Direct-to-Consumer or e-Retail

Direct-to-consumer or e-Retail uses digital marketing and merchandizing to build a direct relationship with the consumer. 

Here we are highlighting the D-C E-Commerce Business, which differs from the D-C Subscription Business Model.

Dollar Shave Club
Outdoor Voices
The Honest Company
Tuft and Needle 
Walker & Company/Bevel
Warby Parker
Xiao Shong Hu


  • Expectation of a more direct relationship with company, higher service, or savings passed on to customer


  • Availability, delivery and service expectations set by Amazon’s 1 day delivery may not be met, causing frustration 

Top KPIs

  • Availability of inventory
  • Speed of delivery
  • Take-back policy speed of refund


  • Building a direct relationship with customers allows the company to more deeply understand customer wants, needs, and pain points.
  • By eliminating channel, distribution, and retail resellers, successful D-C companies avoids costly margins taken by these partners.
  • With customer history data contained within a direct relationship, companies can know the lifetime value of their customers.


  • Direct-to-consumer businesses still have substantial costs to build a brand and require significant spend to acquire customers.
  • D-C startups are often features or one-product ideas that have no vision for building a long term business
  • Amazon is a major competitive threat to almost any product category, with over 50% of all product searches starting on
  • Direct-to-consumer businesses without substantial product differentiation are targets for new entrant startups, as investors fund multiple companies seeking to dominate the categories of mattresses, sheets, cosmetics, and razors.

Top KPIs

  • AOV = average order value
  • Conversion to Customer
  • Gross margins

Strengthened Relationship Going Direct to Customers

The direct to consumer model has been embraced by businesses who want more control and who want to eliminate having to pay a retailer a huge fee. For example, retailers like Target and Nordstrom often receive a fraction of the total retail price for any product sold, and the product seller is not in control of the customer experience. From the start, businesses can ensure the customer experience is delivered exactly as they intend, allowing them to learn more quickly and have deeper insights into customer data.  

Large Variety, Algorithmic Personalization

Amazon is best known for their ability to cross-sell products that fit with your current search and your purchase history. Using algorithms to analyze user behavior, past and predicted future behavior, is critical to increasing average order value and frequency of purchase.

Strong Marketing: Acquisition, Retention and Upsell

The best E-Commerce businesses are expert online marketers and spend a great deal of time optimizing their marketing “funnel” – monitoring how time, effort, service, offers, and paid media affect customer acquisition, retention, and the ability to upsell new products. E-Commerce marketers aim for a critical ratio: ensuring that their cost of acquiring a customer (CAC) is substantially lower than that customer’s predicted lifetime value (LTV).

Niche Direct Brands 

The other type of Direct-to-Consumer company that has an easier time competing are those that deliver niche products to distinctive market segments. Examples include Tuft and Needle, Caspar, and Bonobos. Customer acquisition costs are kept low at the start because the product truly serves an unmet need, and customer referrals drives initial growth. But as the business scales, these same companies will still need to invest in marketing acquisition.

Free Shipping, Free Returns

If margins and growth plans allow, E-Commerce sites who are able to offer free shipping and free returns tend to outpace those that charge for shipping. Customers are also willing to wait for free shipping, or pay to have the appearance of free shipping, and often balk at E-Commerce companies that have shipping fees of any kind.

Margin Pressure

Most Direct-to-Consumer E-commerce entrepreneurs learn that profitability is hard to attain at the start. While there are margin advantages in going direct-to-consumer, it still costs money to acquire customers, often with higher inventory costs, and higher product return rates than brick and mortar channels.

In terms investor valuation, E-Commerce businesses are less valuable to investors than ad-supported businesses or Software-as-a-service other types of business models in terms of future growth, because of unit economics. For each unit of product sold, there are inherent costs (costs of goods sold, marketing cost, operational costs) versus a purely digital product.

