Today’s Consumers Seek the Unique, Rent the Runway Founder Tells WJA

“The only thing that will bring me into a store is a unique experience,” said Jennifer Hyman to attendees of yesterday’s In The Know conference held at Convene at 730 Third Ave. in New York City and sponsored by the Women’s Jewelry Association.

The cofounder of the high-end clothing rental service RenttheRunway.com debuted her business at age 29 to address the inner fashionista in every woman. “I started Rent the Runway because fashion makes women feel awesome about themselves and because this is fun to do,” she explained.

And she insists that her brick-and-mortar stores do not cannibalize what she’s built online. “A 45-year-old might be more comfortable shopping in a store, while the woman who is 25, who grew up shopping online, might be more comfortable ordering online,” she observes.

Her biggest competitor? Fast-fashion powerhouse H&M. “Fast fashion is a rental business in the first place; we just don’t call it that,” she continues. “They position the clothes as if consumers are buying them, but they will fall apart after two or three washes.”

A new mentality has surfaced among women who want to have it all and are going after a life where they can. Calling it Woman 2.0, Hyman says these women, no matter their age, are looking to celebrate moments of importance that are central to their lives and not so much about dates—think New Year’s Eve—from yesteryear.

“We have 5 million customers who describe themselves as smart, so we have to be smart in how we talk to her,” adds Hyman. For example, Rent the Runway shoppers are always thinking about cost per wear. “Fast fashion has grown because it’s smart, and we’re living in a world where it feels like we have to show up in a different outfit every time.”

Hyman also (surprisingly) got support from industry heavyweight Neiman Marcus upon her debut, when chief merchandising officer Jim Gold advised her to send clients dresses in two sizes, one of them for free. Why? “We rent really expensive dresses,” she says.

Fun facts about Rent the Runway clients: 98 percent are renting brands they have never owned before, and about 40 percent of these women end up going into another store and purchasing something from that brand. “They have to go to a retail store to buy,” says Hyman. “They are teaching themselves the value of buying into a brand.”

Her next endeavor: “I want to build a multibillion company to prove that women can do it, and so that other women actually get funded to go after their dreams.” Plus, she’s interested in building up the brand’s jewelry offerings, despite security issues voiced by attendees. “If our customers can be trusted with $5,000 dresses, why can’t they be trusted with $5,000 pieces of jewelry?” she asks.