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Feminist startup Bulletin is reinventing brick and mortar retail

They’ve created a WeWork for online companies to sell their stuff.

Socks that say “Satan is a woman.” Cheesy plastic trophies that read, “Fuck yes you glorious bitch.” Vibrators in the shape of eggplant emojis. Flasks and mugs that say “Misogynist tears.”

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Ali Kriegsman and Alana Branston [Photo: Seth Caplan/courtesy Bulletin]
These feminist hot commodities are all on the shelves of Bulletin, a new store that opened its doors over the weekend in Manhattan’s Union Square shopping district. It’s like walking into the Instagram feed of a girly girl who loves wearing pink and prays to Queen Bey–and is perfectly aware of how her femininity fits into a patriarchal system. This is a store where a jean jacket emblazoned with “Not Your Baby” sits next to a cup of pencils that reads “Stop Talking” and a travel mug that says, “Empowered women empower women and also meet in the dead of night to sharpen the wooden stakes they will stab into the heart of the patriarchy.” There are saint-style votive candles for worshipping celebrities like Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian, and the Fab Five from the Netflix hit Queer Eye next to embroidered portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama.

[Photo: Seth Caplan/courtesy Bulletin]

At first glance, it might seem like your average women’s boutique with a decidedly feminist bent. But beneath the pink exterior, founders Ali Kriegsman and Alana Branston are hoping to pioneer a new form of retail, where a select, hand-picked group of online-only companies pay a subscription fee every month and in turn get space on Bulletin’s precisely merchandised shelves.

This isn’t quite like a flea market or even a gift shop with curated products: Bulletin runs and staffs the store so the creators behind each product don’t have to show up themselves, and the entire model works more like a partnership where each maker’s branding is preserved. It’s like a WeWork for direct-to-consumer, online companies, giving them shelf space fast with almost no commitment.

The piece that makes it all work is Bulletin’s mission: to help women-owned businesses and cater directly to progressive, millennial women who want to wear their politics on their sleeves (or their Instagrams). The company was founded by two women, has an entirely female team, and only displays products from female-led businesses. It hosts women-centric events in its spaces, and 10% of all proceeds go to Planned Parenthood of New York. By focusing so much on something millennial women care about, the company has built itself a community of like-minded people–and shoppers–who are interested in the same kinds of products. It makes Bulletin part store, part marketing powerhouse. Some of its subscribers sell with Bulletin primarily because they get access to the startup’s audience.

“I imagine our customer wants to support Planned Parenthood, but also wants to wear a pair of slippers that say ‘Queen Bitch’ on them,” Kriegsman, the company’s COO, told Fast Company in an interview earlier this year. “Women are multiple things in their identities. We want it to be political and sexual, and a place where you can buy something for your friend or your mom or yourself.”

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As the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar retail model continues to struggle–mall-classic Brookstone announced its bankruptcy last week–Bulletin’s value-focused subscription business, where brands pay a flat rate and then split the revenue from the store with Bulletin 70/30, is on the upswing. Over the weekend, Bulletin opened its third store in New York City, a flagship location in Union Square, and there are a little less than 2,000 brands on the waiting list who want to sell with them. The Y Combinator-backed startup, which raised a seed round of $2.2 million in spring 2017, is just beginning the process of scaling its business. It plans to open another store in another city later this year, and then begin putting up stores across the country next year.

By investing in all-female staff, all-female businesses, and donating some proceeds to Planned Parenthood, Kriegsman and Branston are trying to convince their customers that Bulletin’s value proposition is genuine. But the company’s feminist ethos also faces a conundrum: Bulletin is still similar to other retailers that use empowering language and marketing to convince women to buy more stuff.

The original Flatiron store. [Photo: Bulletin]

From flea market to venture-backed startup

Bulletin began as an online magazine from which readers could shop. Kriegsman and Branston started it in 2015, when they were both working at the content marketing startup Contently. From there, it morphed into a bona fide flea market, which the duo ran themselves every weekend from May through October of 2016, out of what Kriegsman called a “radioactive swamp parking lot” in Brooklyn. Similar to the current model, small business owners would pay them to sell their goods for a flat fee. They had uncovered a real problem for small business owners: Committing to a large flea market required a substantial investment up front and the commitment of being there every weekend for several months, often before creators even knew if their products would sell in that kind of environment. Small businesses often couldn’t afford to do that, let alone set up a store of their own.

Instead, Bulletin was offering small businesses and makers the chance to have a footprint in physical retail without any of the commitment, and because Kriegsman and Branston ran the market themselves, the makers didn’t have to do any of the hard work of being there. With this model, their revenue was doubling every month and they had countless small brands that wanted to participate. But the duo was working 14-hour days each weekend to pull it off, and the pace wasn’t sustainable.

