Direct sales shake up purchases for the home

  • Instead of providing flimsy paint cards, e-commerce paint and supply companies Clare and Backdrop sell self-adhesive color swatches for less than the cost of a sample can.

    Instead of providing flimsy paint cards, e-commerce paint and supply companies Clare and Backdrop sell self-adhesive color swatches for less than the cost of a sample can. Courtesy of Clare Paint

By Marie Elizabeth Oliver
Special to The Washington Post
Posted2/10/2019 7:00 AM

In the direct-to-consumer product revolution, all it takes is a few swipes and taps on a smartphone to get house plants, comforters and mattress samples delivered from your Instagram feed directly to your front door. Now two startups are vying to turn one of the most powerful -- and whined about -- home decor purchases on its head.

We've all been there, staring dumbfounded at a rainbow wall of paint chips wondering where to start. Was that trim color she recommended White Dove or Dune White? How are there so many versions of blue-green, and what in the world does "eggshell" mean, again?


Paint and supply companies Clare and Backdrop both launched in 2018 with splashy e-commerce sites, social media feeds and similar price points to their bricks-and-mortar competitors. Rather than selling thousands of colors, they both offer a tightly curated lineup of about 50 low-to-no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints. And perhaps most notably, in lieu of providing flimsy paint cards, the companies sell generously sized, self-adhesive color swatches for less than the cost of a sample can. The fan decks, they are a-changin'.

"Shopping for paint hasn't been an inspiring process," said Nicole Gibbons, interior designer and founder of Clare. "The home industry has been slower to catch on to innovation and e-commerce. You can shop for everything online and have it appear on your doorstep. That's what people want."

Gibbons says an important part of her vision for Clare involved creating a virtual "interior designer BFF" to help people navigate the unnecessarily egregious painting process. Through eight questions, Clare's Color Genius tool dispenses customized paint recommendations. The site also offers a paint calculator and blog with plenty of how-to advice.

For Backdrop's husband-and-wife co-founders, Caleb and Natalie Ebel, the goal was to totally rethink the way people look at paint.

"It's not a hardware store purchase, it's an art project on your wall," Natalie Ebel said.

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The Ebels say they spent years re-imagining everything from the straightforward names of their paints to the twist-top, stainless-steel containers. Caleb, a veteran of Warby Parker, and Natalie, a former nonprofit executive, said they felt it was important to build social impact into their startup, with a portion of every sale going to the International Rescue Committee.

"We're a consumer-oriented company built by consumers," Caleb Ebel said. "One of the most exciting things we see is people are painting because they're being inspired to paint."

For Elizabeth Rishel, founder of the DIY home lifestyle blog Within the Grove, renovating without having to set foot in a hardware store is an answered prayer. As the mother of a 2-year-old and someone who shops for home goods online via Wayfair and Joss & Main, Rishel says she frequently recommends direct-to-consumer companies to her readers.

"The importance of companies like this is they are simplifying the process, which is giving the homeowners the confidence to do it on their own," Rishel said.


Rishel says anyone who is squeamish about shopping this way should browse social media posts to see what kind of outcomes people have had with the products. She also suggests taking advantage of the companies' attentive customer service. She says that's one of the major draws of direct-to-consumer brands, especially those with savvy social marketing strategies.

"Besides the convenience, you're reaching people on a more personal level," she said. "It's more organic -- a true opinion, a true voice."

Nicki Clendening, owner of Scout Designs in New York City, says the direct-to-consumer shift in the home space represents convenience, but also consumer empowerment. When industries that previously catered more to contractors and designers adjust their strategies to target consumers, the result is a more streamlined and user-friendly sales process.

"As a designer, my job is to find the right thing for my client, but hiring an interior designer is a luxury that not everyone has," Clendening said. "It's the way the design industry is going -- the accessibility of having access to things a designer only had access to."

She says she sees this change especially in the furniture market and points to e-commerce sites such as One Kings Lane, which offers in-person or remote designer services.

Designer Jessica Williams of Hendley & Co. says in her experience, direct-to-consumer home brands appeal especially to design-savvy people who appreciate these brands' contemporary aesthetic. One of her current favorites, the Inside, offers a service similar to Clare and Backdrop for upholstery.

"I recently purchased a divider screen for my living room. I knew I wanted something velvet," Williams said. "I could choose the structure and fabric swatches from their library."

The on-demand furniture company started by DwellStudio founder Christiane Lemieux delivers custom-made products to buyers within four weeks. Staying nimble with inventory gives freedom to react more quickly, providing customers with the latest looks at a lower cost -- taking a page from the "fast fashion" playbook.

"The patterns are speaking to trends," Williams said. "They understand the pulse, and the price points are fantastic."

Williams also serves as a brand ambassador for the direct-to-consumer furniture brand Interior Define. She says the sleek, custom-made furniture has a dozen different sofa and chair styles that can be customized by size, leg finish and fabric. The company has showrooms in six cities, but the site is designed so you never have to visit one in person.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that most of these companies are churning out beautiful images to their Instagram feeds faster than Architectural Digest can share its latest celebrity home spread. The Inside has racked up almost 24,000 Instagram followers, while Interior Define boasts 122,000.

"These brands with big influences offer trust for a customer," Williams said. "If your brand isn't active and pushing out beautiful imagery, you almost don't exist. We live in a culture where we're so obsessed with creating content and reacting to it. Everyone's a decorator in their own right."

Be forewarned, if the promise of domestic bliss tempts you to tap one of those "Shop Now" arrows on Instagram, you will likely subject yourself to targeted advertisements relentlessly stalking you across every corner of the internet.

It raises the question, as the proliferation of these brands reaches a crescendo, do we run the risk of home-design inspiration oversaturation? A recent Curbed article, "The rise of the direct-to-consumer home," closes with the prediction that people will eventually get bored with the precise sans-serif sameness of these brands that feel so fresh, hip and, ahem, inspirational.

Only time will tell if people love Avocado Toast (the paint color) on their walls as much as they do with their single-origin espressos. Those flimsy paint chips, on the other hand? May they rest in peace.

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