The Personal Shopper for People Who Hate to Shop

What happens when industries collide?
April 7 2014 12:21 PM

Are You There, Margaret? It’s Me, Ali.

I hate shopping. So what I needed was a virtual personal shopper.

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images and Thinkstock.

The other day at work, I found myself truly stumped on a questionnaire. “How would you characterize your proportions?” it asked. Arms and legs could range from “short” to “long.” Shoulders and hips could be “narrow” or “broad.” It struck me that all of these choices were relative to an unknown standard, and in any case I didn’t have a measuring tape on hand. I stared hopelessly at my extremities for a few minutes, then gave up and clicked “average” for everything.

Alison Griswold Alison Griswold

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

The next question was even worse. “How would you characterize your personal style?” The options: “bohemian chic,” “classic,” “glamorous,” “romantic,” “casual chic,” “edgy,” or “preppy.” I didn’t really know what these meant, either. “Bohemian chic” sounded like a sign in an Urban Outfitters window. “Romantic” evoked the look of a Jane Austen or Brontë character. What resulted was a very long and somewhat pointless Google image search.

The survey was step one in signing up for Stitch Fix, an online retailer and new breed of personal shopper. After you fill out your personal information online and pay a $20 “styling fee” (which goes toward any clothes you end up buying), the company selects five items from its inventory and ships them to you. Stitch Fix is one of several relatively new e-commerce startups designed for people who, like me, are clueless about fashion, hate to shop, feel too busy to bother, or all of the above. Using a combination of manpower, personal data, and algorithms, these platforms—similar services include men’s apparel supplier Trunk Club and bra seller True & Co.—aim to take the work out of shopping by only showing you merchandise that they’ve determined will fit your size and style preferences. It’s like a marriage of Netflix or Pandora to Net-A-Porter or Yoox or Polyvore.

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The idea for Stitch Fix came to founder Katrina Lake one Boston winter after she signed up for a community-supported agriculture farm share to receive a weekly box of seasonal fruits and vegetables. “You would get things like turnips,” she says. “I didn’t know how to cook a turnip, but it was fun to experiment.”

If Stitch Fix seeks to become a CSA for apparel, it’s also attempting to simplify the shopping experience for people who lack the patience to scroll through pages upon pages of seasonal merchandise. (And weirdly, the more things you purchase on other sites, the harder it can feel to branch out—buy a dress from Yoox, and your Internet ads will show that same dress to you over and over.) Going to a physical store is a schlep, but at least there you’re free to browse and experiment. The next frontier in online shopping is to create a better, more efficient merging of e-commerce and its brick-and-mortar predecessor.

To reach this frontier, most Stitch Fix–like e-commerce startups have taken a similar approach: collect data on users through a survey, then analyze that information using algorithms and hired hands. While this kind of data collection may sound basic, even obvious, it’s a radical departure from the type of information that even a major retailer like Macy’s or Nordstrom’s has on hand, Lake says. “It is mind-blowing how little useable data they have,” she explains. “In our model we send you five things, and we know exactly why you bought the things you bought and why you didn’t buy the things you didn’t buy.” The idea is that the more you use Stitch Fix, the more accurate its personal stylings will become.

My first “fix,” as the company calls it, arrived to Slate’s New York office packed with a lily envelope striped purse, a sea-foam green V-neck shirt, two sweaters, and a pair of black ankle-length skinny jeans. Enclosed was a note from my personal stylist, Margaret, who had signed off with “XO.” The skinny jeans, she wrote, were “perfect to wear with boots and booties,” while the purse was great for “the city life.” I know nothing about Margaret, but I bet she knows her city life.

Lake says that Stitch Fix employs about 300 stylists (most of them part-time), and this semi-human element of contact is where Stitch Fix differs most from its handful of competitors. True & Co., which markets itself as “your personal bra shop online,” also uses an online quiz to gauge your lingerie preferences, but it figures out your size and style based on an algorithm. “It’s marrying data with a highly personal apparel shopping experience,” says founder Michelle Lam. Wantful, a now-defunct e-commerce platform for personalized gifts, also outsourced part of its process to an algorithm.

As much as the human element is a selling point for Stitch Fix, it is also a hindrance. This past December, wait times for customers soared as the company struggled to meet its rapidly growing demand. Lake posted a note on Stitch Fix’s blog apologizing for the delays and asking for users’ patience. Her team is working to add more stylists and inventory to speed up the process, but the average wait for users remains at least seven days.

True & Co., for its part, isn’t profitable yet, but Lam says it’s very close; it has grown to about 250,000 users spread across the U.S. since starting in May 2012. Stitch Fix doesn’t share figures on customers or profitability, but it has shipped hundreds of thousands of “fixes” since it began in 2011 and has raised $16.75 million through two funding rounds. The company’s high-powered team includes the former COO of Walmart and former VP of data science and engineering at Netflix.

The day my fix came, I texted my mom and then holed up in the Slate ladies’ room for 20 minutes to try on Margaret’s selections. I didn’t love everything. The purse looked kind of tacky and was labeled “vegan,” which I guess is another way of saying “pleather.” One of the sweaters was a tad too small, but the other fit well. The sea-foam green shirt not only fit but also looked pretty good and was made from a smooth, soft mix of modal and spandex.

Then I put on the pants.

Despite my limited knowledge of clothes shopping, I believe—and my editor confirms—that pants-shopping is the universally acknowledged nightmare of the retail-apparel experience. You can spend several hours trying on pair after pair after pair, and each one is too tight, or too short, or too elastic, or too weathered, or too something. But Margaret, dear Margaret, whomever she is, without even ever meeting me, had struck gold with this pair—it fit perfectly. If Stitch Fix and other online personal shoppers can find pants for everyone, they might really have something here.

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