-ups have driven $10 bn of sales annually and are continuing to grow. Even big brands like Nordstroms have created in-store pop-ups embracing the trend. Why are pop-ups so popular? And how can they be effective for growing brands over having their own retail store? And where do showrooms fit in?

Pop-ups provide flexibility

As a temporary location, a pop-up can provide ample flexibility for experimentation. As a brand, you can lease different size spaces in different locations at different times of year to figure out what works for your brand and resonates with your customers. The inherent transience of a pop-up allows you to A/B test different concepts, something that e-commerce brands are already doing all the time on their websites. Think of a pop-up as an opportunity to A/B test key variables like size, location, layout and assortment of your physical stores. In addition to these benefits, pop-ups are also a temporary expense thereby minimizing the risk of making a bad, long-term financial decision.

Pop-ups create a sense of urgency

The great thing about a pop-up is that it’s something new and temporary. These two elements can combine to encourage customers to buy now and to buy more than they otherwise would. Because they know your store won’t be there forever, customers are encouraged to make their purchase right when they see something they like rather than waiting until the next time they come back. While a physical lease runs 5 - 10 years, most pop-ups won’t be in a single location for more than three months.

Pop-ups can support your e-commerce business

For many emerging brands, the goal of their physical presence (whether wholesale or other), is ultimately to drive traffic to their higher margin direct to consumer business. Not only do pop-ups help you maintain your margin, but they accomplish a similar objective. If the customer was curious about your store, they’ll search for you online and be more likely to buy something than had they not walked by your pop-up. In a lot of ways, you can think of pop-ups as more like event marketing rather than a distribution channel.

Social media creates great marketing reach

In a world of social media, pop-ups become even more attractive because there’s an easy and convenient way to share the fact that you’re opening a pop-up with consumers. What’s more, it creates an opportunity for a conversation with your customers over social media in which you invite your loyal followers to come visit you in person. In the pre-social media days, it would have been very difficult to actually attract customers to your temporary location.

Showrooms are a natural extension of the pop-up

Most showrooms tend to be permanent and have been used successfully by brands like Warby Parker. While traditional stores hold inventory, pop-up shops often do not. Instead, they give the customer an opportunity to experience the product, decide what he or she likes and then place the order. Instead of walking out with the item, the customer gets the exact product they picked out delivered to their home. 

In a world in which physical retail stores are closing left and right, brands are searching for a great way to connect with customers and own the customer experience without taking on the liability that a physical retail store often comes with. The great thing about both pop ups and showrooms is that they derisk the financial investment required in creating your own physical space. In the case of the pop-up, the fact that it’s a temporary space limits the financial risk. In the case of a showroom, the fact that there’s little to no inventory investment is a different way to minimize that same financial risk. 

Regardless of whether you choose to keep your business e-commerce only or open a pop-up, we’re here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

Our 5 question guide to choosing the right e-commerce platform

 Our 5 question guide to choosing the right e-commerce platform for your business

Your e-commerce platform will probably be one of the most critical pieces of software you select for your business. In recent months, we’ve observed that a lot of companies end up switching platforms. This is extremely painful and costly - you have to divert your team's energy away from running your business to switching. We’ve boiled it down to the five key questions you need to ask yourself to help you avoid this expense and choose the right platform for you:

1. How big do I expect my business to be?

If you think that you’re starting a really big business, this might be the only time it’s worthwhile to invest in a custom or highly customizable platform, like Spree. If you’re a large brand, you’ll inevitably want to fully control the customer experience and come up with innovative offerings for your customer base. This will be hard to achieve without investing tech resources. On the other hand, if you think your brand might stay relatively small, you can probably get away with using a basic, user friendly tool like Shopify or BigCommerce. They don’t enable a lot of customization, but you can create a really beautiful e-commerce site in a short time. That being said, ShopifyPlus does cater towards larger brands. 

2. How unique is my business model?

If you’re selling a product a la carte to an end consumer without a ton of complexity, a simple platform like Shopify could serve you really well. However, if you’re starting a business with a rent-to-own model or a subscription model, you’ll definitely want something more customizable like Spree or Magento. Both platforms are open source, so you can hire a development team to help you craft the nuances you need. We always encourage new businesses to keep it simple and avoid inserting needless complexity into their model. To start, keep your SKU count low and your model straightforward. 

