I have made no secret of my skepticism about mid-market clothing rental services (see my rants about Infinite Style by Ann Taylor here and here). And I unsurprisingly gave news of the launch of Express Style Trial side-eye, as I feel Express is even less suited for the rental model than Ann Taylor.

Why a meaningful number of people would pay $69.95 a month to rent three Express items at a time is beyond my comprehension*, as most items at Express top out at a little over $100, and 40% (or 50%) off store-wide promotions are frequent.

* Not that the cost is out of line relative to other rental services, but just run a basic cost-benefit analysis and most people probably couldn’t justify the subscription after accounting for routine issues like fit and figuring in swap time. I would be surprised if a quarter of subscribers swap more than twice. 

Like Ann Taylor and New York & Company‘s rental programs, Express Style Trial is run on the CaaStle (Clothing as a Service) platform, built by the Gwynnie Bee team. To my surprise, and I am taking this information with a grain of salt, the CEO of Gwynnie Bee said in an interview that CaaStle has “helped Ann Taylor and New York & Co. increase new customer sales by 50 percent and expand their appeal among the 28-to-40 age demographic.” If this is true, then I am extremely surprised by the lack of mention of new channel growths in Ann Inc.’s Q4 earnings call.

While I am excited about the marriage of the sharing economy and fashion, as–like many of you–I crave novelty in fashion, and the concept of a “rotating” wardrobe is appealing. But this model (considering the abysmal margins) doesn’t seem to translate naturally for mid-market or fast fashion retailers, as their prime demographic will most likely end up spending retail dollars on rental services instead, and in making that switch, might become even more disinclined to buy outright (the available data are scant, but I will update if I can find numbers to share). In the long run, I don’t see how this trade-off can be sustainable, especially when their services don’t have a distinct price advantage relative to a more premium product like the RTR Update (which starts at $89 a month).

The need for innovation and change is pressing for struggling mass market retailers, but dabbling in rental is hardly a long-term solution. And I’ll quote Les Wexner here again because I really do think it merits propagation: “it’s the merchandise, stupid.” If retailers are struggling to put out merchandise that customers want to buy and the only breakthroughs they’ve borne are mere gimmicks, then I think there is a need for further consolidation (or closure) in the space.

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On a more cheerful note, one of my travel favorites, the Express Mid Rise Jersey Sash Pant is now 40% off online in six colors. For the price of a one-month subscription to Express Style Trial, you can buy two of these outright.

With how often I wear these pants, the cost per wear will be down to pennies by the end of their service life. And they machine-wash surprisingly well and require little special handling. These are clothes worth owning.

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