What Is Direct-to-Consumer? Everything You Need To Know (2024)

What Is Direct-to-Consumer? Everything You Need To Know (2024)

More shoppers are making the switch to online retail. This means there’s a growing need for brands to connect with them directly. 

In recent years, consumers have been seeking out more authentic connections with brands and craving more personalized experiences, and the sheer amount of competition means there’s plenty of choice. 

Consumer brands are now faced with the task of creating exceptional, customer-led experiences. Welcome to the birth of the direct-to-consumer model. 

What is direct to consumer?

Direct to consumer (DTC) is a retail model where brands sell directly to new customers. It skips the wholesale middlemen and eliminates the need to join forces with big retail brands and brick-and-mortar stores. 

DTC brands keep their own products in stock and, when a customer makes a purchase, the brand is in control of sorting, packaging, and shipping the product. They don’t have to rely on third parties to deliver the goods. This gives them the power to communicate with customers directly and take charge of the entire fulfillment experience. 

The DTC model removes several steps of the buying cycle to speed it up and provide a slicker experience for loyal customers: 

  • Traditional wholesale/retail model: manufacturer > wholesaler > distributor > retailer > end consumer
  • DTC model: manufacturer > advertising/website > end customer 

The DTC retail model was created for a digitally savvy consumer base, with top DTC brands like Warby Parker, Dollar Shave Club, Allbirds, and Glossier disrupting the traditional beauty and fashion industries with their unique personalities and customer-first approach. The model brings them closer to the customer, strengthening relationships and giving them a first-hand understanding of who buys their products and why. 

Wholesale brands like Walmart and traditional retailers like JCPenney and Unilever are now up against these smaller, more niche brands that are reaching out directly to customers—but things are changing. 

Why direct to consumer is so important

DTC isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. In the 1920s, clothing brands saw an opportunity to cut out the middleman and started to open their own DTC stores. In 2007, Bonobos emerged as one of the first digitally native brands focused on selling just one product. But the concept has snowballed in recent years because of two major factors: 

Consumer expectations have changed

Expectations are higher than ever. Retailers must now deliver exceptional customer experiences or lose out to an influx of new competitors. Consumers today crave personalization and human connections, and they want to buy from brands with the same values as them. This is difficult when you’re selling through large retail stores that stock all sorts of products from a range of different brands.

For example, a consumer might choose to buy a pair of glasses from Warby Parker over Sears. They may resonate with Warby Parker’s mission more than that of a big-name department store that sells products from many brands with a variety of different values and ethics. 

Online sales have skyrocketed

Ecommerce sales are showing no signs of slowing down. The International Trade Administration expects global online sales to reach $5.5 trillion by 2027. Retail partners are pointless when shoppers no longer venture in-store. It’s also difficult to stand out in-store when your products are surrounded by hundreds of similar products from different brands. It’s easy to see why DTC retailers have chosen a different path.

Even legacy brands that traditionally have depended on wholesalers for distribution are leaning into the DTC model—take Pepsi, with its Pantry Shop and Snacks.com DTC brands, for example. Legacy brands like Pepsi are moving over to the DTC model due to understandably lower orders from retail clients during the pandemic. 

To put it into context, in 2010, just 15% of Nike’s revenue was made up of DTC sales. But this figure rose to 43.7% in 2023 and is set to grow to 60% by 2025. 

How the direct-to-consumer business model works

The model does exactly as it says on the tin: sells directly to customers. Shoppers go to your website or another digital channel, make a purchase through your store, and receive the product directly from you—no middlemen in sight.

The whole process is carried out between the brand and the customer, and the brand takes full control over the fulfillment process. Usually, DTC brands are digitally native and favor an omnichannel approach to create unique experiences for each customer. This isn’t to say DTC brands can’t have brick-and-mortar stores, but the emphasis in-store is on customer experience and engagement rather than sales. 

Many DTC brands have a very defined target audience and sell a limited range of products—think Dollar Shave Club with razors and Warby Parker with glasses. The model relies on building customer relationships and creating experiences that put the customer first. This shows a deep understanding of shopper pain points. Many brands use discounts, loyalty programs, reviews, and user-generated content to build communities and retain long-term customers over time. 

The pros of direct-to-consumer 

  • Direct line of communication. You can connect directly with customers to build customer relationships, which positions you on the front line for customer service.
  • Better understanding of customer needs. Access to first-hand customer data provides a comprehensive view of customer wants and needs and can help brands make more strategic decisions and improve customer retention. 
  • More control over messaging. No need to rely on middlemen and third-party stores to advertise your products. 
  • Complete control over the fulfillment process. Less reliance on third parties, which means less fulfillment restrictions and the ability to pass any savings along to customers. 
  • Control over marketing strategy. Easy to promote customer perks, like free shipping, gifts, and a subscription model without being restricted by wholesale requirements.
  • Access to more direct customer feedback. Glean insights directly from customers and foster open communication and increase brand loyalty.

