In her interview with MerciSF, Nicole Bernstein, the Francophile heading up User Experience Design at The RealReal, shares her journey to pre-loved luxury and key insights about this circular distribution model.

Nicole didn’t land a design role at a leading luxury resale company by accident. As a teenager she was already scouring San Diego’s vintage stores in search of the most coveted vintage Levi’s and t-shirts. In high school she even bought a pre-owned Prada dress for prom. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and a Master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University, Nicole went on to pursue a design career and joined the well-known Ideo, the global design company made famous by its breakthrough human-centered design.

It’s no surprise that she’s now heading up user experience (UX) design and research at The RealReal, one of the leading luxury resale companies.

You joined The RealReal (TRR) in 2021, 10 years after it was founded, as Head of Experience Design, can you tell us what attracted you to this company?
I was attracted to the company’s mission of extending the lifecycle of luxury. Quality objects can live many lives and change hands countless times while retaining their beauty and value. This circular model makes luxury more sustainable and also more accessible, enabling more people to own and appreciate luxury goods, giving them freedom to be whomever they want whenever they want.

What attracted you to this UX design role and how has your department impacted the business so far?
My role was created to build a design team from scratch and bring human-centered design to the company. Design shouldn’t only be about aesthetics, it’s about making products people love to use, so it has a role to play in generating customers for life. We focus on the “why” at the center of people’s decision-making process and design for that.

My department designs new product features and experiences for our buyers and sellers (as well as for our operations team) across all our digital platforms. For example, we’ve created new tools to provide greater transparency to consignors on earnings and commissions such as an earnings estimator for handbags which lets you find your bag and see what similar bags have sold for in the past. We’ve also helped our sellers buy and sell smarter with Insights, a place on our site where we share exclusive data about trends on the platform to help them maximize their earnings – for example, “Chanel stud earrings are the most coveted style, 88% sell within 30 days.”

TRR is one of the pioneers of luxury resale, how was the business founded and what sets it apart from other luxury consignment shops?
Our female founders relentlessly pursued their dream–a dream that was very ahead of its time. Resale was seen as something nearly shameful.. now it’s aspirational, and I think we had a big hand in the shift. Our founders’ vision combined with the consumer demand for more sustainability created the perfect storm for the launch of The RealReal and I think the highly personal service, the ease of it all, and the laser focus on expertise and authenticity really set us apart.

Can you tell us about the consignment business model and how you source and market your products?
Our consignors are people like you! We run TV spots and social campaigns to attract buyers and sellers, and thanks to our marketing and sales teams, we have the strongest brand awareness we’ve ever had. We have 32 million buyers to date–many of whom log on at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. for the new drops! The majority of our pieces are unique, so many customers are trying to get their hands on the newest products as soon as they hit our (virtual) shelves.

How does TRR contribute to a more circular fashion industry? Do you think the online resale model, also called recommerce, is the way forward to sustain and scale the re-use of luxury goods in the long term?
For sure! By keeping items out of the landfill–and encouraging the purchase of items already in circulation versus the primary market–we are creating a virtuous circle of stewardship of quality that reduces emissions. The most sustainable product is the one that already exists. The growth of the industry, and frankly the competition, is a good thing for all of us. We’re increasing the size of the pie, and our piece of it will grow as a result.

To what extent has TRR reduced the luxury industry’s carbon footprint and how do you measure this environmental impact?
From inception through March 31, 2023, consignment through TRR has kept 32.7 million items in circulation, while saving 3.7 billion liters of water and 69,997 metric tons of carbon (roughly equivalent to the round trip emissions of 22K flights between San Francisco and Paris for a passenger). Our custom sustainability calculator, created in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, measures the greenhouse gasses, energy, and water saved via the resale of our products.

How are your teams telling the difference between a real and a faux luxury good in an industry heavily hit by counterfeiting? In other words, how are products authenticated?
Computer vision, machine learning, and our passionate experts! Our experts are the people who can make the call when the tech can’t–sometimes it can come down to how something feels or smells.

What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities in this luxury resale industry?
Like most businesses, it’s about making it easy and desirable for the customer (reducing barriers to entry, whether they are mental, emotional, physical), and making the operations faster and more cost-effective without compromising on quality.

The RealReal was founded and is well established in the US, have you expanded internationally?
Not yet, we are first and foremost laser focused on solidifying our US presence and operations.

Do you see France as a future big market for luxury resale and for TRR?
Yes, I can see France becoming a big market for luxury resale and some major retailers and brands (Printemps, Bon Marché, Sandro, Petit Bateau. . .) are already going for it! Maybe one day TRR will launch in France, and I would love to open that office!

Can you tell us about your roots and how they have shaped your journey so far and helped define your career path?
My father was born in Morocco and my mother is from Mexico City so I grew up speaking three languages at home. I think this multicultural upbringing infused a deep sense of curiosity in my personality early on and a keen interest in storytelling and human connection that shaped my career path.

What are some of your favorite French brands sold on TRR?
Chanel, bien sûr! I am currently reading Justine Picardie’s biography of Coco Chanel. I am so inspired by Coco, a woman who came from the most dire circumstances and who built a brand with longevity that is so elegant and aspirational to this date. She took women out of corsets and put them into simpler, more comfortable sporty clothes that still looked chic. Her signature jersey was a fabric for men’s underwear!

You have called San Francisco home for the last 17 years. What are some of your favorite French (-inspired) spots in SF?
I love food, so topping my list are Olivier’s Butchery, Tartine and Noe Valley bakery… Zuni for oysters and champagne. Zuni’s bar is not zinc, but its impressive copper bar will do!

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