3. How tech savvy am I?

You have to be really honest with yourself. Can you actually build a website? It’s OK if you can’t, but if that’s the case, even with a do-it-yourself platform like Shopify, you’ll probably need some tech support. If you’re pretty tech savvy; however, you can get yourself up and running quickly. If you’re not tech savvy and wind up choosing a more customized platform that requires heavy development investment, you might really struggle to supervise a dev team without someone technical on your team. 

4. How quickly do I need to be up and running?

In some cases, time may be the biggest constraint. If it’s extremely urgent for you to start your business, then you definitely want a platform like Shopify or BigCommerce that requires relatively few development resources and can get you to market quickly. On the other hand, if you have time to diligence, onboard a dev team and spec out the product, then spending the time to create something that really represents your brand and is unique to your business might be worthwhile.

5. Do I have capital to invest in tech resources?

Shopify and BigCommerce will be more cost effective than any tools that require development like Magento, Spree or a custom platform. That being said, what companies don’t often anticipate is that once you’ve built out your website, the investment has just begun. Anytime you want to make a change, you’ll need to spend capital on your development team. Further, as you build out your business and incorporate additional tools and systems like an accounting system, an ERP system or an inventory management system like Fuse, you’ll find that with customized platforms, you'll need at least some dev resources for these integrations. The more customization you’ve done, the more development work will be required on your side to make the platform work. These costs are often unanticipated. Shopify is at an advantage on this dimension because it has the most robust app marketplace with tons of vendors to choose from

To help you make this critical decision or to help you switch if you need to, we’ve created a pro and con cheat sheet:

 

Pros

Cons

 
  • Easy to use
  • Increasingly nicer and nicer templates
  • Robust 3rd party marketplace
  • Possibility of Shopify Plus upgrade
  • Cheap
  • Core product does not support multiple currencies
  • Not very customizable
     

  • Open source
  • Highly customizable
  • Solid 3rd party marketplace
  • Somewhat old school
  • Requires a lot of development resources

  • Open source
  • Highly customizable
  • Commonly used by e-commerce start-ups
  • Great for subscriptions
  • No 3rd party marketplace
  • Requires a lot of customization and development resources
     

 
  • Integrates e-commerce store with 3PL
  • Omnichannel focus with some inventory management capabilities
  • 3PL is not very good
  • Does require custom dev work

 
  • Easy to use
  • Slightly slower load times vs. Shopify
  • Great how to content
  • Cheap
  • Small third party ecosystem relative to Shopify

 
  • Generally lower quality design than Shopify and BigCommerce
  • Customization can be costly and require dev work
  • Easy to use
  • Wordpress plugin
  • Free

No matter which platform you end up choosing (or switching to), Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

5 reasons you need a physical store and how to hack it if you can't afford one

 Physical retail stores are still important in an e-commerce world

It seems like everywhere these days all you read about is doom and gloom for physical retail. Same store sales are declining, foot traffic is decreasing and brick and mortar is struggling as Amazon continues to take over the world. While we can’t deny the facts, we do think that there is a compelling case for new brands to create some sort of physical presence:

(1) It’s hard to be a big business without a physical presence

As evidenced by the recent troubles at JackThreads and Nasty Gal, e-commerce pure plays are very vulnerable. While each of these companies had their own unique problems, the attractiveness of the e-commerce model can only take a company so far. Compare JackThreads and Nasty Gal to Bonobos and Warby Parker. The latter two are both e-commerce darlings which have started focusing on creating physical showrooms. These showrooms don’t hold inventory, but they create a physical presence where customers can come in and experience the product. Warby Parker understood the importance of the physical experience from the beginning and created its home try-on program as a way to compensate for a lack of physical stores. JackThreads attempted to create a try-on program, but it was ultimately too little too late. Of course, there are some shining examples of success like Dollar Shave Club, but so far, these are the exception and not the rule.

(2) Most shopping is still done in person

We all know the stats. E-commerce is growing rapidly at a rate of 15-17% year over year. Yet, despite this incredible growth, e-commerce (excluding big ticket items like cars), still only represents 10% of retail sales. Of course, this is huge compared to just a few years ago and the growth rates speak for themselves. That being said, as a brand, you want to be where your customers are and at least 90% of their dollars are currently spent in store. It’s important to maintain your e-commerce business and prioritize it as the wave of the future, but completely ignoring the channel in which customers currently spend most of their dollars just isn’t smart business.

