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Where do clothing rental and subscriptions like Rent the Runway fit in a world that works from home?

March 30, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

After signing up for Rent the Runway Unlimited in February, Margit Malcreda quickly became a clothing rental convert. As a public relations professional in New York City, she started using the service for the same reason most of its customers do: to access thousands of designer items for the low cost of $159 a month, or even less with one of the brand’s many promotions. Malcreda would swap her inventory six times a month, receiving up to four new pieces of her choosing with each exchange, and she loved almost everything, so the membership was entirely worth it.

But when the coronavirus pandemic broke out in mid-March and the 26-year-old was ordered to work from home, she began wondering if it made sense to keep paying for the service. “I don’t have a huge use for it at home, and I find myself feeling nervous about where the clothes have been, who has been in them, and the potential for a contaminated garment bag,” she says. “So, I’m really considering pausing, if not canceling, my subscription until the dust settles here in New York.”

Malcreda is far from alone in feeling this way, and in fact, many of the hundreds of thousands of people who use clothing rental services like Rent the Runway are ditching their memberships, or contemplating doing so, during this unprecedented global crisis. With many people nationwide (and around the world) now working remotely and concerns over saving money mounting as the economy continues to take a hit, clothing rental can seem like an unnecessary expense—and one some customers have no problem dropping. Key players in the billion-dollar clothing rental market are aware of this growing trend, and they’re already making attempts to ease members’ anxieties. But even as the threat of cancellations looms, they appear adamant that demand for their services won’t stop.

Even before COVID-19 cases in the United States started to rise, Rent the Runway anticipated that its customers would likely have some questions surrounding the company’s cleaning protocols. In an email sent to members on March 4, the company stated its intent to “proactively provide details and additional transparency” around its cleaning process, noting that all of its garments are steamed at temperatures between 248 degrees and 302 degrees Fahrenheit, a level that kills flu viruses according to the CDC. Rent the Runway also updated the FAQs page on its website to include information about its practices as they relate to COVID-19, and it announced on March 14 that it would close its five brick-and-mortar locations across the country until further notice. The company acknowledges some of its customers may still opt out of its rental services for the duration of the pandemic, instead offering discounts and incentives for those who pause their memberships rather than cancel them outright.

Nuuly is a monthly rental subscription service for women’s apparel.
Courtesy of Nuuly

Nuuly, another popular clothing rental service, has taken similar measures, adding details of its COVID-19/coronavirus precautions to its site, with particular emphasis on the 250-degree steaming process that all garments undergo. Nuuly has yet to communicate this information directly to customers. The brand says, however, that it has made it easy to cancel or pause memberships. “Users can choose to pause their subscriptions for one, two, or three months, and they can extend it on a month-to-month basis,” a Nuuly representative tells Fortune. “We know our subscribers are navigating uncertainty right now, so if they choose to pause, we will be here with open arms when they are ready to resume the service. The comfort and safety of our consumers are always a top priority.”

While the rental space has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, other membership-based clothing services have witnessed unexpected changes in their business over the last month. Trunk Club, an online personal shopping platform from Nordstrom that pioneered the try-on model in men’s clothing, sends users a curated selection of up to 10 items on a monthly, bimonthly, quarterly, or on-demand basis and lets them choose which to buy and which to send back. Because customers can adjust the frequency of their trunks at any time and the service itself is free of charge, the company hasn’t really experienced actual cancellations, but it has noticed other emerging trends. “We have seen a lot of customers ask us for more loungewear and athleisure that they can wear while they are working from home,” a Trunk Club spokesperson says. “And some of our stylists are also helping their customers clean out their closets through video chat.”

As more and more studies come out claiming the benefits of getting dressed—even when it’s easier to wear the same pair of sweatpants for days on end—clothing rental companies and stylist services hope that their products will provide a beacon of normalcy to members. Rent the Runway, for example, says that many of its customers are using their rentals for this very reason and that its services can actually be an emotional and mental benefit.

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Carolyn Hsu, who serves as the head of content for Seattle tech company RealSelf, says that her Rent the Runway Unlimited subscription has come in particularly handy during Zoom calls and virtual meetings. “I’m in Zoom meetings throughout the day and usually keep the video on so I feel like I’m in the room with the rest of the team,” she explains. “Regardless of whether I’m physically in the office or in virtual meetings, I usually like to wear something that makes me feel confident in a professional setting.”

Hsu says the coronavirus outbreak has made her rethink some of her consumption behaviors, and she’s been renting clothing at a slower pace and holding onto items for longer as a result. For the time being, though, she says compliments on her top or jumpsuit during Zoom calls still make her unlimited membership worth it.

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