Moving the needle: How brands like Studs are modernizing the ear piercing experience

Two-year-old brands Studs and Rowan have made names for themselves as hip alternatives to Claire’s.

A customer picks out jewelry at a Studs store. (Photo: Studs)
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Two big pieces of news came out of the world of ear piercings in the past month.

First up, Claire’s Accessories — the mall brand that perhaps pierced your ears as a child — announced its plans for a $100 million IPO. Next, ear piercing startup Studs landed $20 million in funding, from big-name backers like First Round Capital and Lerer Hippeau.

The Goliath of this pair, and the creator of the shopping mall ear piercing experience, has been around since 1961. The latter, just two years old, has given the idea a refresh as a revamped retail ear piercing destinations for adults.

A Studs "earscape". (Photo: Studs)
A better way to pierce ears?

While Claire’s has long catered for younger customers, adults that have wanted to get their ears pierced have commonly turned to tattoo studios. But while a tattoo studio can offer a superior quality piercing — crucially using needles rather than guns (which can shatter cartilage) — they aren't always that conveniently located, and their jewelry selection often leaves something to be desired.

“Prior to Studs, the options were mall brands, tattoo shops, sometimes piercing parlors, and then a couple of high-end jewelry options,” Lisa Bubbers, Studs’ cofounder explains.

Studs' idea is to fill this gap, and then go one step further by making its stores (Studs now has five across the U.S.) look more like Glossier than a stuffy jewelry retailer. On entry, a store staffer might greet you with a can of Recess before your “Earscaping” (a Studs trademarked term that refers, at its simplest, to having lots of ear piercings) consultation takes place.

Meanwhile, Rowan, which has raised over $11 million to date, takes a slightly different approach, offering an at-home piercing concierge service for usually even younger clientele, while also operating at a number of Target stores across the U.S. In the U.K., nine-year-old brand Astrid & Miyu pierces, and performs fine-line tattooing and even “welding” (a scary-sounding term that refers to having a seamless gold chain secured to the wrist) at its stores in London and Manchester.

With many fewer years under their belt than the category's legacy brand, these modern incumbents are already making major inroads: Bubbers says that some of Studs’ stores have waitlists up to six weeks long, while Rowan says it is piercing an average of 20,000 ears a month.

Nailing not only the experience and service, but the economics as well is crucial for a digital brand operating brick-and-mortar in-store piercings to succeed. Bubbers says that while Studs has leaned more heavily into e-commerce over the past 18 months, due to the pandemic, its stores bring in as much as 70% of the brand’s income.

“We have a complicated service — ear piercing with needles in various cities. It’s operationally intense to build that workforce, deal with those regulations, and create a consistent experience across multiple locations,” she explains, adding that stores typically take six months to become profitable. “The reason our investors were excited about Studs was really about that relationship with our customer.”

Earscapes are one way to encourage customers to return to get more piercings, and Studs is also focused on releasing new ear jewelry collections, like a recently added Halloween line, or collaborations with other likeminded brands.

Claire's now appears to be taking notes from these popular upstarts by focusing more on that all important customer relationship. In September, it announced that it would launch a subscription service, called Cdrop, so customers could get their hands on limited-edition jewelry and other accessories every month.

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