Retail

Recreating The DTC Candle-Buying Experience

woman smelling candles

A good scented candle can be harder to find that the near ubiquitous availability of scented candles would indicate at first glance. There is no shortage of places to buy scented candles — there are whole stores dedicated to selling them in shopping centers nationwide, and they are a nearly constant offering among the impulse buys made available at most checkout stands.  

But buying something and purchasing a good version of it are two different things, and scented candles come in all kinds of qualities. Some smell too strong, some don’t have enough scent and most are fairly expensive for the type of person who likes to burn a candle or two at least once a day, because they tend to burn down fairly fast. 

And as candle enthusiast and Otherland Founder Abigail Stone learned via an independent study in 2016, quite a lot of millennial women are developing expensive candle habits, precisely because they like to consistently burn scented candles, and about 25 percent report buying 10 or more scented candles a year. That combined with the knowledge that home scents are a $50 billion industry worldwide annually pushed her to co-found Otherland a few years ago, with the goal of disrupting the candle through better design. 

“I realized I had an opportunity to create a modern brand with a focus on art while incorporating storytelling and community,” Stone said.

Those stories were built around candles with custom-created scents developed with a master perfumer and poured into highly photogenic (and incredibly Instagrammable) packaging designed for reuse once its candle housing days are through. Those scents come in five core offerings, as well as a group of seasonal selections. 

The candles themselves aren’t inexpensive — a single candle costs $36, though consumers can pick up some savings by grabbing a three-pack for $89. That is far from the least expensive way to go with a scented candle, considering each candle is relatively small, about 8 ounces. A roughly comparably-sized Yankee Candle will cost about half that price. But, Stone said, they are highly efficient. Each candle is created from a custom in-house blend of coconut and soy that gives each small candle a long burn time of 55 hours. That means the consumer can get more use out of a smaller candle doing more, creating less waste and ultimately building a better value. 

And on some level, Stone noted in an email to Bustle, she was just trying to solve a problem she herself was running into over and over — she couldn’t find candles she liked, despite the fact that she very much liked candles. 

“I kept finding myself settling for candles that all looked the same or were too expensive to light every day,” she said, and decided that if she couldn't buy the candles she wanted, the second best option was to make and market them herself.  

And a few years in, the direct-to-consumer (DTC) firm has built a loyal core of users — particularly as images of its candles flickering on wooden bookshelves have become an increasingly common feature on Instagram, notably among the home improvement enthusiast demographic.

In late 2019, the startup raised its first round of institutional funding — $2.7 million in seed dollars in a round that included new investors Lerer Hippeau and Global Founders Capital as well as existing investors including all five co-founders of mattress firm Casper. That funding, according to Stone, will go toward developing a fuller omnichannel distribution strategy, exploring more product formats and expanding the workforce. 

According to Stone, the big challenge as Otherland looks to build to scale and take on a more significant share of the growing global market for home scents is changing the paradigm on how people buy fragrances. Unlike other consumer goods, a scented candle is generally purchased — or not — because of the way it smells, something a consumer in a store can determine quite easily, but a consumer on a screen has no way to make a judgement about at all. And while reviews can offer clues, at some level what smells good or bad to a consumer is very much a matter of personal taste. 

To sell scented candles DTC online, where smell is not an option, Stone said going forward the biggest challenge will be to reset the customer journey when it comes to choosing scents for their home, sight unsmelled. 

“We believe the future of home fragrance — to win in the digital space — needs to be visual-first,” Stone told Fortune. “It was the starting point for all of my conversations with potential investors and remains that way for all that we do."

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