Instead, they opened their first permanent store in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg in May 2017, using the same model as the flea market–Bulletin designed and staffed the store, and brands could pay a monthly membership fee for the company to sell their products. But the key to making the store a destination for young women was to give it a set of values. After going through the prestigious Silicon Valley incubator program Y Combinator in early 2017, the duo decided to focus entirely on women-owned businesses that created jewelry, accessories, and apparel, and to curate items that would be affordable for all women. And for the brands, it’s just as accessible.

[Photo: Bulletin]

“This is a really feasible way for us to do in-person retail,” says Jennifer Dziura of Get Bullish, which sells a host of products include a travel mug that reads, “We will dance on the graves of the patriarchy and drink the bitter tears of mediocre men,” and is a member at all three Bulletin stores. “We get invited to pop-ups and markets all the time, but the numbers don’t really work out if we have to staff it ourselves. Compared to paying someone to sit at a table all weekend, paying ‘rent’ at Bulletin and letting them staff the place and sell the items is a no-brainer.”

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Walking into Bulletin’s second store in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood is like walking into a pink wonderland, crammed full of seemingly ultra-feminine accessories–until you take a closer look. There are necklaces emblazoned with words like “intersectional feminist,” “resist,” and “I ain’t sorry.” There are heart-shaped keychains that say “Nasty Woman” and pink mugs that say “Get it girl.” There are notebooks and sunglasses and iridescent backpacks. The period-proof underwear company Thinx has an entire section of the store–it’s the only place in New York you can go to feel the products with your own two hands.

“[The Williamsburg store] felt like a large feminist museum,” says Mahin Khan, who was staffing the Nolita store when I stopped by. I’d asked why she decided to work at Bulletin. “It didn’t feel like any retail store I’ve been in.” Right now, she’s coveting a candle that says “Pussy Money Weed” on the side, a Frida Kahlo laptop sticker, and a “Designer Pussy” keychain.

“If you think about it, for me as a customer, I don’t think, ‘I want to go support online brands today,'” Kriegsman says. “The behavior is, ‘Bulletin is a cool brand and I want to check out the store.’ And then they come to the store and there’s 60 amazing female-led brands that they couldn’t have found on their own.”

The new Union Square location. [Photo: Seth Caplan/courtesy Bulletin]

A new kind of flagship store

The new store in Union Square is a big step forward for Bulletin, whose other stores are already profitable on their own. Kriegsman and Branston built the other stores themselves, buying Ikea shelves, painting them pink, and installing them in just a few weeks. But the flagship store is three times the size of the others, and far more polished. To build it out properly, they hired an all-female design studio Built Interest, all-female architecture studio Alda Ly, and all-female contractor Aerial Design and Build. It has a similar vibe to the company’s other stores, with pink and yellow as the predominant colors, but is sleek rather than DIY kitschy. The design is entirely modular, a requirement for the subscription model: As new brands and new products join the store, the team can completely rearrange the space to accommodate them.

The space was designed to be interactive as well. As part of the subscription, Bulletin allows its members to use the store to host events, and the flagship space was built with this in mind. Some of the shelves that sit lower to the ground are actually on wheels and can be rolled away from the wall to become benches. A bench at the front of the store provides a place to panelists to sit. There’s a slim bar at the back where the team can put food and drink, and a series of old-school candy tubes with pink Starburst and Laffy Taffy–it’s $5 for anyone who wants to fill up a bag–which serves as a nostalgic nod to the founders’ love for shopping in the ’90s. “It’s to remind people that shopping isn’t something that has to be transactional,” Kriegsman says. “It was fun and it can be fun again.”

Each of the dressing rooms is themed around a female popstar, with one for Cardi B and one for Britney Spears. There’s a gigantic mirror with decals that read, “I’m not vain, I’m just extra.” The products and the design are tailor-made for Instagram, and Braine envisioned it that way–“It’s free marketing,” she says. There’s also a corner dedicated to Planned Parenthood. Bulletin makes quarterly donations of 10% of its proceeds to the women’s health nonprofit. The organization gets its own little station in the store with a volunteer sign-up form, stickers, pins, and a “dip jar,” where visitors can dip their credit card and $5 will automatically be donated to the nonprofit.

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[Photo: Seth Caplan/courtesy Bulletin]

Brick-and-mortar sales, at the click of a button

Beyond the clever, experiential design of the space, there’s a feature under the hood that’s making it possible for the company to grow. For the past year, CEO Branston has been working on a digital platform to streamline all the logistics that go into choosing which brands to work with out of nearly 2,000 on the waiting list, what products to stock, and then how they sell. As a result, each company that sells with Bulletin has access to a real-time sales dashboard–almost like what they’d get with an e-commerce platform like Shopify, but for physical retail. The latest feature allows store staff to enter in customer feedback–like if a certain size runs big or if 15 people have asked about a purse in a particular color–so that each company can adjust their products accordingly.