(3) As consumers shift spend from goods to experiences, a store can be a great way to create a compelling experience with your brand

If you think about some of the most successful retailers in the world, like Apple, the thing that makes them so successful is that the store is a unique experience that helps the customer connect with the brand. When you walk into Apple, you might not necessarily be looking to buy, but you certainly are looking to explore and discover new things.

Physical stores, by creating a branded experience, can have a similar impact for your business. They are a great place for customers to discover new products that they wouldn’t otherwise have seen or evaluate more expensive purchases, like jewelry. In many ways, the physical store can act like a marketing channel by putting your brand, products and the experience it stands for front and center with consumers.

(4) If you can’t afford your own stores or showrooms, take advantage of pop-ups

Several of our customers, including Aella, have been extremely successful with lower cost, temporary pop-up shops. The next one includes a partnership with several other brands and starts on March 1st. While pop-up shops are of course, temporary, they still create tremendous brand awareness in critical markets. The goal of these stores is ultimately to drive e-commerce traffic, so by being strategic about the location and timing, you can achieve that objective without committing to a full fledged store. 

Pop ups are great because in expensive markets like NYC, there are plenty of landlords who are receptive to the concept. Their rent is high, so finding a long-term tenant can be difficult. Thus, this leaves plenty of open space for your pop-up. 

(5) Being strategic about wholesale can have a similar impact as having your own showroom or pop up

Wholesale is a tough channel. Not only does it eat into margins, but it’s hard to control how your product is merchandised. That being said, picking a few strategic partners and specific locations that align with your brand can be tremendously helpful in reaching your ultimate objective: driving traffic back to your e-commerce site. 

However, the challenge really comes into play on the margin side. A lot of e-commerce companies have lower prices because they can - they can still have attractive margins by disintermediating the middle man. Many e-commerce companies pride themselves on replicating the Warby Parker model - finding inefficiencies in the supply chain which allow them to have lower prices than more established competitors. However, before setting your prices, brands need to keep in mind that price is an important indicator of quality to consumers. Further, if you want to maintain the flexibility to enter the wholesale channel, having slightly higher prices will create a bit of cushion for you on the margin side.

At Fuse, we're dedicated to supporting your business, whether it's an e-commerce pure play or a combination of e-commerce, retail and wholesale. We're here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

Can luxury go digitally native?

 Can digitally native luxury brands succeed? We think so, but e-commerce brands will need to work hard to exceed the traditional luxury experience.

A few months ago, we published a post on why we believe that digitally native brands can and will be successful. First, they are well positioned to completely own the customer experience. Second, it’s easier to find and target the brand’s ideal customer online. Finally, there are many storefronts (like Shopify and Big Commerce) to choose from that look great and don’t require a team of engineers.

How do consumers feel about luxury e-commerce?

But, can the same logic be applied to luxury items? According to Bain’s Spring 2016 Global Luxury outlook, growth of luxury goods has slowed to 1%. In the US, specifically, the luxury market is in decline due to limited domestic spending and no support from tourism. However, amidst this grim outlook, e-commerce is gaining ground on traditional channels and is expected to grow by 15% per year through 2020. 

We ran a survey to understand how consumers feel about purchasing luxury items online. An overwhelming majority (90%) of our respondents said that they would buy a luxury item online, which is great news for brands. But, many of them caveat that there are only certain kinds of luxury items that they feel comfortable purchasing. First, they prefer purchasing from brands they already know. Second, they prefer to have interacted with the brand first in store. Finally, if it’s an item with a very specific fit, they want to have tried it on in advance.

Customer experience is key to success in luxury

We asked two up and coming brands, Floravere and SENREVE, in two very different industries (wedding gowns and handbags, respectively) to share how they tackle these customer needs.

According to Emily Ambrose at Floravere, “There is nothing more luxurious than serving the customer on her terms.  We deliver wedding dresses directly to the customer, so she doesn't need to hunt down the one dress. Instead, she can try-on in the comfort of home with her loved ones and no pushy sales people. Going digitally native gives us the opportunity to offer unprecedented customer service in our space.” 

