Uniquely individual: How Rareform succeeds with one-of-a-kind products
Rareform sells one-of-a-kind bags, wallets, and surfboard bags made from reclaimed billboards. When you shop on their website, you won’t see a single product listing with a blanket disclaimer that says “individual colors and patterns may vary.” What you will see: the exact item they’ll ship to your door, along with 40+ more options to choose from.
In other words, they’re scaling a growing business — even more so since they appeared on Shark Tank in March — while selling totally unique products, each listed individually on their site.
Rareform has figured out a winning formula for showcasing its unique products and delighting its taste-conscious customers. We asked Alec Avedissian, Rareform’s CEO and co-founder, and Kara Morin, Rareform’s marketing manager, to fill us in on how they do it.
How the one-of-a-kind bags are made
The original idea for making bags out of reclaimed billboards started with a shift in perspective.
“After college I moved to El Salavador,” CEO and co-founder Alec Avedissian recalls. “I saw that my friends there were using billboards as roofing materials. When I came back, I was working in advertising and started looking at billboards differently: as pieces of art. With Rareform, we’ve combined form and function into durable, beautiful products.”
The first products Alec and his brother and co-founder Aric produced from billboards were a handful of surf bags. With their bright colors, they stood out at the beach among the more common utilitarian gray bags.
“At first, our friends asked us,’What the heck is the matter with that bag?’” Alec says. “But then they’d say, ‘Oh, I want to get one of those.’ And we started to ask ourselves, ‘What else can we make from these billboards?’” Since those early surf bags, Rareform’s product range has expanded substantially.
The production process for the bags originates early on, when artists design the billboards and companies pay to have them displayed next to busy highways and in urban landscapes. But the actual bag production process kicks into high gear when the billboards come down — and Lamar Advertising and Clear Channel Advertising deliver over 20,000 pounds of vinyl billboards to the Rareform warehouse each month.
Each one is 48 feet long and 14 feet high, yielding up to 10 surfboard bags, 100 backpacks, or a thousand wallets each.
“They’re all hand-cut in our warehouse to the different cut squares of the different products,” Kara says. Depending on the typography, colors, and design, they’re cut out in patterns for different products: “A wallet is about eight inches by eight inches, while, surfboard bags range up to almost 11 feet long.”
Before the pieces are shipped out to be assembled, the Rareform team goes through each of the pieces to ensure that they meet the company’s design standards.
“A lot of the billboards have really interesting typography on them or different color blocking that make really good products,” Kara says. “We go through each individual cut and make sure that it’s a product that we’d want for ourselves. Often, we get multiples of the same billboard, but even within that, the way they’re cut is different. Even when ten wallets came from the same billboard, they are all totally different.”
It’s this uniqueness that attracts consumers to the Rareform brand — and those consumers can be very particular.
Why individuality matters
Turns out that many of the consumers who are excited to buy a design-forward product are pretty specific about which one they want.
“People who are choosing something that’s one-of-a-kind really care about the style,” Kara says. “And so they want to be able to say, ‘Okay, this is the one. I picked it for me, and it fits my style and my personality.’”
For some shoppers, it’s such an important factor in their decision-making that they double-check that they’re actually ordering a specific design before making their purchase.
“We get that question a lot over email and our online chat support,” Kara says. “‘Is this really the one that I’m going to receive?’ And our customers love hearing, ‘Yes, the one you see is the exact one that will be shipped out to you.’”
For Rareform, this level of specificity is a special part of a customer’s journey.
“We’re designing an experience,” says Alec. “It’s about finding the one that speaks to you. Every bag’s going to speak to somebody else. So the customer gets to experience process of discovery. In a way, it echoes our process of sorting through billboards and finding the ones that speak to us.”
So customers are thrilled. But doesn’t this all mean more work up front for the Rareform team? Absolutely.
Fortunately, they’ve figured out how to make the process efficient from start to finish.
Once the products are assembled, Rareform photographs each one that’s destined to be sold on the website. While detail images (for example, an interior zipper) remain constant across product listings, the team is meticulous about photographing what makes each individual product unique.
For that reason, says Kara, “for a lot of our items like wallets, duffle bags, that’s front and back. Because for some of our items, the front actually could look pretty different from the back. So we want there to be no real surprises.”
After the images are ready, they’re available to uploaded — and, yes, that means creating a unique listing for each product in their Shopify store.
“For somebody who doesn’t have one-of-a-kind products, they can just go into Shopify and put ‘Quantity: 1,000,’” Kara says. “For us, that’s 1,000 individual uploads, which is time-consuming. But it’s worth it.”
