The worlds of fashion and technology have finally begun to combine in a serious way. It couldn’t have happened soon enough: Judging by the racks of discounted clothing you’ll still find when you walk into any typical Gap or department store, the big traditional retailers still have a long way to go when it comes to using technology to help with design, manufacturing and inventory analytics.
Of course, the selection and shipping elements have already been worked out by e-commerce giants such as Amazon(s AMZN). But the thing is, folks still need help deciding what to buy — especially now that selection is bigger than ever. Historically, that need has been met by brick-and-mortar stores staffed with salespeople. But today, software algorithms and social media can go a long way toward supplanting those in a more efficient way. Meanwhile, newer sites such as Pinterest, Polyvore and Fancy have made it so that window shopping online is now just as fun as strolling down Madison Avenue in person.
Now, for me, shopping in-person at local businesses will always be ideal (I’d hate to think of all the neighborhood boutiques in San Francisco being boarded up). But a new crop of companies is raising the bar for everyone in the retail space, using the web to make the process more data-driven and social than ever before — and that should ultimately be a good thing for everyone. Here are a few of the hottest ones:
What it is: Your own personal stylist or personal shopper — but without any in-person pressure or Hollywood-style fees. For now, the site is focused on female clients, and the bulk of its products seem to fall in the mid- to upper-middle price range, with many of them made by up-and-coming designers.
How it works: You take a survey so that Stitchfix has an idea of your budget, size, body type, personal taste and lifestyle. The company then sends you a box of clothing and accessories for you to try on. You keep and pay for what you like, and send back what you don’t. Stitchfix charges a $20 “styling fee” per box, but that will be put toward any clothing to decide to keep — so you only really pay it if you end up sending everything back. Shipping is free.
Who is using it: The site is in beta now, so the user base is limited — but already the site has garnered lots of buzz and dedicated fans among 20- and 30-something women working in the tech world.
StitchFix user Laura Oppenheimer, who works as a marketing manager at San Francisco startup Formspring, says she likes the service because it’s convenient and continuously improving:
“I like that I can try on each item at home and make a decision based on how it fits in with the rest of my wardrobe, not just how I look in the mirror at a store, with a salesperson telling me how great everything looks. The pieces they send me aren’t always my style, but I feel like the more I use the service, the more targeted it gets.”
What it is: Essentially, it’s a lot like Stitchfix, but it’s for men — a set of the population that’s notoriously allergic to the mall. The company puts it this way: “We help guys get excellent clothes without any of the shopping.”
How it works: First, you let Trunk Club know your size, taste, budget and style preferences. You can do this by filling out an online profile or calling them on the phone. Trunk Club will then send you a personalized box of clothing and accessories for you to try on. You keep and pay for what you like, and send back what you don’t. There is no styling or service fee, and shipping is free. Alternately, you can go in person to Trunk Club’s Chicago headquarters for a personal fitting of everything in their inventory.
Who is using it: Trunk Club’s target audience is professional men who prefer classic, well-made clothing — and are willing to pay for it. Its products are on the higher end in the price spectrum, and the company likens itself to Barney’s, Nordstrom and nicer mens’ boutiques: Shirts cost between $70 and $250, denim between $165 and $225 and sweaters between $75 and $225. Trunk Club’s CEO Brian Spaly has said in interviews that the service is made for “married men between the ages of 25-55 with zero time on their hands.”
What it is: A members-only, online-only clothing and accessories business that sells well-made basics for men and women.
How it works: Everlane has established relationships with the same factories that make expensive designer goods. Each month, the company produces its own collection of high-end wardrobe essentials — think James Perse-like t-shirts, Citizens of Humanity-like jeans, and so on — to sell to members at wholesale prices (everything is under $100). Everlane’s business model is a lot like Trader Joe’s, which finds the best organic peanut butter and sells it under its own house brand name at a fraction of the price it would be at a normal grocery store.
Who is using it: It’s still in very limited beta, so the user list is super limited — but Everlane already made lots of waves in 2011 with its initial line of luxury t-shirts. Everlane is still essentially in stealth mode, but I’m hearing the site has already garnered more than 150,000 membership request signups. It’s gotten a lot of traction among the hip, urban, young adult set who are spreading word about the service through Twitter, Tumblr and the like.
What it is: Once a month, Birchbox sends out a box filled with four to five sample sizes of high-end personal care products. The service costs $10 per month, and shipping is free. Birchbox also sells full-size versions of beauty products on its website.
How it works: It’s pretty simple — you sign up, pay your money, and the Birchbox comes to your door. If you want, you can fill out a profile online to let Birchbox know your product preferences, but it’s not required.
Who is using it: Birchbox is really hot right now, especially among young women. There’s a big market for high-end beauty products at the moment (perhaps it has to do with the famed “Lipstick Index” that says makeup sales boom when the larger economy is weak.) And there’s a growing population of women that doesn’t mind spending $20 on a tube of lipgloss, if they can try it before they buy it. Sarah Campbell, who works as an editorial assistant for GigaOM, says she subscribes to the service because it’s frictionless and fun:
“With Birchbox, I can sample makeup and skincare I might not have picked out myself. I don’t have time to go to department store counters for beauty consultations, and it always feels awkward doing the drive-by sample request. Plus, who doesn’t love pretty things delivered to your mailbox?”