Julia Mehra at SENREVE shared a similar perspective: “Luxury purchasers are increasingly turning to online retailers to satisfy their wants and needs. Our SENREVE woman is very busy, so shopping online suits her lifestyle. We’re seeing shopping behavior on our site indicating that the online model fits well with the modern woman’s schedule. We serve these women by delivering a beautiful, timeless, elegant bag for the modern, successful, on-the-go woman.”

Interestingly, both brands defined luxury not simply based on the nature of the good, but also based on convenience of the experience. Recognizing that fit is important, Floravere creatively opted to ship samples in multiple sizes and supplements the experience with a personal stylist. 

And so is building your brand over time

We believe that digitally native brands can be successful in the luxury goods market, but to do so, they’ll need to recognize that the experience of luxury has changed. Retailers must deliver on a customized experience that sacrifices none of the quality and achieves all of the service. Like with anything that is new, it takes time. Time to change generations of retail experience. It takes good word of mouth. It takes a dedicated set of initial customers who are willing to try it out.  And, then, your brand, your product, your service has to speak for itself.

Whether you’re a luxury e-commerce brand or not, Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

What can you expect this Black Friday and Cyber Monday?

 What can retailers expect this Black Friday and Cyber Monday? While physical retail is expected to under perform again, it's going to be a record breaking year for e-commerce.

As we gear up for Thanksgiving, we think of turkey, pumpkin pie, time with family and of course, shopping. Black Friday is crucial because it kicks off the critical holiday shopping season during which almost one third of annual retail sales occur. 

Black Friday has under-performed expectations

Despite retailers' emphasis on Black Friday, consumer participation and spend have been declining for the past several years. According to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey, last year there were just over 100 million in-store shoppers on Thanksgiving weekend (compared to a forecast of 135 million). These figures represented a decline of over 20% relative to 2014. 2014, by the way, also significantly underperformed the forecast. 

But Cyber Monday will be record breaking

On the e-commerce side; however, the picture is much rosier. According to Adobe Digital Insight’s Holiday Prediction, Cyber Monday will be the largest online shopping day in history, well exceeding $3 bn. Mobile is expected to continue to represent an increasing share of Cyber Monday Visits (nearly 50% or 25% growth relative to 2015). However, this increase might be a double edged sword given that desktop conversion rates are nearly 3x that of mobile conversion rates. Two potential remedies to address this gap are mobile retargeting to reach the mobile cart abandoner and improved checkout flow to make it easier for mobile shoppers to purchase in the first place. 

Consumers choose e-commerce for convenience

The underlying drivers of increased e-commerce spend are factors related to convenience, with over 50% of consumers citing free shipping as a reason for preferring to shop online. We asked our advisor, Robert Escobar, an operations executive with experience at brands like Bare Escentuals, Stella & Dot, Ipsy and Gwynnie Bee for his thoughts on how e-commerce retailers could tackle shipping this holiday season and beyond:

“Given the volume surge between Cyber Monday and Christmas, all ecommerce retailers should be thinking about how to reduce customer delivery jitters. Its awesome to offer great product, but not great to miss the expected delivery date. First, think through your own ability to process orders out of your warehouse and hand-off to the shipping company. Understand how long it takes for your shipping company to deliver. Always allow for 1-2 extra shipping days beyond the quoted date, unless its an overnight or two day guarantee shipping service. Second, if you charge for shipping, make sure to have an accurate cost calculator to ensure the customer knows the exact cost before they checkout. Lastly, make sure your consumers can track their shipment by providing them with a direct link email.”

As hectic as the holiday season might get, Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory. 

Are millennial men better e-commerce shoppers than women?

 Our study shows that men are better e-commerce shoppers than women. Although they spend less, they also make fewer returns and visit sites with the intent of purchasing.

Over the past several years, we’ve seen a proliferation of successful men’s e-commerce brands in a wide variety of categories. In grooming, there’s Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s. In clothing, Bonobos and Trunkclub. More recently, we’ve seen athletic wear enter the mix with brands like Rhone gaining traction. 

