What if you could celebrate your birthday every month? More and more, shoppers are coming home to find the glee that comes from opening a box full of surprises, thanks to subscription-based personal shopping services.
Personal shoppers have been a mainstay of the retail experience for the well-heeled and wealthy, but only recently have they been accessible to the masses through digital-age ingenuity. By filling out a questionnaire, customers give retailers guidelines to their likes and dislikes, their body shape and size, their ideal price range. On the other end, the retailers crunch the data into a box of hand-picked items that they hope will land them a sale – or five.
"Personal shopping is a classic retailing strategy that had retreated to the very high-end, very exclusive," said George John, professor of marketing at University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "And along comes the online world."
The Internet's massive accumulation of data on individuals and the ability to shape that information into meaningful recommendations have created a digital version of the old-school Main Street shopkeeper who knew everybody's size and taste and could always make a sale.
"That's what this world of information richness has done to this ultimate personal experience," John said. "They've automated it to try to capitalise on what the personal shopper did without actually being personal."
Some department stores and small boutiques still have personal shoppers who will line up several items and hold them in a dressing room for a customer. But in the Internet version, the clothes come right to the customer's home. Shoppers pay only for the items they keep and send the rest back. The process gives them a quick and painless way to keep their wardrobes up to date while avoiding the masses at the mall.
"The idea of spending two hours at a mall to try to buy a new pair of jeans, that's just not something that anybody really wants to do," said Minneapolis native Katrina Lake, who in 2011 founded StitchFix, one of the earliest incarnations of online personal shopping services. It's now the leader in a growing field.
Lake remembers how shopping during the holiday season at Dayton's in downtown Minneapolis always left her with a sense of wonder.
"It was a place you went with your family to explore what's new and what's trending, a place you went in and discovered," she said.
It was an experience that she feels no longer exists as people's lives become busier and malls become bigger.
"The delight that used to be part of retail is harder and harder to find now," she said. "What was missing in the evolution of brick and mortar was the idea of building a connection with somebody, what it was like to have a sales associate who knew you and your family well. That's the element we are trying to replicate."
The concept is exploding. There's Le Tote, a subscription-based rental service that sends boxes of clothing and accessories as fast as customers can send them back. There's MM.LaFleur, which sends selections of its high-end professional wear. There's Keaton Row, which has stylists make "lookbooks," or online catalogs of personalised picks. And that's just what's available for women.
"It's the next generation of retail," said Mike Tamte, co-founder and CEO of Edina-based national clothing store Evereve, which just launched a Twin Cities-area pilot of a new online styling service called Trendsend. "We want to put our store experience in a box."
Online personal shopping was an especially good fit for Evereve, which already offers the in-person service in its 60 stores. The company focuses specifically on carrying clothing for mothers, while many of the other online services cater more toward young professionals. Besides the usual questions about size and style preferences, Trendsend asks about other parts of the shopper's life: What grade are her kids in? What activities does she like to do with her family?
Tamte says the Twin Cities pilot of Trendsend, launched in August, has generated so much interest that the programme is already strained and the company is working out some "bottlenecks."
"We think this is going to be gigantic for us," he said.
But not every retailer wants a piece of the online personal-shopping pie. For some, face-to-face interaction can't be replaced.
"I think it's a great idea for people who are on the go and who like to shop online, but as somebody who has a brick-and-mortar and who relies on one-on-one customer service, I think that this is not a trend," said Thao Nguyen, owner of Minneapolis' Parc Boutique. "Things come and go."
But Lake thinks the concept is here to stay. In fact, her company depends on the longevity of its relationships with customers.
Every "Fix" – as the company calls the box of clothing and accessories that can arrive as frequently as every other week – includes a personal note from a stylist that explains the picks. The selections are based on a lengthy questionnaire as well as feedback. With each box, the stylists' focuses sharpen.
With more than four years of data and feedback on specific pieces of clothing, vendors now go to Lake for guidance "about why people are loving or not loving their product," she said.
Stylists send a combination of pieces the customer asks for and a couple of items that are more speculative. As an incentive for customers to consider keeping something that might be a little different, StitchFix offers a 25% discount for buying the entire box.
In one box, Heather Rudnicki of Chanhassen, Minnesota, got a shirt with a colourful chevron pattern that she didn't think was her style. But it was cheaper to keep it and get the discount than to return it.
"I wore it to a party, and when I walked in, everyone was like, 'Oh, that's so cute on you, I love the colour.' I was like, 'Really?' Every single time I wear it I get a compliment," she said. "By no means would I have picked it for myself."
Then there's just the sheer fun of getting stuff. Lee Hersh, a St. Louis Park, Minnesota, blogger, first tried StitchFix when the company asked her to test the product a year ago for her site, Fit Foodie Finds. She's continued using it, getting a new box every month.
"I was never really into online shopping," she said, "but for me, I love getting mail." — Star Tribune (Minneapolis)/Tribune News Service
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