Over time, she’s developed a system to streamline the process. “We might actually have 200 of a given item in stock, but we only show 50 at a time on our website,” Kara says. “Because as much as people love choices, it’s very overwhelming when you have to scroll and scroll. And it’s hard to compare the products. 50 gives you enough options without being overwhelming.”
As products are sold, the collection automatically refills with backup product listings. On a daily basis, Kara and the team go through each collection and revisit the 50 currently visible products, ensuring that the most popular color choices are visible near the top of the page.
“For example, we have mostly men buying our bi-fold wallet, and they’re generally not as interested in a pink one as they might be a green or black or gray one,” she says. “We recently noticed that we were left with a lot of the pink ones at the top because the blue or darker colors had sold. So we went in and rearranged them so that the colors that are selling better are more towards the top.”
About once a week, she uploads new one-of-a-kind product listings to ensure that the 200 slots for each collection are getting refilled. Batching the work and being able to add more products than display at any given time help keep the process manageable — although since appearing on Shark Tank, the company has seen a dramatic increase in the pace of their online sales.
Fortunately, while listing products individually does create more work up front, it cuts down on work in another area: processing returns.
“We’d rather show our customers exactly what they’re getting,” Kara says. “That way, they’re not trying to return it four, five times in order to get what they want. We don’t get very many returns based on things like color or style. So from that standpoint, it’s very, very helpful.”
But does every single Rareform customer want to go online and choose from up to 50 Summit Backpacks? Turns out that there are some exceptions.
Founder’s choice and wholesale
For the 2016 holiday season, Rareform launched a new way of choosing a product: Founder’s Choice. “It’s the very first listing for all of our products, and it’s about 10% less expensive than a normal item,” Kara says. “Customers can choose one of three color ranges: warm, cool, or dark. And then we’ll pick one out from our offline stock for them.”
“Some people like the idea of having an item personally selected for them,” Alec says. “Personally, I like going to a restaurant and having the chef’s choice. If I were shopping on our site, I’d probably pick Founder’s Choice.”
“We’re providing the incentive because we didn’t have to go through the process of photographing that particular product and editing and uploading the images, which also helps prevent us from appearing to run out of inventory when we’re not actually out,” Kara adds.
“On the customer’s side, if they are somebody who maybe isn’t as particular about what they want, they can save a little bit of money. So it’s a win-win. There are also a lot of customers that just love the element of surprise and the concept of getting something hand-picked from our private stock.”
There’s another category of Rareform customers that doesn’t pick out individual products: wholesalers.
“In addition to our online store, we also sell into about 300 retail locations worldwide,” Kara says. “And like our Founder’s Choice customers, our wholesalers choose from a color hue range, so warm, cool, or dark. We ship them items that fit within those categories.” After that, discerning customers can then hand-pick the item that’s right for them in the store.
So with the success of Founder’s Choice and their wholesale business, along with the increase in traffic post–Shark Tank, is Rareform planning to put an end to listing products individually?
“We’ve all been there waiting for our luggage to come off the carousel after a flight, seeing rows and rows of navy blue and gray and black duffle bags,” she says. “But when my purple Rareform Weekender duffle bag comes out of the chute, there’s no denying that that one’s mine. It makes travel easier, but even more, it helps our customers just stand out.”
That one-of-a-kind aspect is part of Rareform’s slogan — “Bold, unique, eco-friendly” — and a key component of Rareform’s success. In fact, it goes all the way back to the genesis of the billboards themselves.
“These are advertisements that are art,” Kara says. “That’s how we see it. And for many of our customers, being able to choose their own one-of-a-kind item is the final step in the creative process.”
But it doesn’t stop with found art. Next up for Rareform: Continuing a new tradition of commissioning one-of-a-kind pieces of billboard art.
“The artist series is going to be a big piece for us,” Alec says. “We’re teaming up with artists and putting up billboards in LA, then creating limited run of bags. We’ve found that those bags sell out before we even put them online.”
The next artist is the works is Kelsey Montague, whose billboard art goes up in late April or early May. Like the other artists in the series, it will be up to her to choose what kinds of bags her billboard will be made into.
Eventually, the billboards may start popping up in other metro areas across the United States. So if you happen to drive by a special billboard, be sure to check out the Rareform website. It may just be destined to become your next one-of-a-kind backpack.
All images courtesy of Rareform and the respective photographers. Featured post image, purses, and folded bags: Brian O’Hara. Bag construction image: Jeremiah Klein. Levitating with backpack: Tu Do.