Netflix for Jewelry?

 

The biggest boost for the site formerly known as BagBorrowOrSteal.com came in 2008’s Sex and the City movie. While interviewing a prospective assistant (played by Jennifer Hudson), Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) suddenly blurts a question: “How does an unemployed girl with three roommates afford a patchwork denim Louis Vuitton bag?”

“It’s rented,” comes the reply. “Bag, borrow, or steal. It’s like Netflix for purses.”

Bradshaw is floored. “How did I not know about this?”

That minute-long exchange helped plant the notion of renting luxury products in the public consciousness. Adweek called BagBorrowOrSteal the “product placement winner” for the movie.

The Seattle-based company has since rechristened itself Avelle. In addition to bags, it now rents jewelry, which has become its second-biggest category, representing 30 percent of its product offerings.

In the current economic climate, it’s no secret that many can’t afford to buy jewelry. Yet consumers have not lost their taste for the product, which may be why jewelry renting is becoming increasingly popular. In addition to several Internet-based services that do it, some independent retailers are getting into the act. (See sidebar on page 177.)

“The richest and most famous people have always had the privilege of being able to borrow jewelry,” says Carol Wexler, owner of BorrowedBling.com, which began as a rental company for celebrities. “So why not average people, too?”

BagBorrowOrSteal, which has 1.5 million members, is generally considered the luxury rental pioneer. Chief executive officer Michael Smith says the company was “founded by a couple of brothers who saw their spouses raiding each other’s closets for the latest handbags.” Soon after, rental services sprang up for jewelry, including Adorn.com (formerly AdornBrides.com), BorrowedBling, and United Kingdom—based DiamondThrills.

The pieces offered for rent by these services range in value from thousands of dollars—Adorn’s most expensive piece is valued at $75,000—to far less. (BorrowedBling primarily rents costume jewelry.)

Most of these sites offer Netflix-like memberships, which let customers borrow a certain number of pieces per month. Others, like DiamondThrills, charge a percentage of the piece’s value. Companies generally offer the option to buy the item, though they say this happens rarely.

When dealing with high-value pieces, there is always the danger that some people could, in Smith’s words, “take the name BagBorrowOrSteal too literally.” All the sites note that they have strong security measures in place, including credit and background checks, use of ID verification agencies, and requiring deposits.

Sometimes it’s the customers who worry about losing or damaging a piece, says JamieMordaunt, the former De Beers executive who founded DiamondThrills. “It’s the first thing people ask about,” he says. “There is a bit of hand holding and reassurance we have to offer early on.”

While the majority of these services predate the economic downturn, most think the slump has given them a boost. “The recession has made [renting] more compelling as an idea,” says Mordaunt. “People don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a piece. But they might think about spending a few hundred on something to wear for a wedding.”

The people behind these services note that the rental sector has been growing over the past few years. Smith says you can now “borrow” everything from dresses to textbooks. And Laura Carrington, of Adorn.com, considers it part of a growing trend called transumerism, which refers to consumers who prefer experience over ownership. “It’s a population that won’t be purchasing a lot of jewelry, but they would like to have a special experience now and then,” she says.

It’s the variety of experience that draws customers to BorrowedBling, says Wexler. “Our customers say it’s like having Christmas come two or three times a month,” she explains. “And who wouldn’t want that?”