Social shopping pioneer Modcloth plots mobile strategy for digital fashion

I’ve talked with a lot of companies recently about the challenges in making traditional shopping and e-commerce more social, and there’s one name that everyone mentions as the de-facto success in social shopping: Modcloth.

Modcloth iPhone appWhat started as a hobby around vintage clothing turned into a business led by husband and wife team Susan Gregg Koger and Eric Koger in 2006, and it has now become a dominant online fashion retailer known for its distinct style and vintage appeal. But what makes Modcloth unique is the way it’s continually married technology with fashion to build a strong social community around the brand, experimenting with everything from crowdsourced fashion to video hangouts with stylists to build the kind of user passion you see with companies like Lululemon or Nastygal.

Modcloth just launched its first native iPhone app on Thursday, and I sat down with CEO Eric Koger to talk about the company’s strategy when it comes to building a mobile audience and using social platforms to build its notoriously passionate audience. The company had just finished recording a Google Hangout in the office with Lumineers singer Neyla Pekarek, who wears Modcloth onstage, and Koger sat at the conference table with the company pug Winston on his lap.

“We’re very experimental in basically all that we do,” he said. “We put our customer first in the merchandise we’re bringing from the very beginning of the site, placing small bets on a wide assortment of things, and then figuring out what she really loved, and wherever possible bringing those items back in production.”

Modcloth CEO Eric Koger with the company's mascot Winston the pug on his lap.

Modcloth CEO Eric Koger with the company’s mascot Winston the pug on his lap.

And the experimental approach applies to how the company uses technology as well. Modcloth started out with a website that was optimized for mobile, and said that still makes a lot of sense since the site sees so much referral traffic from Facebook (its top referring site) and Pinterest (its second-highest referrer). When a user finds an item through Pinterest, re-directing them to a native app was tough. So the company started on HTML, and just launched an iPad app in February. Now, the company is finally going native on iPhone.

Koger said it’s always a challenge to figure out how to serve up high-quality images of the different products on mobile while taking into account a user’s connection speed. But figuring out mobile is obviously important: the company has seen a 129 percent increase in mobile traffic over last year, and 178 percent growth in mobile revenue.

And one of the tricks to keeping sales strong? Modcloth is famous for its “Be The Buyer” program, which takes a sample from a designer and puts the photos online, then allowing users to vote on whether the company should produce the item — sort of like the original Kickstarter, but for dresses. And despite concerns from the fashion industry about putting samples out for the world to see (and potentially be copied), Modcloth has turned the program into a success. The company said sales are twice as high on the crowdsourced items as the regular ones.

“It’s a variety of things,” Koger said. “The invested community that helps to get it produced becomes sort of an advocate for the product, having that logo on the dress serves as a form of social proof, and it’s usually just a really cute product.”