Meet the DIY direct-to-consumer brands behind the home renovation boom

Online home improvement brands saw a boost in sales during the pandemic and show no signs of slowing down.

Sarah Drumm

Editor
A kitchen kitted out with Boxi by Secondhandmade cabinets. (Photo: Molly Rose)
CATEGORY DIVE

After months spent staring at the same four walls, many homeowners are feeling that their properties could do with a fresh lick of paint – or even a full-on remodel.

Home remodeling platform Houzz says it saw a 58% year-over-year increase in project leads in June 2020, as people looked to revamp their outdoor spaces, kitchens, and bathrooms. Meanwhile, a September survey by Porch.com found that three in four homeowners had already completed one major home renovation project since the start of the pandemic, with millennial homeowners among the most likely to have done so.

It’s a boom that shows no signs of slowing down. In the first quarter of 2021, home store and retail giant Lowe’s said that sales were up 24% year-over-year. And it’s not just the big brands that are winning. A number of direct-to-consumer startups, that have been working hard to convince customers that the hardware store isn’t the only place you can buy DIY supplies, have also seen sales surge.

Lick, a British paint brand that launched on March 23rd – the day the U.K. went into lockdown – sold out in its first month, having not anticipated the level of demand for its products. The brand’s founders told the Financial Times that by November 2020, they had racked up 45,000 orders. This week, the brand announced a $22 million Series A round.

Semihandmade, a U.S. direct-to-consumer brand that sells replacement doors for Ikea cabinets, says it generated $17 million in revenue in 2020. This year, its tenth in operation, it’s aiming to top $20 million.

Pandemic-era decorating

Nicole Gibbons, the founder of paint brand Clare, says she also saw a “massive increase in sales correlated with the stay at home orders.” This influx was partly driven by the fact that people no longer had excuses to avoid the DIY projects they had been mulling over, she adds. “They no longer had brunch to go to at the weekend, or friend to hang out with.”

Changes in customer behavior also reflected what was going on in the outside world. While Clare has become known for its “peel and stick” paint swatches which can be used to test colors on a wall without making a mess (a method that has since been adopted by competitors Lick and Coat), Gibbons noticed that customers were more willing to bypass this part of the process once the pandemic kicked in, instead opting to make more spontaneous purchases.

She also noticed that certain colors were proving more popular with anxious, stuck-at-home consumers. “Warmer colors had a noticeable increase in sales,” she says, with shades of pink, yellow and warmer neutrals seeing a boost. Across 2020, Clare’s yellow shades saw a 90% increase in sales. “To me, what that signaled is that people wanted to feel uplifted and comforted.”

As well as refreshing our walls and getting those odd jobs around the house done, as our homes have started to double as workspaces, the demand for prefab office units has also risen. In April 2020, modular home business Dwellito launched a miniature home office unit in three different sizes (the smallest is 8ft by 8ft), with prices starting at $18,000. In November, Estonian business Ööd announced that it would start selling a $19,900 office unit via Amazon.

“What we all noticed during the pandemic is that the home just became so much more important,” says Ian Janicki, founder of DIY “renovations in a box” business Outfit. “If you look at a home before the pandemic, you would say that a home office is a luxury. [For many,] that’s now become a necessity.”

Alongside its range of paint shades, Clare sells "Paint Kits" with all the tools needed to paint a wall. (Photo: Clare)
Taking DIY digital

More than ever consumers are purchasing products for home improvement projects online. According to Statista, between March 9-15 of 2020, online sales of home improvement and gardening products were up 50% year-on-year. But it hasn’t been an easy shopping experience to translate to the internet.

When Outfit, which is backed by Y Combinator, first launched in August 2020, the idea was to help customers out with big home renovation projects, such as ripping out and replacing a full bathroom or kitchen. But, with these sorts of builds requiring the expert assistance of local plumbers and electricians, this proved too complex for the early-stage business. The business has since pivoted to focusing on smaller DIY projects that come in at around $1,000, such as retiling a kitchen backsplash or fitting a new set of shelves. “Things that a beginner could do, and knock it out in a weekend,” Janicki says.

One common source of frustration among people taking on DIY projects is that they don’t always turn out as anticipated – and can look more like a five-year-old has completed the job than a seasoned tradesperson. The job for DIY direct-to-consumer brands, therefore, is to try to upskill their customers as quickly as possible.

In the same way that Clare bundles together all the tools needed to paint a wall via its $42 “Paint Kits,” Outfit supplies its customers with the raw materials they need to complete their chosen DIY project. It’s an experience that’s far more convenient than going to the hardware store to pick up the tools needed. Outfit also provides detailed checklists that customers can work through to ensure a greater chance of success – making sure that they actually use the tile spacers provided, for example, or use the proper techniques to cut materials down to size.

Big spenders

Another barrier for direct-to-consumer brands is how expensive home improvement projects can be – making it harder to convince customers to buy before seeing the finished look in real life.

Launched in 2018 by former Rent The Runway and Casper mattress execs, Block Renovation connects its customers with local contractors, who can fit a brand new bathroom in their home over a period of four weeks – in exchange for $20,000.

Direct-to-consumer kitchen cabinet brand Boxi, the sister business to Semihandmade, launched in March this year. Its prices start at $4,200 for a 7ft row of kitchen cabinets.

The brand’s founder, John McDonald, says consumers are now used to buying products sight unseen, and that over time the amount they’re willing to spend on items they haven’t touched in real life has been increasing.

He points to Warby Parker and Casper mattresses as two examples of brands that, at the time of launching, were thought to be asking consumers to part with a fair chunk of money for something they hadn’t seen in person. “We’ve already broken through barriers where people will spend $2,000 on a sofa [online],” he says. Now, people are willing to do the same with a $10,000 kitchen.

In its first two months in business, McDonald says Boxi has sold 70 kitchens at an average order value of $9,500, all through its website.

Clare’s Gibbons says that those who can afford to invest in their homes will continue to do so, long after social distancing restrictions ease and we start spending more time away from home.

“People’s relationships with their homes have been forever changed,” she says, reflecting on the past year. “People now truly understand the important role that your home plays in your life, as a place of comfort and joy.”

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