Rent the Runway boosts the in-store experience with self-service technology

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Rent the Runway began as a high-touch, stylist-focused business that gave customers a chance to enjoy quality apparel without the hefty prices. The brand is still all that, and new rental options and recent technology additions have allowed the couture company to meet customers’ evolving needs without losing its reputation for one-on-one service.

“Our customers are now visiting our stores multiple times a week to exchange clothes, drop things off, see what’s new and talk to the staff,” says Hampton Catlin, senior director of engineering at the New York City-based retailer. Where customers may have previously come in for a few appointments a year — often to prepare for formal events and special parties — he says, “Now it has become a part of their everyday lives.”

Know your customers

With the growing popularity of its subscription service — where customers can rent clothing suitable for work, play and everything in between — Rent the Runway’s fashion-forward clients are now eager to swap out the pieces they wore last week for something new.

“Our stores very quickly needed to change into the local closet for our customers,” Catlin says of the evolution. So high was the demand that stores began opening earlier to accommodate customers who wanted to stop in on their way to work, or who had limited availability to pick out something new for their subscription.

The technology underpinning Rent the Runway’s original systems was built around a strategy where employees were the main driving force behind the shopping and in-store experiences. Associates used a keyboard and a web portal on a computer to transact with customers as they returned items or checked out new ones.

While Catlin says the approach will continue to be used for more complicated matters, it no longer fits the brand’s typical customer visit. “A lot of our customers were looking for speed and efficiency,” he says, “and we realized we needed to help them service themselves in our stores.”

Working with Aila Technologies, Rent the Runway launched a new way to provide customers the quick, frictionless experience they craved. “We knew we needed something the customer could use to scan items they’re bringing in for return or exchange, and to check out new items,” Catlin says.

Aila’s handheld scanning hardware integrates with iPads; the combination enables customers to quickly scan the items they want without the help of an employee, making their visits as quick as they need them to be; personalized help is still available for customers who want it.

“The easier we make it, the more people will do it.”
— Hampton Catlin, Rent the Runway

Organizations across the retail sector are primarily focused on a handful of issues, says Aila Technologies co-founder and CEO Jason Gulbinas, most centered on forging better connections with customers. “Right now, it’s all about customer engagement, personalized marketing capabilities and omnichannel initiatives,” he says. “How can the retailer better interface with its customers?”

The experiences customers are having are often disparate, from online to in-store, and through multiple formats that may not be well connected. Aila, which builds tools for use on the consumer-friendly iOS platform, sees itself as the common digital interface between a store and its customers. “It means connected devices that are familiar to the customer and store associates alike,” Gulbinas says.

Know your brand

Rent the Runway chose to develop the software for its new mobile self-service system in-house, a decision that was driven by several unique requirements. Real estate — or the lack of it — was an early concern. “Our clothing has very small labels,” Catlin says. “We don’t have the luxury of large hang tags.”

It was also important to create a process that would be easy and intuitive for customers to use as they scanned garments for checkout and return; operational issues had to be considered as well. “We need to track the garments and their lifecycles,” Catlin says. The system needed to handle all that data while still being easy for customers to navigate.

From vendor selection to software development to rollout of the new system across all the brand’s stores, the process took just over three months. Part of what allowed for such an efficient deployment was a tight internal focus on providing the kind of support Rent the Runway’s customers expected.

“We tried to avoid the most complex use cases,” Catlin says of the team’s development efforts. “Sometimes a keyboard and a PC with a mouse are better for dealing with complicated issues.” Leaving customers and employees with nothing more than a small screen to jab at wouldn’t create the best experience, so it was agreed that those instances should continue to be handled in a more individualized way.

Another enabling factor behind the relatively short implementation time was the amount of support available for development on the iOS platform. “The tools for developing on iOS are very mature,” Catlin says. “Because of that, it makes it simple to build interfaces.” Rent the Runway’s engineers could quickly begin working on the best user experience possible, one that reflected the branding and beauty of the company’s existing online assets.

Gulbinas sees the growing use of iOS as a paradigm shift for brands. Not only is the platform popular on the consumer side of the sphere, he says, “It’s allowing retailers to ‘appify’ their stores and create better customer experiences, which allows them to future proof their technology.”

The iOS ecosystem is robust, which benefits end users and developers alike. “Being able to support and develop for those customized applications is very important,” Gulbinas says. The approach is a shift from more traditional strategies, which often relied on fully proprietary equipment and operating systems and can quickly become obsolete as new, non-compatible technology comes into the marketplace.

Know where you want to go

One of the first impacts — one that was quite unexpected — was customers’ willingness to engage immediately with the new platform and equipment. “It’s actually caused us to need more staff for those actions, because people are utilizing it and coming to the store more,” Catlin says. “To me, our lesson was that the easier we make it, the more people will do it.”

Rent the Runway has also seen its per-employee efficiency climb, even as the customer experience has become stickier. “We’ve been able to handle four times the amount of customer returns traffic thanks to the speed and accuracy of the hardware,” Catlin says. The brand, which Catlin stresses is ecommerce first, has seen the results of making its bricks-and-mortar stores a place customers want to visit. “It’s not just as simple as dropping costs across the board, or replacing people with computers.”

“A lot of our customers were looking for speed and efficiency, and we realized we needed to help them service themselves in our stores.”
— Hampton Catlin, Rent the Runway

Perhaps more telling than any internal metrics is the feedback Rent the Runway has received from its customers. “They love it. It’s been a huge success,” Catlin says. “Customers now can come in and their visit is much faster, especially when they’re dropping something off. They even get their receipt in their email.” The easy transactions boosted in-store traffic so much that the retailer recently doubled the number of mobile devices just to keep up.

Know what’s next

Aila Technologies is an important component in pulling together a complete end solution, though additional partners are also needed. “To create that holistic solution requires a software vendor to develop the customer-facing application,” Gulbinas says. Rent the Runway’s in-house team had the technical expertise to manage the software development portion, along with many other aspects of the implementation. For retailers without that internal infrastructure, there are experienced integrators available to help build the other components of the system, from creating the application to installing the hardware.

Catlin says Rent the Runway is exploring additional opportunities to use Aila’s offerings as it continues to streamline operations for customers as well as employees. “We’re looking into devices that are light and easy to use, compared to what our warehouse employees are using now,” he says. A technology stack similar to what’s underpinning the customer-facing scanning functionality may be used to support the brand’s employees as they look up information, count inventory and oversee other backend tasks. “We’re definitely expanding with Aila into different applications,” Catlin says.

Julie Knudson is a freelance business writer who focuses on retail, hospitality and technology.

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