The company chooses small brands to sell based on a variety of factors, including previous sales data for similar products, current trends, the brand’s Instagram or portfolio, and how well similar products perform on social media. If it’s a well-known business, they won’t ask for samples, but for products where images can be deceiving, like gold-plated jewelry or skincare, the team always asks for samples. Bulletin’s director of product and brand experience, Maggie Braine, tries all the potential skincare for several days before deciding whether to stock it. She works closely with many of the creators to think up new products. The Ruth Bader Ginsberg embroidery, for instance, is a collaboration between the full-time attorney who makes embroidery of nude women on her subway ride home, and Braine, who asked her to create a line of celebrity portraits for the flagship store. Braine estimates that 70% of the brands in the new store are side hustles for women who have full-time jobs elsewhere.

Not all brands sell well with Bulletin, probably because the company’s aesthetic is so distinct. But Kriegsman and her team meticulously troubleshoot problems by looking at sales data, rearranging merchandise to show off a particular brand, or doing some promotion in the company’s newsletter. If the business isn’t able to make back their subscription fee, which ranges from $300 to $750 depending on location, within a few days, and make a healthy profit on top of it, they tend to end the partnership and part ways amicably. But Branston says that only happens about once every four months per store, and many of the online businesses end up in multiple Bulletin stores. The new flagship has 20 old creators and 40 new ones, a model that keeps Bulletin’s brand cohesive but allows them to give more brands space on their shelves.

The company also sells in-store products online–and now that the flagship is open, Kriegsman and Branston are planning to make their website as robust as one of their brick-and-mortar locations. After all, the companies that sell with Bulletin are also using the company as a means of marketing themselves, and the Bulletin team has noticed an uptick in online sales whenever they open a new store.

But ultimately, Bulletin is not really about e-commerce, and it’s not trying to compete with Amazon, where people tend to know what they’re looking for. Instead, Bulletin is tailored to the shopper who’s looking to discover something new. Kriegsman and Branston think of their competitors as fast-fashion joints like H&M and Forever 21. “Our customer . . . could go to a Forever 21 and buy a $25 shirt that says ‘Bad Bitch’ on it, but it’s not being made in the best working conditions, there isn’t really any accountability around the shirt, who’s making it, and where that money is going–whereas she can come into Bulletin and buy something with the same ethos at the same price but it’s doing good,” Kriegsman says, referencing the company’s commitment to female business owners, Planned Parenthood, and its all-female team. “It’s something that came out of organic need we ourselves experienced rather than a male-run e-commerce fast-fashion company just putting empowerment all over their marketing.”

[Photo: courtesy Bulletin]

The future of co-retailing

While Bulletin currently has a strong feminist brand, it is a brand. The laws of capitalism dictate that the startup must grow and sell and make more money, which can sometimes feel at odds with the ethos of many of its goods. For instance, take a mug that says, “Don’t have sex with a guy who won’t eat you out first,” which is a much-Instagrammed object in the store already. For the woman who buys this mug and supports both Bulletin and the woman designer who made it, the purchase is helping her to feel like she’s made a statement about who she is and what kind of world she wants to live in when in reality all she’s done is purchase a mug. It doesn’t mean she lives in a world where female pleasure is prioritized. While the company depends on feminism as a marketing tactic, it’s also trying to live up to the values its products espouse through its partnerships with Planned Parenthood and its support for women-owned businesses.

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The full extent of how this empowering language works within Bulletin’s model becomes clearer when looking at its future goals. Branston sees the company expanding outside of its current feminist focus by selling in other verticals. That means building new brands under Bulletin’s business model that represent different sets of values, like sustainability, so that the company can effectively morph and serve new slices of society–and fulfill its ultimate mission of paying back its investors.

“Right now if you look at operationally what we’re doing, all direct-to-consumer brands, gathering the best ones and putting them under a channel or audience,” Branston says. But there’s a host of other online companies out there with focuses in wellness, baby, pet, and other verticals that would likely jump at the chance to sell within Bulletin’s subscription business model. “I think there is this need for a company like ours to be the aggregator and curator of this whole new world of retail,” Branston says.

E-commerce companies like Glossier, Casper, Away, and many more already have their own retail stores–but most smaller designers can’t afford rent, or don’t want to. “Most brands that haven’t raised a series C [investment] aren’t ready to open these fabulous million-dollar stores in SoHo,” Branston says. “This is this alternative where you can turn it on the same way you would turn on a Facebook ad. It’s a sales channel and marketing channel and very powerful way to connect with customers.”

Building this new kind of co-retail business as thousands of other stores are closing is no easy task. When I initially arrived at the new flagship store early on Thursday morning, the team was struggling to lift the metal grate that protects the merchandise from potential thieves. The locks had been changed the day before, and the mechanisms were no longer working. “How many women does it take?” Kriegsman joked, sweat pouring down her face in the hot New York sun.

As I stood back to let them figure out what had gone wrong, the new store’s neighbors caught my eye: a Blue Mercury makeup store on one side, and on the other an empty storefront. The words “Steve Madden” were just barely visible against the dirt-stained marquee–like a ghost of retail’s past.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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