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Shop online, try it out in person: Kembrel gives hybrid retail sales the old college try

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If I told you that the flash sales sites of today would give birth to the offline retail experience of tomorrow, you’d probably laugh in my face. Who would want to take the “e” out of e-commerce in uncertain economic times such as these? Bright-eyed recent Wharton MBA graduates looking to reinvent retail, that’s who.

Aymeric de Hemptinne, Cherif Habib and Stephan Jacob, co-founders of Kembrel, a one year-old flash sales site geared toward college kids with expensive tastes and limited budgets, are expanding their vision to give customers a more tangible experience with a brick-and-mortar retail location in Philadelphia.

The trio hope to open boutiques on college campuses and marry offline and online commerce in a way that hasn’t been done before, Jacob told VentureBeat in an exclusive interview.

They are, befittingly, doing it in a scrappy, college-like manner on dime-store budgets. Kembrel’s co-founders have pooled together a meager $1 million round of funding from MentorTech Ventures, Blazer Ventures and their own couch-cushion piggybanks to finance the endeavor.

The Philadelphia store, which opened on November 18, is a small, one-employee shop outfitted with furniture on consignment. The team has plans to target distressed, low-rent retail properties for future locations.

“What we’re trying is a minimal investment retail concept,” Jacob said when asked about the risk involved in taking an online business to the streets. “The key is in the linking of the two [offline with online], and using a physical presence as a branding tool. We’re giving customers the option to shop, try and engage with brand offline, but we still offer … the convenience of online shopping.”

Just 11 days after opening, Jacob said the store is already proving that the model can work. “We’re already seeing conversions … people coming from the website into the store, and customers visiting the store and later returning to the website,” he said.

Kembrel’s online-only approach to selling to college students has worked marginally well. The startup has accrued 32,000 online subscribers and 400 VIP members who pay for the privilege of extra benefits with site partners. It has even been touted in CosmoGirl and TeenVogue as the perfect site for young, penny-pinching trendsetters.

“College students are at the very beginning of the consumption and branding lifecycle … and they’re building preferences now,” Jacob said. “But brands are struggling to reach this demographic in a genuine manner. We can be a vehicle for these brands to reach the demographic … by incorporating customers in the experience and the curation of the product, and providing them access to merchandise that they would not be able to afford.”

The formula heretofore has been centered around introducing fashion labels to consumers-in-the-making, with actual students serving as conduits between brands and entry-level fashion buyers. The Kembrel website features both discounted, college-lifestyle-themed collections for boys and girls, and an outlet store for limited-run flash sales events.

The newly added in-store experience is designed to help the company, and its brand partners, connect with customers on a more intimate level, as well as develop the association between the Kembrel name and cool college wares. The stores will provide customers offline access to Kembrel’s online collections, and feature crafted products from local designers, but the outlet element will remain web-only.

“We’re creating a holistic experience for anyone walking into the store, and replicating that experience on the web,” Jacob added.

Kembrel, founded in 2010, is based in Philadelphia and operates a satellite office in Montreal, Canada. The startup has six employees and already has plans to open a second store in Philadelphia.

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