Marketing Economics

Many first time Direct-to-Consumer merchants are surprised to confront the marketing economics required to build and sustain a healthy business. Suffering from the “build it and they will come” syndrome, these startups (or established indirect sellers venturing into direct) spend their efforts on site design and merchandising, but do not plan for the required ongoing marketing investment. Mapping out customer acquisition costs by stage (awareness, sign up for email list, purchase) and comparing to customer lifetime value will give Direct-to-Consumer managers the framework needed to manage the sales cycle profitably.

Amazon Service, Shipping and Delivery Expectations

Amazon is the leader in business to Direct-to-Consumer E-Commerce, and the company’s breadth, depth, and market dominance must be considered for any new entrant. Customers of Amazon, who are able to have their products delivered as soon as one day after shipping, with Saturday and Sunday delivery, have heightened expectations from other online shopping experiences. Companies are keeping warehousers closer to buying hubs.

Amazon’s most radical shift was setting the expectation of same-day or next-day delivery in key metro areas. For example, Amazon Prime customers can get a product shipped within one hour in NYC.

Community Commerce

Chinese commerce brands like BabyTree and Keep started as communities first before launching D-C brands. Brandless in the US is a community-first brand who co-creates D-C products with their engaged audience.


The rapid rise in mobile based shopping and purchases indicates that all sizes of Direct-to-Consumer company must have at bare minimum a website that is mobile-responsive (adapts to a mobile browser) and/or have an app designed for browsing and shopping.

Super Flexible Logistics

Direct-to-Consumer leaders are investing in their logistics flexibility: adaptable delivery of products, on-demand global fulfillment.

On-Demand and Subscription Direct-to-Consumer

One of the fastest growing forms of Direct-to-Consumer is the monthly gift-in-a-box made popular by Birchbox and similar companies. These business models differ from the standard direct-to-consumer model because of the revenue smoothing that can occur. See Reason Street’s Subscription Business Model description to learn more.

Key Direct to Consumer Mechanisms to Test

KPIs depend on your unique business attributes and business model combinations. However there are heuristics when investors evaluate an E-Commerce model:

  • Do you have a vision beyond your initial product offering or feature idea?
  • Do you have a well-defined value proposition beyond your first product that attracts a uniquely defined customer segment?
  • Have you tested your ability to acquire customers without overspending?
  • Can you maintain the quality of the product?
  • Is there a well-differentiated value proposition that attracts your well-segmented audience?
  • Do your online marketing efforts have high engagement, not just conversion?
  • Can you achieve your target shipping times?

More on Direct to Consumer

Bessemer’s Top 10 Laws of E-Commerce, by Bessemer Venture Partners, 2010 (pdf)

Reinventing the Direct-to-Consumer Business Model, HBR, 2020

The Power of a Direct-to-Consumer Model, The Fool, 2020

Why You’re Buying Products From Companies You’ve Never Heard Of, by 
Christopher Mims, WSJ, 2018 . (paywall)

How to Choose an E-Commerce Business Model by Shopify

The Most Successful Brands Focus on Users — Not Buyers, by Mark BonchekVivek Bapat, HBR, 2018

RIP Content and Commerce by Erin Griffith, Forbes, 2015.  

How to Estimate Lifetime Value for an E-Commerce Business Sample Cohort Analysis, by Lightspeed Venture Partners, 2012.

How to Tell if Your Marketing Economics Are Broken or Brilliant, by Chris Bolman at Percolate, 2015.

That’s a Nice Little $40M E-Commerce Company You Have There. Call Me When it Scales, by Josh Hannah at For Entrepreneurs, 2014.

What are the Most Important Metrics for E-Commerce Companies, Quora Discussion.

Understanding Customers’ Repeat Purchase Intentions in B2C E-Commerce: The Roles of Utilitarian Value, Hedonic Value and Perceived Risk, Chao-Min Chiu et al, Info Systems, 2014. (academic paywall)

Breaking the Ice in B2C Relationships: Understanding Pre-Adoption E-Commerce Attraction, Damon E. Campbell et al, Information Systems Research, 2012. (academic paywall)

Direct to Consumer Workshop

To learn more or schedule a shift or creation of a Direct model, contact us