Mia Hirsch

The Retail Revolution

Mia Hirsch
The Retail Revolution

It’s no secret that Amazon has completely overtaken the world of online shopping, offering customers a one-stop shop for everything from clothing to groceries. Though Amazon’s success might be impressive, it is not all that surprising. Our society has always sought to simplify life – to mitigate stress and to free up time for us to focus on important things, like Netflix and Cardi B.

In an age of retail revolution, a few entrepreneurs have emerged to establish themselves as pioneers of the new normal. Their brands are stationed to dominate the retail market in 2018, with platforms designed to appease our craving for simplicity and our social media-driven obsession with appearances. Principal of these pioneers is Stitch Fix, an online personal shopping service that promises to “evolve with your tastes, needs, and lifestyle.” Each “fix” consists of five pieces of clothing that the buyer receives for a $20 styling fee, which can be applied as a credit toward anything kept in the shipment. The customer can then choose to keep and buy as many items as he or she pleases and return the rest for free using Stitch Fix’s prepaid shipping labels.  

Founded in 2011 by J. Crew veteran Erin Morrison Flynn and Harvard Business alumnus Katrina Lake, Stitch Fix gained national attention this past year after announcing plans to file for an IPO. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Lake touted her company as a “combination of art and science,” relying heavily on data and algorithms to form collections that fit a customer’s unique style. Though profiting from personalization is Stitch Fix’s end goal, the company understands that merely tracking users’ click history does not capture the whole of a customer’s personality. For this reason, the brand constantly seeks feedback from customers, analyzing purchase history and conducting routine surveys.

Stitch Fix’s business model is innovative and unique, but it does not lack competition. Rent the Runway, founded in 2009, is a veteran brand of the evolving tech fashion space, and over time it has established itself as a household name. Rent the Runway’s slogan, “Buy Less, Wear More,” refers to the company’s platform that lets customers rent designer apparel for a given amount of time and then use prepaid shipping labels to return the pieces. Though Rent the Runway differs from Stitch Fix in its approach to online shopping, both companies capitalize on the growing belief that in-store shopping is a hassle. Both aim to make online shopping both a quicker and easier process, while also appealing to the fashionistas that enjoy the personalized, fun experience of shopping in-store.

It seems that challenging our current definition of what it means to shop is now trending. With an increasing number of companies vying for recognition in the virtual spotlight, it will take more than just fancy graphics and a 24/7 chat feature to stand out.  That is why menswear brand Bonobos created an entirely new approach to revolutionizing the shopping experience, and the company’s efforts have been making serious waves in the fashion industry. Bonobos launched in 2007, selling menswear exclusively online. Once the brand expanded and began to sell suits and dress pants, customers lamented that the dubious sizing of menswear required that they try on items before buying them.

Then came Bonobos founder and Stanford Graduate School of Business alumnus Brian Spaly’s ingenious idea: Guideshops. These physical store locations, first tested in New York City, were places where Bonobos customers could go to peruse and try on products prior to making e-commerce purchases. Bonobos essentially offered shoppers a place to try, but not to buy, at least not yet. The novel idea seemed questionable at first, but these Guideshops soon grew to become an integral part of the Bonobos brand, eventually catching the attention of major fashion retailer Nordstrom, which invested $16.4 million in Bonobos to sell the brand in Nordstrom stores and online.

The success of Bonobos’ Guideshops demonstrated that shoppers still crave the opportunity to physically see and try on pieces before buying. This is the greatest challenge e-commerce brands face today, and it has promoted the development of a variety of new technologies and services aimed at combating the issue. Included in these innovations is True Fit, a data platform that predicts the best apparel or footwear size for a given customer based on his or her own preferences and buying trends. Many notable retail companies such as Macy’s and Bloomingdale's use True Fit on their sites to give customers the best size estimate possible for a given item. It may not always be perfect, but True Fit gives many shoppers the comfort they need to buy, contributing to the growing trend of online over in-store shopping.

Could this trend mean the end of traditional brick-and-mortar stores as we know them? While it is true that companies like Macy’s and Kohl’s have had to close stores due to the rise of Amazon and e-commerce, the idea that shoppers will soon rely entirely on digital purchases sounds egregious to a fashion-lover like me. There is still something to be said for the experience of shopping, sometimes hectic and exhausting, but oftentimes exciting, playful, and a much-needed respite from a dreary workday. I know that some of my favorite memories growing up involved running through the long walkways of the mall, oohing and ahhing at window displays and feeling elated trying on the perfect dress for a party.

Stitch Fix, Rent the Runway, and Bonobos may likely stand the test of time, but their rise does necessarily mean the fall of the store-based brands we already know and love. It is time for Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdales to take on a new challenge – not to give up on brick-and-mortar just to amp up their online presence, but instead to completely revolutionize the in-store shopping experience. Robots that fetch a different size for you, artificial intelligence makeup tutorials that match you to your perfect shades, a virtual reality shoe palace? The possibilities are endless. Game on.

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