Fashion apps Pinterize the real world to drive in-store sales

Fashionistas looking online for clothing inspiration and styles to purchase have more options than they could ever exhaust. But a few emerging fashion-focused startups are starting to use Pinterest-like mobile platforms to drive sales offline.

Swirl, a mobile fashion platform that launched out of stealth on Monday, gives shoppers a photo-heavy, social environment for not only discovering clothing and accessories that match their style but that are in their immediate vicinity and might be on sale. The Boston-based startup, which has raised $6 million from Softbank, General Catalyst Partners and other investors, has partnered with more than 200 top retailers at 30,000 stores across the country.

As with other platforms like Fancy and Pinterest, Swirl lets users “clip” (or save) items, as well as share them with friends. But it also gives users one-click access to nearby locations that sell the item.  And, while the app has been pre-populated with more than 100,000 items and accessories from major retailers, the company said that, in the future, it may add boutiques and other stores and let users photograph items they see while browsing to add them to the database.

As shoppers use the platform, the app learns to recommend clothing and brands and, down the line, Swirl might move beyond fashion to home decor and other lifestyle goods stores, the company said.

“It just blew us away that 15 years after the invention of e-commerce and m-commerce it still represented less than 10 percent of the retail volume,” said Hilmi Ozguc, Swirl’s founder and CEO.

Despite the boom in online shopping, he added, 93 percent of fashion items and accessories are sold in-store. So, instead of joining the flock of fashion apps and websites trying to boost e-commerce with flash sales, compensation for users, in-person trials, or subscription models, Swirl sees an opportunity in using the smartphone as a vehicle to learn consumer insights and direct shoppers to locations where they can try on items and make a purchase.

Snapette lets merchants alert users to products they might like

New York-based Snapette, which launched last August as what my colleague Ryan Kim called a “Pinterest for the real world,” operates under a similar online-to-offline thesis. Initially, the app let users photograph and upload pictures of products they spotted in the wild to help other users discover items nearby. In June, it updated its app to let local merchants and brands alert users to products they might like. Users can still browse the app and engage in social activity around the items, but brands can also send push notifications to nearby users about recommended products or special offers and discounts. (The app meters and filters messages to make sure consumers don’t get overwhelmed and annoyed.)

Similarly, mobile app Zoomingo tracks sales from more than 70,000 local retail outlets, as well as the most popular items on Pinterest to help consumers discover and then locate nearby products that match their styles. Through the app, users can follow other members, browse items and vote products up or down. When they spot an item they want to buy, they can purchase it through the site or get the location of the closest store selling it with one click. Users can also elect to receive alerts when items they’ve pinned on Pinterest go on sale.

Shoptiques, a New York-based and Y Combinator-backed startup that launched earlier this year, is mainly focused on bringing the local boutique shopping experience online and it doesn’t prioritize sharing as much as a Pinterest. But, CEO and founder Olga Vidisheva has said a mobile app for driving store traffic is on her roadmap.

Apps expand Foursquare, Yelp behavior to shopping

Foursquare and Yelp are already conditioning consumers to use their smartphones as local guides for restaurants and points of interest, so it makes sense that emerging startups are trying to expand that behavior to fashion, a category in which people often want a tactile experience before they make a final decision. And, given how social and visual fashion can be, it’s fitting that these mobile apps are opting for Pinterest-like environments. This wave of apps is also great for impromptu purchases — traditional commerce sites are great for future-looking purchases, but just like we sometimes need a quick recommendation for a bite to eat, we sometimes need last-minute help finding a pair of black ballet flats.

But though the online-to-offline connection is a step in the right direction, one potential pitfall could be an over-reliance on retailer- and brand-seeded content. It’s understandable that these apps are starting with this kind of inventory – it’s much easier to know which items are available if the brands add them to the database. But much of what makes Pinterest and other similar sites so successful is the authenticity and knowledge that users – not brands – are driving the curation. Consumers can certainly interact with the content and curate to a certain degree on platforms like Swirl and Snapette, but if the apps start to feel too commercial and brand-driven, shoppers might feel less inclined to engage and, ultimately, buy.

With that in mind, Peter Chun, CEO and founder of fashion app Swaag, said that as his app layers in commerce, he’s agnostic to whether it will encourage offline or online behavior. Launched two months ago, Swaag lets people take photos and then tag their clothing with appropriate brands to give fashion-savvy users a place to show off their own style while browsing and getting inspiration from the fashion choices of others. Users can share pictures on social networks and follow members whose style they admire. As it grows, he said, driving consumers to stores is a likely possibility, but the more critical component is preserving the user-generated context.

“The source of the inspiration can be a bigger driver of commerce than whether they have the option to buy online or offline,” he said. “How consumers discovered the item triggers the impulse to buy.”