The millennial generation's embrace of renting rather than owning has spread far beyond housing and ride-sharing, and even some traditional major retailers are taking notice.
Online rental subscription services for clothing and accessories are on the rise, which means consumers can now get dressed using a virtual, rotating closet through several start-ups. Le Tote, for instance, rents clothing for everyday wear, Gwynnie Bee caters to plus-size women and the Ms. Collection sends users surprise items based on personal style.
Typically these start-ups charge a monthly fee and allow users to wear the clothing for a month, or sometimes an unlimited amount of time. Customers return the clothing without paying shipping or dry-cleaning costs.
It's a model spearheaded by Rent the Runway, which began in 2009 as an online service where users could rent high-end, designer items at a fraction of the retail price, usually for a special event. The Manhattan company has since added two cheaper tiers to its service — an unlimited designer wardrobe for $159 a month and a low-cost option for $89 a month.
By using subscription rental services, consumers have access to thousands of products, more than they would usually be able to afford, at a fixed monthly rate. It gives consumers more value and more choice for a lower price, said Rent the Runway Chief Executive Jennifer Hyman.
Le Tote President Brett Northart said clothing rental has taken off because consumers want flexibility in their wardrobe. In addition, the recession made people less enamored with owning things, he said.
Retailers Ann Taylor and DSW Inc. have gotten similar customer feedback.
Ann Taylor polled clients to learn where, when and how they are shopping and found that people were interested in renting everyday clothing, said Julie Rosen, Ann Taylor's senior vice president and general manager.
In response, the company launched Infinite Style in October, a service that allows women to rent three items for any period of time at $95 per month.
"We must innovate in order to compete," she said. "We need to meet our client where she's shopping, and she's shopping in new and different ways."
DSW's customer research earlier this year prompted the shoe retailer to begin testing a rental service with a group of associates, said Amy Stevenson, DSW's chief marketing officer, in an email statement.
The new mode of shopping particularly resonates with millennials. One in ten online shoppers has rented a product online in the last year, according to UPS' Pulse of the Online Shopper study, and millennials ages 18 to 36 are three times more likely to have rented a product online than non-millennials.
Ronald Friedman, a leader of the retail practice at Marcum, an accounting and advisory firm, said he isn't surprised traditional merchants are trying rentals as a way to enhance customers' shopping experience, the key to remaining competitive amid growing pressure on the retail market.
Ann Taylor's sales for the 2017 fiscal year dipped 7% at stores open at least a year, a key retail measurement, and 18 stores closed, according to securities filings by its parent company, Ascena Retail Group. Ascena — whose other chains include Lane Bryant, Dressbarn and Justice — said in June that it planned to close up to 667 stores over two years.
The company has blamed its troubles on an extremely competitive market and accelerated movement of shoppers to e-commerce sites, which caused the retailer to cut prices in an attempt to boost declining store traffic.
But beyond the increasing success of many online retailers, there are just too many physical stores these days, Friedman said.
Retailers operate 24 square feet of selling space for each U.S. resident compared with about six square feet per person in Europe and Japan. It's estimated that thousands of stores across the country will have closed by the end of this year, so retailers need to compete by creating more dynamic shopping experiences, he said.
"Anyone who comes up with a new idea for retail stores is doing something they should be doing," he said.
Rent the Runway, by contrast, has opened several physical outposts in locations including Woodland Hills and San Francisco.
But these stores are far from traditional shops, instead acting more as showrooms that are an extension of subscribers' closets, Hyman said. Some women come to Rent the Runway stores almost daily to get dressed for work, she said, and users are wearing 12 to 15 rented outfits per month, a complete change in behavior from traditional buying.
"People aren't going into physical stores because of the growth and pervasiveness of their purchases with companies like Amazon and the efficiency of [that] shopping experience," Hyman said.
Nicole Smith-Goldberg, a Rent the Runway user since 2011, said she first tried the service the summer that she had seven black-tie weddings to attend, mostly within the same group of friends.
As a personal trainer and dancer, Smith-Goldberg said, she spends a lot of time in yoga pants, so she wants to wear fashionable and interesting dresses at events and parties. Renting instead of buying, she said, is a no-brainer.
"With social media, your picture gets out there a lot," the 38-year-old New York resident said. "It's noticed if you're wearing the same outfit all the time."
And there's potential for renting more than just clothing and accessories.
Omni, a San Francisco-based start-up, is like cloud storage for your stuff. It gives users a platform to rent out a variety of items they've stashed with Omni, such as suitcases, sporting equipment and other useful objects that would typically sit in garages.
Omni founder Tom McLeod said the rental service unlocks the value of the items people own and gives consumers access to a pool of things they didn't have before. A recent testimonial thanked Omni, which currently operates only in the Bay Area, for delivering an air purifier during the October fires that blanketed the region with smoke.
"Going to a wedding, going out for date night, going kite surfing in Kauai — you don't need to own everything in the interim period," McLeod said.