Ralph Lauren Is Being Disrupted In Real Time

Photo by Jeff Cunningham

In 1969, a former Brooks Brothers tie salesman named Ralph Lipschitz called a buyer at Bloomingdale’s. He wanted to convince the most important department store in America to be the exclusive carrier of his brand, one that spoke or more accurately, bespoke, to an authentic retro aristocracy.

It was called “Polo.”

Ralph Lauren, as the tie salesman is better known today, wasn’t a player, he was a garment district merchandiser. He had seen one polo match in his entire life. But that was all he needed to believe the market was ripe for a high society look, as the hippie era ended. People were looking for a lifestyle that was “riche” but not too nouveau, and leather boots and snug fitting breeches were just the ticket. Lauren was able to sell clothing in Cary Grant movies that shoppers couldn’t find in stores. With that as a motif, Lauren turned his brand into a co-star, where he outfitted actors in films like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and The Great Gatsby.

Location, Location, Location

With his impeccable sense of where lifestyle and brand intersected, Lauren created a luxury empire of clothing, furnishings, and restaurants, and a tidy net worth of $8 billion.  HIs flagship store is a perfect example of how he imagines the world and then builds it. The former Stackhouse Mansion at 72nd and Madison Avenue is the most unique address for any retailer in the most elite city in the fashion universe. Until now.

Walking up Madison Avenue one Sunday morning, I noticed three things that seemed odd to me. The Sonya Rykiel store, a French haute couture boutique that opened in 2016, was shuttered for good.  Just one block away, the Jil Sanders store gave notice to employees. But next door to Ralph Lauren’s Women’s Shop was a flashy new retailer called The Real Real. Only it’s an online retailer, and now they have the best address in New York next to Ralph Lauren’s.

Secondhand is now a first class experience

It is a cliche to say ‘digital is eating the world,’ but the reality is the world is gorging on digital, like tourists at a salad bar. But the switch between the old and new is going one way. Everything that was brick and mortar is now online. But the corollary isn’t true. If you look at the websites of old school retailers, they are designed merely to be another cashier at the counter. They are not what they need to be: an experience. That is what the best of online retail is now: one part Facebook community, one part Google search, and one part Amazon efficiency.

When Julie Wainwright started The Real Real in 2011, she had already acquired a useful background as CEO of video retailer Reel.com and the pet-supply company Pets.com. She knew why online stores failed and why they succeeded, and that helped her to make some smart decisions about her business.

Think small then go big

Wainwright knew she should start small, maintain quality, and build slowly.  Her kitchen table was the showroom, and she would visit consigners with a U-haul.  Her approach wasn’t just about outstanding prices or couture brand selection, of which her website is the leader. She was going to cultivate ‘members’ who wanted an experience, and make it as artisanal as online shopping gets. Wainwright speaks of celebrating ‘artists and designers’ and makes a point to remind her community of members that this is more than shopping. It’s a lifestyle more than a shopping visit that involves sharing, creating value, enjoying things you might not be able to afford ordinarily.

Sounds a lot like Ralph Lauren.

The idea for a luxury-consignment Website came to her during a trip in Atherton, a wealthy Silicon Valley town, in 2010. As her New Yorker profile said: Wainwright and a friend stopped in a boutique with a small selection of designer consignment items, and her friend bought several pieces. Wainwright recalls, “We walked out and I said, ‘Wow, what just happened? You just bought consignment.’ ” “Oh, come on, Julie,” Wainwright remembers her friend responding. “I bought Chanel, and Prada, and Louis Vuitton, and Gucci, at a really good price . . . . I don’t care.’ ” That night, Wainwright went home and began researching the secondhand-luxury market.

Because The Real Real is a brand emporium, Wainwright goes to great lengths to assure authenticity. I know from experience that my wife tried to consign a Diane Von Furstenberg dress that had a smudge from a mosquito bite, too small for her to notice. But Wainwright’s sharp-eyed quality control folks sent it back and paid the postage. She says, “we ensure that every item on The RealReal is 100% the real thing, thanks to our dedicated team of authentication experts, horologists, and gemologists.”

Online is different

If you are in the market for beautiful clothing, furnishings, or jewelry, you should visit The Real Real website. While you are there, notice how the promise of authenticity and the benefits of membership lubricate the shopping. Ask yourself, is your online business as artfully balanced with values and pricing? Are you just selling stuff or making it an experience? Would you return because the chance to find great value is always a part of the bargain? If so, you’ve just become an online impresario like Julie Wainwright. Or Ralph Lauren.

Disruptor Quiz

(if more than two of these are true, you will be disrupted)

1. People come to you.

2. You need a salesperson to explain where things are.

3. No one can tell if your prices are fair.

4. Your location is key.

Read more: Ness Digital Engineering CEO On Navigating Digital Disruption

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham is Chief Executive magazine's editor-at-large and a professor of leadership at Arizona State University/Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he has also endowed the Cunningham Global Fellowship for next-generation leaders. He also is the founder of Thunderbird Opinions poll of business trends. He was previously publisher of Forbes Magazine and CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk). Watch his YouTube interviews at Iconic Voices and connect on Twitter @CunninghamJeff and LinkedIn.