Despite experiencing the same challenges brought on by the pandemic as most of the industry, DTC furniture brand Outer hasn't slowed down on its path to growth.
At the start of this year, the company announced it raised $10.5 million in a funding round led by Sequoia Capital China. The brand at the time said it aimed to use the funds to become an "outdoor lifestyle brand" by expanding beyond furniture and rugs, building on its sustainability commitments and adding to its unique showroom model.
To the latter point, Outer last month announced it opened its 1,000th Neighborhood Showroom, which connects existing customers to potential ones.
"We saw an opportunity to change the way that outdoor furniture was designed, but also how people shop for it," Jiake Liu, Outer co-founder and CEO, told Retail Dive. "We thought that the experience of shopping for furniture was not great. When shopping for outdoor furniture in an indoor showroom that's protected from all the elements, [that] didn't make any sense to us — it's not authentic or real."
The company invites existing customers to apply to be "hosts" and show the Outer products they bought to potential customers. Liu said that given the rise of other crowdsourcing businesses, like Lyft and Airbnb, having hosts invite interested customers to their backyard was a natural step, and even less invasive because it's a backyard and consumers can use a separate entrance or gate.
While hosts are compensated and given discounts to use on Outer products, they don't receive a sales script from the brand or receive commission on any sales as a result of the visit.
"Put yourself in the shoes of that potential buyer. You're really just wanting to check out Outer in someone's backyard. You show up one day — you really don't want a high-pressure sales environment. You really just want to experience a product for yourself, maybe talk to a customer, ask them how they feel about it," Liu said. "It would feel really awkward if your neighbor is trying to hard sell you on the piece of furniture. That's not the experience that we try to create. It's all about making a space and the time for a customer to experience in real life without additional pressure."
In fact, following a survey Outer conducted, the brand found that the top three reasons for wanting to become a host were receiving discounts, supporting a brand they believe in and being able to offer their backyard as a source of inspiration to potential consumers. The brand also found that hosts use the Neighborhood Showroom experience as a way to feel more connected with their community, with 89% reporting they felt more connected to their neighbors after hosting.
The Neighborhood Showrooms, which Outer now operates in 49 states, are an example of a growing trend of brands looking to alternative models for consumers to experience their products. While many DTCs have entered physical retail in more traditional ways — like through retail partnerships, pop-ups or owned stores — others have explored less conventional methods. DTC furniture brand Burrow previously formed partnerships with coffee shops to allow consumers to experience its products in a relaxed setting, though it has since ended those after discovering muffin crumbs in between its couch cushions didn't make for the best first impression for a potential customer.
Like nearly every aspect of the retail industry, the pandemic disrupted Outer's business, including its Neighborhood Showrooms. With safety in mind, the brand pivoted to virtual showrooms, offering hosts and potential customers the option to connect via phone call, email, text or video call, Liu said. And despite consumers' wariness of leaving their houses during the past year, the flexible options led to an influx in applications for becoming a host, Liu added.
Hitting the 1,000th Neighborhood Showroom mark "shows that people are willing to do this. During the pandemic, people are outfitting their backyards, and they were looking for ways to connect with their neighbors, even if it's virtually," he said. "I think consumers are starved for connection with their communities, especially after a long year of isolation during the pandemic, so really this announcement that we're making is also a celebration of reopening the country and for people to safely gather again in the comfort of their backyard."