Michael Dubin was fed up with the treks to the drugstore to buy a set of pricey razors every month. Allan Jones, always a snappy dresser, knew he wanted to be involved in fashion but couldn’t figure out a way to bridge that dream with his tech background. Jonathan Shokrian was picking up some high-end underwear at the store before leaving on a long trip and was put off by how expensive it was.
As a result of these experiences, the men started websites designed to solve the problems they encountered.
While the lifestyle ecommerce landscape has been the dominion primarily of companies that cater to women customers, these young companies are part of an emerging niche: fashion and lifestyle ecommerce for men.
Dubin’s take on shaving – a subscription site that mails customers a pack of fresh razors every month – is called Dollar Shave Club and it has found a market among hirsute male consumers. The Santa Monica company recently announced it closed a $9.8 million financing round that will help the site staff up and expand its service to Canada.
Dubin said his company – along with Jones’ Fourth and Grand, which sends customers a monthly box of personalized clothing picks, and Shokrian’s online undergarment retailer, MeUndies Inc. – has come along at the right time for male shoppers.
“Women get to have all the fun with fashion and ecommerce. It used to be that the most fun men can have in fashion is with our socks,” Dubin said, while showing off a pair of striped, multicolored socks. “But guys are also looking to have the things they need done be easier to do. I think all of our companies are built on that premise.”
That premise has some numbers to back it up. Last year, online sales for men’s clothing increased 13 percent – a rate that outpaced women’s sales, according to a study by NPD Group. However, women’s stake in that $41 billion U.S. market is still twice that of men.
The rise of these three companies – which refined their business models in Science Inc., a tech-company incubator and early stage investor in Santa Monica – might be a reflection of the supply catching up with awakening demand. They all claim to have steadily built up their customer levels and expanded their business. Dollar Shave Club and Fourth and Grand still work out of Science’s offices. MeUndies is in Beverly Hills but is in the process of moving to Culver City.
So far, some of the biggest ecommerce hype has focused on the hit sites that sell women’s shoes, such as Santa Monica’s ShoeDazzle Inc. and El Segundo’s JustFabulous Inc. But sales numbers show that men actually buy more online than women overall.
Although most of those purchases are in electronics, Sucharita Mulpuru, an ecommerce analyst with Forrester Research, said men are also natural fits for the online fashion world. They’re loyal customers and less likely to return an item – a relief for online shopping sites that must deal with costs of shipping and restocking.
However, she’s wary of any notion that men’s ecommerce sites could ever truly be equals to the giants of women’s fashion.
“Women just buy more apparel and have bigger closets with more items in them,” Mulpuru said. “There are a much smaller percentage of men that are willing to spend a lot of money on these types of products.”
Most of the companies are very early stage and none of them was willing to disclose revenue, let alone claim the $110 million in yearly sales that JustFabulous says it earns.
Jones of Fourth and Grand said he knows his customers aren’t the kind to spend freely on clothes. For the box of apparel that his company sends customers every month, Jones makes sure that no individual item costs more than $100; the total cost of items in each box ranges from $350 to $500. Customers only pay for the items they keep and can send the rest back free of charge.
Affordable prices were the focus when he started the company earlier this year, before he had any funding from Science.
Back then, he and his co-founder bought the outfits themselves from the shops along the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, racking up $15,000 in credit card charges.
Since it formally launched in early November, Fourth and Grand has been buying clothing wholesale from various men’s brands, including Ben Sherman and Penguin. Although Jones declined to reveal specifics of the company’s finances, he said that Fourth and Grand is making money on each customer, though costs of marketing and building up inventory still have the company in the red while it expands.
Jones said the key is taking a scientific approach to putting the right clothes in the box.
“We track to see which colors and styles a customer keeps and which he gives back,” Jones said. “We’re trying to get guys to keep as much clothing in the box as possible and maximize the number of sales each month.”
While Fourth and Grand buys from other designers, MeUndies manufactures its own apparel – some of it in downtown Los Angeles. MeUndies sells male and female undergarments, though founder Shokrian said 80 percent of his customers are men. The site has both a subscription model, where members get a monthly pair of underwear, and a traditional option through which a customer can buy when he wants. Underwear costs $16 using the subscription rate and $20 for one-off purchases.
Although MeUndies’ prices are higher than, say, a package of boxers from Costco, Shokrian said he’s competitive with higher-price brand-name underwear. And the online marketplace may be a better fit for customers who want premium underwear but wouldn’t feel comfortable shopping for it in public.
“I didn’t like browsing through the underwear section at Macy’s on my own,” he said. “The privacy and recommendations we make are a big change and help engage a potential customer.”
Part of the challenge of getting men to buy clothes and accessories online has been attracting them to the sites. Some of the marketing tactics are old school: Fourth and Grand built its customer base through ads on Facebook; MeUndies raised awareness by selling its underwear at the Standard Hotel in New York and vending machines in some public places.
But Dollar Shave Club famously shot to prominence on the back of a viral web video featuring Dubin pitching the product with an exaggerated air of male bravado. To date, the video has 7 million views.
The tagline in the commercial, “Our blades are (bleeped expletive) great,” sets a cheeky tone for the company, and one that has been a trademark across the male ecommerce sites. Manpacks, a Providence, R.I.-based site that sells a monthly bag of male essentials (condoms, underwear and razors), promises its customers will have “more time to slay dragons.” MeUndies, much more straight-laced than many of the other male-oriented ecommerce sites, proclaims on the site that “real men wear color.”
The intertwining of humor and marketing is much more common across male ecommerce sites than the women-oriented counterparts. But the bottom line remains the same. Dubin argues that after the initial splash that comes from a humorous marketing campaign, an ecommerce site for men needs to deliver the goods to keep its audience.
“Sure our video was funny, but the most important thing was that we were a new business with a strong value for a specific audience,” Dubin said. “That’s the real reason you saw a big viral response and that’s how we’re all going to succeed going forward.”
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