The cons of direct-to-consumer 

  • Everything is on you. It’s up to you to build your own audience via your own platforms, and you don’t have access to the audiences that big retail stores and sites have already amassed.
  • Increased risk. Added risks that are usually swallowed up by third parties, like cyber risks and liability risks. 
  • Potentially complex supply chains. Everything from the manufacturing to distribution to shipping is up to you, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
  • Potential increased costs. You might need to invest in tools, software, and advertising to promote your products, which can add up and affect your bottom line.

5 examples of inspiring DTC brands

Now that you have a better understanding of DTC, in theory, here are some successful DTC ecommerce brands to learn from:

  1. Velasca
  2. Olipop
  3. Bombas
  4. Gymshark
  5. Everlane

1. Velasca 

Velasca is a Milanese startup on a mission to disrupt the footwear industry by connecting consumers directly to shoemakers. Owners Enrico Casati and Jacopo Sebastio found their DTC model has a competitive advantage over high-end Italian footwear brands because they’re making the same products from the same factories as big-name brands, but can sell them at half the price because they don’t have to give a cut to wholesalers, distributors, and retailers. 

DTC brand Velasca’s ecommerce website homepage with a man wearing a turtleneck and jacket

2. Olipop 

Olipop is a DTC brand that made big strides in the beverage industry with its innovative product lines. Launched by Ben Goodwin and David Lester in late 2018, Olipop has carved out a niche in the soda market by offering flavors like ginger lemon, strawberry vanilla, and cinnamon cola. The brand overall positions itself as a healthy alternative to traditional soda, offering low sugar and high fiber beverages for health food enthusiasts. 

DTC brand Olipop’s soda options including banana cream and watermelon lime

3. Bombas 

Bombas began by selling just socks—a niche product, but a product that everyone needs. It’s since branched out to sell additional products, like t-shirts, underwear, and slippers, but its motto remains the same: comfort is everything. One of the brand’s main selling points is its strong values and beliefs. For every item purchased, the brand donates an item to someone affected by homelessness. 

Direct-to-consumer brand Bombas’ website page describing its donation one program

4. Gymshark

Gymshark is a leading DTC brand in the fitness industry. Launched in 2012 by high school friends, the brand has grown into a cult favorite, with more than six million followers on Instagram. Influencer marketing has been another cornerstone of Gymshark’s strategy. It was one of the early adopters of this approach on Instagram and has since turned every influencer it works with into a brand ambassador.

In August 2020, Gymshark achieved unicorn status when it was given a $1.3 billion valuation, after US private equity firm General Atlantic purchased a 21% stake in the business. The company continues to sell athletic gear online, as well as at its flagship store on London’s Regent Street. 

Screenshot of Gymsharks homepage promoting new products launched in the month

5. Everlane 

Clothing brand Everlane is all about sustainable fashion—something that has created close connections with shoppers who are on the hunt for eco-friendly options that don’t buy into the fast-fashion phenomenon. The brand’s ethical approach drives everything it does, from its marketing efforts to its product descriptions, and even its “true cost” calculator.

Image showing Everlane’s true cost calculator providing pricing transparency for shoppers

Store owners take back control with the DTC model

DTC was born out of changing customer expectations and the shift to online shopping. The model gives brands a chance to connect directly with customers and get to know who’s buying them, so they can create a personalized customer journey unique to each shopper. 

DTC lets business owners take back control, creating strong relationships with buyers and creating stand-out brands with memorable personalities. 

Direct-to-consumer FAQ

What is the meaning of direct to consumer?

Direct to consumer (DTC) refers to the practice of selling products or services directly to consumers without the use of intermediaries, such as retailers or wholesalers. This method of selling allows companies to bypass traditional distribution channels and reach a larger audience. DTC companies typically use digital marketing and ecommerce platforms to reach their target consumers.

What is the difference between B2C and D2C?

In B2C (business to consumer), businesses sell directly to consumers, usually through retailers and wholesalers. A D2C (direct to consumer) model is where the manufacturer or brand sells directly to the consumer through an online platform.

Is direct to consumer worth it?

The direct-to-consumer model is worth it. One of the biggest barriers originally was building the supply chain infrastructure to support a DTC operation. Today, however, you can partner with a 3PL and build a DTC brand through your online store.

What is an example of direct to consumer?

An example of direct-to-consumer is an online retailer that sells products directly to customers without using a middleman or third-party retailer. Examples include Warby Parker, Casper, Dollar Shave Club, and Glossier.

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