Men's e-commerce is under-penetrated

Despite all of this growth, we still think that men’s e-commerce is relatively under-penetrated compared to women’s e-commerce. Let’s take a look at athletic wear as an example. Our post from a few weeks ago on athleisure cited half a dozen new womenswear brands in the category. In menswear, we were hardpressed to think of more than a couple. Going into this post, our hypothesis was that not only are men underserved relative to women, but that on top of that, they’re actually better e-commerce consumers than women are.

To test this hypothesis, we ran a survey seeking responses from Millennial men and women on their e-commerce buying behavior. We got over 80 responses and the results were quite dramatic. 

Men are better e-commerce consumers than women

The story they tell us in favor of targeting men over women goes something like this. When men shop, they typically shop online more than women (80% vs. 64%). What’s more, when they do turn to online shopping, almost 90% of them are looking for something specific. Women, on the other hand, are are just browsing almost 50% of the time. Further, when men do buy something, almost 25% of them say that they don’t make any returns compared to none of the women we surveyed. 

This last data point is really stunning, particularly given how big of a problem returns are for retailers. We’ve seen this play out within our own customer base - menswear brands have returns of 10-15% and don’t flag them as a big concern. For womenswear brands, returns are a huge concern and can be over 2x more frequent. Why are returns such a problem? This is a whole separate topic altogether, but the short answer is because most brands aren’t set up to process returns efficiently and it can take as long as three weeks to get an item back into circulation.

However, our survey also shows that there are some drawbacks to targeting men over women. Although men are more likely to make a purchase and less likely to return it, they also tend to shop less and according to our results, they also spend less than women (50% say they spend less than $100 when they shop compared to 35% of women). The data shows that most of the high value consumers (over $250 / order) are women.

Men's e-commerce needs to precisely target customers

We asked one of our pilot customers, Chip Malt at Rhone for his perspective on the results: 

"We've seen great traction as a men's only direct-to-consumer e-commerce brand.  Our main challenge is finding the target customer looking for our product. However, once we find him, he is a great customer and shops with us often.  We also see very low return rates (75% below the industry average) as well as high repeat purchase rates (about 2-3x industry average), all resulting in a high customer lifetime value.  We also find our male shoppers to be less adventurous than women, sticking mainly to core colors and styles, so seasonal and 'pop-colors' are mainly window dressing for us."

So what’s our conclusion? Well, we still think that menswear is underpenetrated from the direct to consumer brand side in relation to womenswear. That being said, as with everything in life, there are trade-offs. Brands that target men might have an easier time getting men to actually purchase and not return their orders, but the tradeoff is that men shop less frequently and spend less.

Generation athleisure – what’s next for retail’s fastest growing categories?

 Athleisure is one of the fastest growing categories in inventory and e-commerce, but can this trend last?

As we survey the retail ecosystem, we, like the rest of women in America, are thrilled by the boom in athleisure. Vogue published an article earlier this year highlighting the many ways that one can wear and style athletic wear, even giving us permission to wear athletic clothes all day. If Anna Wintour says it’s OK, who are we to argue?

What caused the athleisure boom?

Out of a combination of curiosity, a passion for retail and of course, self-interest, we asked ourselves, “Is athleisure here to stay?” But before we look to the future, let’s first attempt to diagnose where the trend started. We credit Lululemon (which was started almost 20 years ago) with driving the trend forward by showing us not only how comfortable we can be, but also how good we can look in their yoga pants. The Juicy Couture tracksuit took the trend to a new level over a decade ago by demonstrating how athletic wear can not only be comfortable, but that it can also be a symbol of style and status. As the clothing got more stylish - think cool wrap sweaters and criss-crossed tops - it became even more acceptable to wear athletic wear outside of the yoga studio and a proliferation of brands (like Alo Yoga, Rhone and others) flourished. 

Athleisure will evolve as a category

But can this really last forever? Our answer is yes and no. On the one hand, we don’t think that Athleisure in the way it’s known today - primarily intended as athletic wear but loosely interpreted as work and casual wear - will continue. Instead, as fabric technology improves, we think that athletic wear will slowly make its way back into the gym while new brands rise to take its place. 

We’re talking about brands that take the best of athleisure - comfort, ease of care, durability, functionality - and translate it into more stylish ensembles that are actually intended to be worn to work. Two great examples are Pivotte and Aella. Aella’s clothes are stylishly tailored, machine washable and the fabric makes the clothes feel like something you could wear to the gym with an important difference - it looks like something you should distinctly be wearing to the office. 

