New internet-based retail concepts have a habit of creating a buzz that is disproportionate to their ability to change the world. And the more a concept positions itself as a thorn in the side of mainstream retail, the greater the interest.
Sometimes though, a start-up makes established retailers a little more jumpy than usual.
Such is the case with Le Tote, a concept created by a couple of American investment bankers that is still in the bootstrapping stage. Le Tote is - or rather will be- a clothing rental site that for $49 a month ships its subscribers "totes", each of which contains three clothing items and two accessories. The subscriber can keep the items as long as she wishes (no late charges) and then return them in the postage-paid box sent with the original shipment. She then receives another shipment from Le Tote.
Does this remind you of anything, like maybe Quickflix for DVDs?
This is not the first clothing rental concept, of course. Rent the Runway, the brainchild of two Harvard Business School grads, Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Carter Fleiss, rents designer pieces to its customers that they may want just for a special occasion or to feed a habit that they would otherwise not be able to afford.
In Australia, Love Me and Leave Me works along roughly the same lines, although it is moving away from clothing to focus more on accessories, which the business' owner, Simonne Santana, believes offer a better economic model in the Australian market.
But Le Tote has at least a couple of important differences to the Rent the Runway/Love Me and Leave Me model that make it slightly more confronting to mass market fashion retailers.
The first is that the clothing itself is not designer branded, and is in fact sports Le Tote's own private label. The merchandise positioning is approximately that of an upscale lifestyle brand. This is a play for the everyday wardrobe, not the rare occasion.
The second big difference is that the subscriber doesn't actually choose what is shipped. Not directly anyway. Instead, she creates a "style profile" for herself on the site which enables Le Tote's stylists and, presumably, its computer programs, to select appropriate garments to send her.
Mainstream clothing retailers probably needn't fear that concepts like Le Tote are about to make the kind of impact on them that online rentals and e-books have made on the DVD and paper book sectors respectively.
But it's quite conceivable that the concept will find a meaningful niche and have the usual coterie of lookalikes. Along with flash sales sites and clothes-swapping sites like swapstyle.com, online clothing rentals are just another hungry mouth feeding from the clothing retail pie.
In Australia this has particular resonance since it is occurring just as international value-oriented retailers are entering the market for the first time. The combined impact of the foreign invasion, conventional e-commerce and off-the-wall internet models like Le Tote is – and will be - felt by the established retail operators.
The more alert retail analysts – particularly those at the investment banks whose clients are nervous about what's coming – are beginning to tally up the body count in terms of store closings and potential retailer demises. They are now focusing clearly on the cracks in the supply side of the retail industry.
Finally, at long last, in the discourse around Australian retail, reality has set in.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.mbaker-retail.com