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Rent the Runway’s Monthly Subscription Could Be a Game Changer

September 21, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC
General view of the ribbon before the launch of Rent the Runway's West Coast flagship store on May 8, 2019 in San Francisco, Calif.
Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Rent the Runway

While the concept of renting your clothes—even everyday, non-fancy items like blouses, sweaters, and pants—might not be novel anymore, the first-time experience of doing so can still feel revolutionary.

Rent the Runway’s Unlimited subscription has been available for a few years now, some might say to mixed reviews. But the company’s monthly rental plan still has the potential to feel fresh as Rent the Runway continues to replenish the online wardrobe with new designer-label dresses, handbags, and even jewelry on a weekly basis.

Rent the Runway’s customers tend to skew younger, are usually in professional roles, and are people who like to try new things, as described by Forrester Research retail analyst Sucharita Kodali. “Not really the fashionistas, because those people like to be more unique,” adds Kodali. “These services have a reputation for being mainstream and inoffensive, not edgy, trendy, or even that aspirational.”

Eyeing the runway

Before a recent trial, I’ll admit I was skeptical. And after spending far longer than I would like (at least a few hours) trying to whittle down what I wanted to rent from pages and pages and pages of search results, I worried I was wasting my time rather than saving money.

While it was a time suck, it wasn’t a complete waste. As soon as the first shipment arrived, I was delighted by the clothes I received—in perfect condition and versatile enough that I could wear each of them a few times to different events before returning them.

I also quickly found myself addicted to yet another digital subscription—except this time it’s far costlier than a Spotify Premium or Netflix account. However, depending on your budget and sartorial demands (for work, weddings, black-tie events, etc.), it is very possible that Rent the Runway could actually save you money in the long run. The company cites internal statistics that 89% of its members report shopping less with a subscription to fashion. That could be especially critical for people in the public eye who need high-end, professional workwear on a daily basis. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously noted last fall while running for office that she has been a RTR Unlimited subscriber.

Inside Rent the Runway’s West Coast flagship store in San Francisco’s Union Square.
Photo by Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Rent the Runway

Here’s the deal: Rent the Runway Unlimited costs $159 per month. At that rate, subscribers can select up to four items (and more at additional cost) to rent at a time, with the freedom to send back and swap any or all items at their leisure throughout the following four weeks. That includes access to inventory from more than 600 designers, including Jason Wu, Diane von Furstenberg (one of the first investors in the company), Tory Burch, and Theory. That also means say goodbye to the constrictions of the four-day or eight-day rental periods. You also don’t have to worry about the rental price tag on each individual item. The $159 payment is all-inclusive for your rentals, shipping & handling, taxes, and dry cleaning.

“Unlimited launched 2016 out of direct feedback from our customers that they wanted more ways to wear and engage with RTR,” a Rent the Runway spokesperson says. “We launched by offering something special to wear for one occasion and have moved to every occasion: work, weekend, vacation and everything in between. In fact, casual items like skirts, pants, and denim have had the highest year-over-year growth in rentals (+136%), driven by denim (representing over 30% of bottoms across all shapes).”

Aside from Unlimited, there is also the RTR “Update” plan for $89 per month, which is similar to Unlimited except subscribers get four items per month and can’t swap until the next month.

I didn’t run into trouble until my last round of swapping items after trying out both the Unlimited and Update plans. Roughly 72 hours after I placed my order for the Update trial, I received a brief email message—near midnight ET, so well after business hours—from a customer service agent saying that one of my items wouldn’t be shipping after all, without any explanation given. I was instructed to pick out a new item, which I did immediately as I was planning to travel within a few days and was expecting to have the clothes I picked out ready to take with me. Eventually, I did end up with my order in the nick of time.

After I filed a report with customer service over the incident—and several subsequent rounds of emails back and forth, trying to go over what had happened—I was offered a complimentary additional month of service to make up for the first month.

“Rent the Runway also has a number of issues with shipments—you have a limited window to make the shipment back, and it’s difficult to plan last-minute or if you’re on a tight schedule,” Kodali notes. “It’s quite a bit of work and stress.”

Shoppers look through racks during the launch of Rent the Runway’s West Coast flagship store on May 8, 2019, in San Francisco.
Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Rent the Runway

It’s also questionable how long such a business model can last. RTR Unlimited has been on the market for a few years now, and similar programs such as Trunk Club or Le Tote have sprung up as well—the latter of which has blossomed so much that it swallowed up dying department store Lord & Taylor for $100 million.

“The churn rate in these programs tends to be almost 100% per year, which means they are constantly hunting for new customers, which is very expensive,” Kodali notes. “Other retailers are jumping on these types of programs (Ann Taylor, American Eagle), which should make investors happy. But unless there is an exit for Rent the Runway, the more that others understand the economics of the model, the less good it is for a DTC [direct-to-consumer] company in the space. Startups thrive best on opacity. The economics are often very challenged.”

Style hack

From a certain point of view, it might actually help to have a limited amount of options from which to choose. The sheer number of midi dresses, plaid overcoats, and leather bucket bags seen in search results is overwhelming.

If there’s something you have your eye on, there are a few approaches you could take, including renting a specific item earlier and holding on to it to ensure you have it. After all, there’s no time limit on Unlimited items as long as you’re an active, paying subscriber. (You can pause your subscription from month to month, at no charge, for months when you might not want to participate. You just have to make sure your rentals are returned by the end of that paid month.)

It’s also worth having a few backup choices, and there are quite a lot of very similar items on Rent the Runway—especially when it comes to little black dresses and jumpsuits—so be prepared to do a little research if your chosen rental isn’t available in time to ship.

Racks of clothing on display at a Luminary/Rent the Runway event, on Aug. 7, 2019, in New York City.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Luminary

Subscribers also have a perk that general visitors to the site do not: They can purchase their rentals, sometimes at a steep discount of as much as 75% off the retail price.

This is where it is time to talk about whether or not RTR Unlimited will save you money. Of course, there’s no one answer to this as, just like with personal style, personal budgets are going to be different for every customer. If you’re someone who doesn’t spend a lot of money on clothes, adding $159 each month to your budget might seem extreme.

But if you’re someone who does spend more than, say, $200 a month on average on clothes (check your Mint accounts), and you’re looking for a way to curb that while also restocking your closet, then RTR could be a viable alternative.

Returning a Rent the Runway item via a UPS drop box.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

It’s also a game changer for professionals (and it should be noted women of any age and size, as RTR is cognizant of inclusive sizing) who want an elevated wardrobe at a fraction of the cost—for both the clothes themselves as well as the dry cleaning.

And for the rest of us, it can be a bit of fun for consumers of any background looking to sample some designer clothes for a short-term period. If you’re planning to rent two or more dresses, say, for a wedding or a vacation, then it is probably cost-effective to sign up for a month of RTR Unlimited and put it back on pause when you don’t need it. (Just set yourself a calendar reminder before your credit card is auto-charged.)

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