Comfort isn't just for the gym anymore

We sat down with Eunice Cho, the CEO of Aella, to ask her what inspired her to start the brand. When she first started working on Aella, “...there weren’t brands like ADAY, or other athleisure concepts that bridged the gap between activewear and ready-to-wear. Fashionable activewear started pushing the envelope, but everything still very much had a gym aesthetic. However, brands were popping up in menswear that were focused on comfort and versatility. Finally, the activewear sector was just growing and growing. I knew it was just a matter of time that this trend would bleed into other categories. We see Aella as the workhorse of the modern woman’s wardrobe: it’s the trusty essential that you can go back to, again and again.”

We’ve also seen this desire for comfort seep into other areas of women’s fashion, namely, lingerie. Several up and coming brands like AdoreMe and True & Co strive to disrupt Victoria’s Secret by providing a comfortable alternative that allows women to look and feel great. 

All in all, we think there is a lot to look forward to. While we might miss wearing our Lululemon pants everywhere, we’re excited to have a more stylish and equally functional alternative. Most importantly, we’re here to support all types of businesses, whether you’re an athleisure brand or not. At Fuse, we want to help you focus on your business, not your inventory. 

Inventory - tackling your biggest investment

 Companies with the best supply chain management practices thing about inventory as an investment, not a cost.

After conducting almost 200 customer interviews, we’ve gained some insight into what separates the great from the good when it comes to inventory.

We started by asking our advisor, Oseyi Ikuenobe, the Senior Product Manager of @WalmartLabs’ Smart Forecasting product for his thoughts. At @WalmartLabs, Oseyi and a team of data scientists and engineers plans the inventory for Walmart’s $13 bn e-commerce business. 

Inventory management should have ROI benchmarks

According to Oseyi, "The best inventory strategy is one that allows you to buy the 'right amounts of the right inventory' to maximize revenue, profitability and growth. Instead of trying to simply control costs, it is better to think of inventory decisions the way we think of marketing spend - in terms of ROI. Once you have that mindset, you quickly realize that the ultimate smart inventory solution is one that can synthesize the collective wisdom of the organization and deploy it to drive decision making."

We’ve gleaned two insights from Oseyi’s thoughts:

  1. Best-in-class retailers think about inventory as an investment, not a cost center
  2. Collaboration between key functional areas is key to successful inventory planning

Reframing inventory as an investment

We work mostly with start-ups and all too often we see them allocating a fixed budget to inventory. But, inventory is an investment, much like marketing. The investment that a company makes in its inventory supports the company’s sales target. We’d propose that companies go through a series of questions to set their inventory budget:

  1. What is our marketing budget?
  2. Based on our marketing spend and our organic reach, what is our revenue target?
  3. How much product do we need to sell to support our revenue target?

This third question is the start of the planning process. Once the revenue target is established, a planner can go through and make a determination regarding the product mix and volume of product needed. 

Collaboration improves inventory planning

The process described above only works if there is tight collaboration between all of the functional areas that impact sales like finance, marketing, merchandising and operations. 

Unfortunately, we have seen a lot of avoidable crises caused because one functional area forgot to tell operations about planned changes. Things like changing the discount amount on a promo or A/B tests planned on the site. While these lapses might seem small, they can have a big impact if there isn’t enough product in stock to support these initiatives.

So What?

We want to encourage our customers to reframe the way you think about inventory: it’s not your biggest cost center, it’s your biggest investment. At Fuse, we’re designing a tool to help automate the grunt work of planning so that you can focus on important, strategic decisions. 

We’re here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

Why we believe in the success of online first brands

 We believe that digitally native online first brands will be the future of all commerce, not just e-commerce.

At Fuse, we are excited about the wave of online first brands that we’ve seen succeed over the past decade. In a recent post by Andy Dunn, he called these brands “digitally native vertical brands” and later, “v-commerce”.

Will digitally native e-commerce brands succeed?

We asked Matt Heiman, a consumer investor at Greylock to share his perspective: “My view is that vertically focused direct to consumer online brands are better positioned than pure 3rd party e-commerce concepts over the next few years. Particularly as Amazon approaches 40% of US e-commerce, competing with them is extremely difficult, so the idea of creating a new brand and owning your own customer experience is a better position. Some examples of brands I think have done this well are Casper, Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker.”

