The eve of disruption

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A word that echoed throughout the entire slate of presentations and discussions at NRF 2018 was “disruption” — a major change in the way things are done now, forced by the activities of someone doing it differently and, at least in some ways, better. On the last afternoon of the show, Lisa Feierstein, digital content executive of TrendWatching, led a panel discussion called, in fact, “On the Eve of Disruption.” Joining her as panelists were Eric Kinariwala, founder and CEO of Capsule, Shan-lyn Ma, CEO and founder of Zola.com, and Tina Sharkey, CEO and co-founder of Brandless.

Feierstein began with a brief overview of her company, which advises brands on how best to anticipate and meet consumer needs and demands. It does so not by conducting market surveys but, as the name implies, by watching trends. “We don’t ask consumers anything,” she said. “We don’t ask them what they’ll want or expect in the future. Why? Because they don’t even know yet.” TrendWatching predicts what these consumers will want by tracking trends. “We’re tracking 140 trends at the moment,” she said. “Our secret? We’re obsessive.”

Before asking the panelists to introduce their own companies to the audience, Feierstein said, “These three are, to me, examples of the most exciting kinds of innovations that we track. Because of them, the entire foundations of the pharmacy, grocery and wedding industries are changing fundamentally.”

With that she brought on Shan-Lyn Ma, who provided some context for her remarks by noting that weddings are a $90 billion industry, approximately the same size as beauty or gaming, Zola, said Ma, is the fastest-growing wedding company in the United States; in the four years of its existence, it has handled the weddings of 500,000 couples.

Phase one of Zola’s operation is creating the wedding registry, through which friends and relatives of the happy couple buy them gifts. “Couples today, on average, spend $30,000 on one day,” Ma said. “We are the only place in existence today where you can personalize both your wedding and your registry.”

Zola functions as a sort of broker between couples and brands from whom they might want to receive gifts; among them are Cuisinart, KitchenAid, Samsonite, Kate Spade, Oneida and Waterford. This has created, for Zola, a no-inventory business model with a very low return rate and high predictability; couples, notes Ma, customarily create a gift registry about seven months before the wedding.

Unlike Zola (and Brandless; see below), which operate nationwide, Capsule is in a sense a local business. It was born of Eric Kinariwala’s frustration with his attempts, while suffering from a bout of illness and wanting to be home in bed, to get a prescription filled at a chain drugstore in his neighborhood. Kinariwala, who had worked in investing at Bain Capital, eventually went home without his medication but with an insight: The pharmacy business, which hadn’t changed significantly since the early years of the 20th century, was due for an upgrade.

Thus was born Capsule, which as noted serves as a pharmacy to one neighborhood, albeit a rather large one: New York City. If you live in New York, you can have your doctor send your prescription to Capsule, who will fill it and deliver it to you at home or your office — that day, or whenever you need it.

“We also serve as a communications medium among patients, doctors, insurance providers and pharmaceutical companies,” said Kinariwala. “If your prescription is something new, ask your doctor to send it our way. We’ll handle all communications with your doctor and insurance provider.” All of this, including the delivery, is free.

How well the Capsule model will scale is, of course, an open question. But Kinariwala — and his chief pharmacist, Dr. Sonia Patel, who previously spent time troubleshooting underperforming pharmacies in the Walmart system — believe it will be welcomed wherever it goes. “In the calcified, broken and massive healthcare system, the pharmacy is an afterthought,” he said. “It can be, and it should be, much better.”

The final presenter of the afternoon was investor and serial entrepreneur Tina Sharkey, whose company Brandless was also born of a straightforward insight, this one having to do not with medications but with beauty, groceries, and cleaning products.

“If people really understood what things cost, versus what they pay for them, there would be rioting in the streets,” Sharkey said. Her response was Brandless, which launched last July. Brandless offers a wide variety of grocery, beauty, and cleaning products, all for the same price: $3. Noting that 90 percent of the leading household goods companies in the United States lost market share in 2017, she said, “We are the Procter & Gamble for Millennials.”

Photo by Jason Dixson Photography.

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