Woman holds bag with rented folded clothing from Nuuly
Business Insider
  • I've been renting all my clothes from Nuuly, a platform created by Urban Outfitters Inc.
  • It's curbed my reliance on fast-fashion, a major polluter, as well as buying clothing more broadly.
  • Though influenced by the pandemic, experts say the toward renting and used apparel is here to stay.

If subscription services rule our present, rental services could own our future. 

That's at least what Urban Outfitters is banking on with its subscription service, Nuuly. Launched in 2019, the service offers users access to Urban-owned brands — including Anthropologie and Free People — as well as wares from similar labels. It's Urban's first foray into the rental market, and it falls somewhere between the designer buffet on Rent the Runway and subscription clothing box companies like Stitch Fix or Nordstrom's Trunk Club. 

What makes Nuuly unique, and what drew me personally to the service, is that the jackets, dresses, or jeans available to rent are often the same products shoppers could buy on, say, Anthropologie's website. These aren't cast-off clothes or last season's items, and they're available to wear as many times as I can in 30 days for the low price of $88 per month. 

That, coupled with broader shifts in how we shop and live in the pandemic era, led me to question my own shopping habits and consider whether I really need to own everything I want to wear. 

Now, after three months of using Nuuly, I can safely say that my relationship with consumerism has shifted. Owning clothes is out; renting them is in. 

How Nuuly works

Crystal Cox/Business Insider

I first heard about Nuuly via a stylish friend and hopped on board in November, right before the pandemic upended the holiday season yet again (thanks, Omicron). I, like a lot of people I know, felt at a loss about what to wear to socialize or go to parties, and Nuuly seemed like a low-risk way to give my wardrobe some much-needed help.

Nuuly works like this: You browse through an array of clothing from dozens of brands and select six items. Nuuly will charge you $88 (if you need more clothes, you can add extras for $18 a pop) and ship your selections in a durable, reusable bag. When the month is up, you'll send it all back and unlock your next round of items. 

After a few months of using the service, the biggest downside I've found is the lack of flexibility. If you receive an item you don't like or that doesn't fit, there's no way to swap it out for something different. To receive new items, you have to send everything back at once and pay to unlock your next round. 

But the upsides mostly make up for that. Most of the items I've received so far are brand-new with tags still attached, which makes the experience feel a lot like regular shopping. Plus, probably because I'm a city-dweller, my items typically arrive within a few days of ordering them, and returns are easy because I live about 100 yards from a UPS store. 

Nuuly also offers discounts if there's anything you want to keep, which is how I ended up with a brand-new pair of Levi's jeans for $40 off. 

Pandemic-era consumers prioritize quality and sustainability over 'eco-waste'

clothes clothing shopping mall shopper dublin
Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Like a lot of sectors, clothing rental was hurt by the pandemic.

According to data from Coresight Research cited by The New York Times, the market was worth $1.3 billion in 2019 and dipped to $1.1 billion in 2020. Things rebounded slightly in 2021, and analysts now estimate that the apparel rental market could bring in nearly $7.5 billion in revenue by 2026. 

Nuuly saw the same dip during the pandemic, as well as inventory challenges, Urban's co-president and COO Frank Conforti said the company's most recent earnings call in November, describing its rental business as being in its "early innings."

But Nuuly is considered one of the company's most important growth initiatives, and the service saw a 55% boost in subscribers between the second and third quarters and was expected to reach 50,000 users by the end of 2021.

It's not Urban's only foray into the secondary apparel market, either: Urban launched a sister marketplace last August, a peer-to-peer resale site called Nuuly Thrift. Nuuly Thrift allows users to buy and sell clothing and receive a discount at the Urban family of brands, which is a way to keep the "cycle of buying and selling within the URBN ecosystem," CEO Richard Hayne said during the company's second-quarter earnings call last August. 

Taken together, Urban's rental and resale ambitions are a symptom of a broader shift within the retail industry: brands have noticed that people just shop differently now. A 2021 survey of the "post-pandemic consumer" from the resale platform ThredUp found that shoppers care more about sustainability and quality than they did in the past — 51% said they feel more opposed to "eco-waste" now than they did before the pandemic. 

Some studies have shown that renting clothes has a different, but still large, environmental footprint. For me at least, renting has been a way to curb or entirely eliminate reliance on fast fashion, a major polluter.

And now that consumers are prioritizing quality and sustainability, buying secondhand goods or renting apparel is simply more normalized than it was before, Aditya Vedantam, assistant professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management, told Insider.

"There are these shifting trends and the COVID crisis has made this even more prominent. Resale and rental, all of this falls under the broader umbrella of the sharing economy," Vedantam said. "We see this in so many industries, like car-sharing, and we see this in the apparel space."

And regardless of how shopping evolves in the coming months and years, he said, "peer-to-peer rentals are here to stay." 

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