We agree with Matt, and we think that the sale of Dollar Shave Club to Unilever earlier this year for $1 bn has convinced others that it’s possible to build a valuable brand that caters to a different kind of consumer online. Dollar Shave Club’s true value is in the company’s fantastic brand and it’s ability to appeal to and engage with Millennial consumers in an authentic way over social media and other digital marketing channels (1).

E-commerce platforms make it easy to build a brand

We’re seeing this trend first hand at Fuse. Our target customers are fast growing companies with at least 25 employees and anywhere from $10 - $100 million of revenue who are excelling at building their own online first brands. One company, Ipsy, knows all about brand building. Ipsy was started by Michelle Phan, who built her own personal brand as a make-up guru on YouTube. As the company has evolved, the brand which originally appealed to Michelle’s followers and the make-up obsessed, has started to reach more casual consumers looking to expand their horizons.

The good news for many of our customers is that it’s much easier to build a strong brand online today than it was five years ago. Due to the proliferation of front-end e-commerce platforms like Shopify, BigCommerce and Squarespace, it’s much easier to build a great brand with minimal upfront investment. With the emergence of Shopify Plus as an enterprise e-commerce platform for companies looking to scale, we expect this trend to continue.

Inventory management systems haven't kept up (until now)

Although this is good news for many aspiring brand builders, the unfortunate reality is that back-end tools and platforms haven’t necessarily kept up with the front-end. Shopify has done a great job building an ecosystem around its API, but there are still a lot of gaps on the back-end. That’s where we at Fuse come in. Our goal is to help simplify the inventory planning process to help companies answer the key question related to their biggest investment: “How much should I order?” We’re really excited about the growth of online first brands in the market, and are just as excited to be able to help those brands focus on their business, not their inventory.

Struggling to forecast your inventory in Excel? Don't worry, you're not alone.

 What are the current systems that customers are using to manage their inventory? The vast majority are using Excel, Google Sheets or have built a custom system.

At Fuse, we have the privilege of helping our customers enjoy their work more by providing an easy to use, beautifully designed inventory planning tool. As we’ve gotten to know our customers, we’ve been deeply impressed by how thoughtful, sharp and hard-working you are. 

We’ve compiled data from over 150 customer interviews to send you one message: you’re not alone. In every single interview, our customers inevitably ask, “Are we the only ones using Excel and Google sheets?” 

The answer is no, you are absolutely not. You’re not alone. That’s exactly why we at Fuse decided to tackle the challenge of inventory planning and management head-on.

90% of customers manage inventory in Excel

Almost 90% of our customers manage their inventory in a combination of Excel and Google Sheets, while just under 10% have moved on to build a custom system -- a costly and lengthy process. Typically, companies start thinking about a custom system at the 100 SKU mark when they’ve pushed their existing Excel models to a breaking point. Excel is crashing on a daily basis and procurement is nearly impossible to track in Google Sheets. 

We asked Karan, Director of Ops at Boxed, a company bringing bulk wholesale shopping to mobile, why they built a custom system: “At Boxed, we needed backend inventory forecasting systems that were customized for our business model and flexible. We searched for a solution on the market and didn’t find anything that met our needs. This is why we chose to design something in-house.”

Custom inventory management systems have drawbacks

Of the companies we spoke to that have built a custom system, the top three reasons for building something in-house were not being able to find a system that meets their needs, not being able to afford existing systems and not wanting to spend a long time implementing an external solution.

Unfortunately, custom systems come with their own challenges. Most require at least one full-time engineer to maintain them, taking away valuable engineering talent from important product initiatives that could grow the business. This is exactly why most companies don’t devote a full-time engineer to maintaining their system. Inevitably, it fails to keep up with the growing organization’s needs and ultimately needs to be overhauled. 

Building a custom system is expensive. The companies we’ve spoken to have spent anywhere from $200,000 to over $1,000,000 just to build it, excluding the cost of ongoing maintenance. 

Fuse's mission is to change the frustrating status quo. Our favorite part of our job is talking to customers and improving your quality of life. Working at a fast-growing company is exciting and fun. We want to help you spend more time focusing on your business, not your inventory.