I’m the kind of a person who can spend hours learning the intricate details of a founder’s story, or a company’s unique business model.  There are clear reasons for why I admire certain businesses or products (both from consumer and product perspectives). Understanding my standards for amazing products and reflecting on those standards is a useful exercise for how to create that type of value in my own work. For that reason, every month I try to dissect one company I love. This month I focused on Rent The Runway (inspired by my post on RTR Unlimited).

Rent the Runway deals with three standard e-commerce problems:

1.Giving users what they want during the shopping experience

2. Shipping users what they want, fast

3. Getting returns back to inventory ASAP

While those are not unique problems, Rent the Runway’s business model makes them extreme. Every woman’s fashion taste (and body!) is different, so the question of what is a ‘good’ solution to a user’s problem becomes more complex. And, shipping is not only about getting items out to the customers; it’s also about returning those items back to the warehouse, cleaning and repairing them in a timely fashion so that they can be shipped to the next renter.

GIVING USERS WHAT THEY WANT

As a user, I want Rent the Runway to give me what I came for –  a trendy dress that is perfect for the occasion and fits me like a glove. Let’s unpack that a bit:

1. TRENDY DRESS: RTR has to know what is ‘in’ and popular at the moment.

2. PERFECT FOR THE OCCASION: The site should understand my event and recommend appropriate items.

3. FITS ME RIGHT: Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. A perfectly fitted dress makes me feel more beautiful, confident, and strong.

TRENDY DRESS THAT IS PERFECT FOR THE OCCASION

I think RTR does the first two reasonably well. They partner with high-end designers to deliver the latest trends to their customers. Many of their dresses are hella expensive, top of the line luxury garments. Additionally, the company has cataloged their items according to the occasion and formality. If you’re struggling with finding the perfect dress for your special event, RTR stores have an army of professional stylists who will help you find the ideal dress for your occasion.

I don’t know what’s in the guts of the technology behind RTR, but from a user perspective, their mobile app works beautifully. The only complaint is a small UX issue with adding items to the shortlist. When one clicks on the ‘heart’, selected item doesn’t automatically save in ‘all hearts’ shortlist. You still have to click ‘done’ for it to save. I have skipped this step a few times, leading me to believe that my fave dress is safely waiting for me to select it from the shortlist, when really, it was gone.

On the other hand, the web app works okay. There are many more significant UX issues and small bugs there (but I love that when you open the JS console they suggest you apply to work for them!).

When you open the JS console, RTR invites you to apply to work with them!

For one, I still have trouble finding the ‘browse all’ section on the main page. The website is optimized for the RTR Reserve customer who is coming in to shop for a special occasion. As an unlimited customer,  I mostly care about browsing the collection to see what I’m going to wear to work tomorrow or out to the bar. RTR hit a $100 million in revenue last year thanks to its unlimited membership; at this point, this persona should have its own customized experience on the site. At the very least there should be a ‘Browse Unlimited’ tab on the main page, especially for logged in unlimited customers. Otherwise, you’re making it really hard for me to find the perfect dress, which brings me to the last point….

FITS ME RIGHT = MY MAIN PROBLEM

I’m awkward looking, okay? I’m freakishly tall, big hips & bottom, fairly flat-chested at the top. Shopping for jeans is hell for me (hence I mostly wear dresses). The main reason I shop for high-end brands is because I want to get a better fit.

I like that RTR understands that. Their understanding of fit goes way beyond just a number for size. Their search filters include body type, age range, and more. When you select an item, you’re even able to filter the reviews for someone who looks like you, using the size, height and bust filters. I only wish that they surfaced this ‘women like me’ filter in the main search, which is why I created my own filtering mechanism to do just that.

SOLVING MY MAIN PROBLEM

My main issue with clothing is that I’m too tall for most of it. I’m tired of ordering dresses that just barely cover my behind. That’s why I often filter reviews by the reviewer’s height. However, this feature is not yet available in the main catalog, so … I made it.

Here’s how I did it:

1. With a developer’s help, I scraped a sample of reviews – 33,391 of them, representing 286 RTR items.

Sample of scraped data

2. I filtered the results to only include women who reported their height to be between 5’8 and 6’0’’, and gave the item 4 or 5 stars. 3,666 reviews for 279 items fit the bill. Great.

3. I noticed that many of the women weren’t quite within my weight range. There were many women below 130 lbs or over 160lbs. I felt that they would wear an entirely different size from me. So, I applied 130-160lbs filter and brought down the number of reviews to 2,018 for 264 items.

4. I realized that if one tall woman reviewed the item, chances are that it may still not fit well. But I could definitely trust items that were reviewed 10+ times by women within the same height and weight ranges. That brought down the list to 66 items.

Results:

66 items that I can be fairly certain will fit me perfectly, thus making a new shortlist of items for me to rent. Mission accomplished. I select 4 items from the list and click ship.

The RTR items I ordered!

I figured, why not make this project available for other tall women to use?

I threw the scraped database into bubble.is, created a simple landing page, and voila! rtr.bubbleapps.io was born. Unfortunately, I only kept it up for the ‘free version’ 2 week period.

SHIPPING USERS WHAT THEY WANT, FAST!

As an unlimited RTR client, I get to witness a miracle every day. I drop off my RTR items before work at 9 AM at their flagship store and order new items shortly after. I almost always have the newly ordered items in hand when I visit the store again at 7:30 PM. THAT is incredible.

I’m sure that RTR likes to be my miracle creator, but also, their fast order fulfillment makes sense from a business perspective. The dresses have to go to multiple renters for RTR to actually make money. The faster they cycle through, the more profitable RTR is. So, matching the user to the available product as fast as possible and then instantly processing the shipment is important. But, as a product manager, I know that it’s also super hard.

For one, RTR business has high seasonal and weekly peaks. Predictably, the 4-8 days (RTR Reserve) dress rental business peaks around the holidays (hello, Christmas and NYE parties!) and summertime (wedding galore!). But if you think about it, the business also peaks every Wednesday, when the warehouse receives thousands of dirty weekend garments, as well as thousands of requests for the upcoming weekend parties. Often, the garment that is received on Wednesday morning has to be cleaned, repaired, inspected and shipped back out on Wednesday afternoon to reach the next renter before the weekend.

Secondly, the system has to be smart enough to predict demand not only in a given week but also far in advance, because users schedule rentals well in advance of their event. That’s a more complex problem to solve. Your system must be able to schedule events and adjust current availability accordingly. You also have to filter search results based on what will be available and ready for shipping on that day in the future. When the desired item is not available, the system should suggest something that is similar and available.

Once the item reaches the user, you have a (hopefully) happy customer. That’s where successful e-commerce stories end for most businesses, but not for RTR.

RETURN ITEMS TO THE WAREHOUSE

The headache of product return is bread and butter for RTR. Each item makes it back to their massive warehouse in Secaucus where the goal is to have it enter the cycle of rental cleaned, repaired, and inspected, all within 8 hours. This extremely fast turnaround time is what I admire the most about RTR’s business. That’s their true competitive advantage.

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