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'A Reckoning.' The Direct to Consumer Craze Is Slamming Into Reality.

5 minute read
Alex Kantrowitz avatar
An industry built on cheap Facebook ad space and low-cost shipping is crashing, with no bottom in sight.

They were the hottest names in tech. Brands like Warby Parker, Stitch Fix, FIGS and Allbirds pioneered a new form of retail, one that went “direct to consumer” — via the internet — instead of selling through established outlets. Riding the promise of low overhead, no middlemen, and a seemingly infinite pool of customers, these companies’ valuations soared well into the billions. They appeared unstoppable. But today, they’re crashing hard with no bottom in sight.

A gloomy confluence of rising Facebook ad prices, worsening ad measurement, soaring shipping costs, newly-sober public markets and smaller-than-anticipated customer bases are dealing “DTC” companies a harsh blow.

A Big Technology analysis of public DTC companies with market caps of more than $800 million found nearly every one of these companies are dealing with revenue contraction, shrinking margins, runaway losses or a combination of all three. Together, they’ve lost billions in market cap in 2022, drastically underperforming the market in an already bad year.

“There's certainly a reckoning happening,” said Orchid Bertelsen, COO of Common Thread Collective, an ecommerce agency that works with DTC companies. “The environment is much more unforgiving.”

Skyrocking Prices, Falling Profits

Skyrocketing Facebook ad prices have done the most damage to the DTC industry so far. These companies have long relied on affordable Facebook advertising for growth, a precarious bet that’s now coming due. Operating largely without physical storefronts, they’ve used Facebook to reach customers who may otherwise have walked into a real-world shop.

Nearly all DTC companies have low name recognition — Warby Parker went public with just 13% brand awareness — so reaching thousands of people for a few dollars on Facebook helped them compensate. But the plan’s stopped working.

Facebook ad prices have skyrocketed in recent years due to rising demand — and in some cases, contracting supply — leaving DTC companies in a bind. “In two years, it's basically doubled to tripled," said David Herrman, a social media ad buyer, on the cost to advertise on Facebook. In the US, the cost to reach 1,000 people on Facebook jumped from $6 to as much as $18 within the past two years, Herrman said.

As prices rise, Apple’s iOS privacy changes have added yet another obstacle, harming DTC companies’ ability to measure whether their social media ads are working. “The iOS 14 privacy changes affected everything,” Herrman said. “The internal metrics and mechanisms that Meta uses for attribution are off somewhere around 30, 40 or 50%.” Unable to optimize effectively, DTC companies are now spending more for worse results, eating into their margins.

Then there’s the supply chain. As the pandemic settled in, the cost to import containers from China exploded, in some cases by a factor of 10. This added yet another cost to the DTC balance sheet. And given how reliant they are on imports, the cost’s been difficult to make up for in pricing or volume. 

“The supply chain is destroying a lot of these DTC brands,” said Eric Bandholz, founder of Beardbrand, a DTC company. “They're so heavily dependent on China for their products, and shipping costs of bulk containers have gone up astronomically.”

The price to ship one container from China to the US jumped from $2,000 pre-pandemic to $15,000, Big Technology reported last May. Multiple DTC sources said the price is even higher today. Beardbrand is working to move its entire operation to North America, Bandholz said. 

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: 3 Ways To Preserve CX While Dealing With Supply and Staff Shortages

Significant DTC Losses All Around

In this environment, Allbirds, Hims and Hers, Peloton, Revolve, StitchFix, Warby Parker and Wayfair have all posted either significant losses, margin contraction or both in earnings reports over the past year.

Wayfair, for instance, lost $78 million in the third quarter of 2021 after posting $173 million in net income the year before. Warby Parker, partially due to stock compensation, lost $91 million the same quarter. Revolve’s gross margin dropped from 56% in Q4 2020 to 54.8% in Q4 2021. Hims & Hers’ gross margin dropped from 77% in Q4 2020 to 73% in Q4 2021. The list goes on.

The timing couldn’t be worse with rising interest rates on the horizon, as investors are much less interested in companies that struggle to turn profits, even if there’s future growth on the horizon. Some investors are also asking whether these companies merited their valuations given that the addressable market for their products — faux-fancy glasses from Warby Parker or expensive medical scrubs from FIGS — may not be limitless. 

DTC stocks are therefore taking a beating, and it’s unclear where it will end. Allbirds has dropped 63% in 2022. Stitch Fix and Warby Parker are down more than 40%. All other companies in the category are down at least 19% this year. The S&P 500, by contrast, is down 11% in a terrible year.

It is still too early to write off the DTC industry. Some companies will diversify from Facebook to other platforms like TikTok and figure out how to return to low-cost social media advertising. Others, like Chewy, will find a sweet spot where the costs are worth it due to their customers’ high lifetime value.  (“That's a 14-year commitment,” said Arjun Kapur, a VC at Forecast Labs.  “The average lifespan of a puppy.”) And VC money is still coming into the space, with a total of $1.05 billion invested so far in 2022, per Pitchbook.

Still, for an industry with so much promise, the reality bites. And it doesn’t look like it’ll get better anytime soon.

Related Article: Digital Commerce Tech Leaders Launch Commerce Experience Collective

About the author

Alex Kantrowitz

Alex Kantrowitz is founder and reporter at Big Technology, author of "Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever," an on-air contributor at CNBC and former senior technology reporter at BuzzFeed News.

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