In the past few years, luxury brand Worth New York launched an e-commerce store, a digital closet and virtual style appointments for customers with a team of 1,000 personal stylists online.
For the past 25 years, Worth has focused on the trunk show, which invites shoppers into stylists’ homes to check out (and buy) Worth’s latest collections. Worth’s vp of marketing Britany Larsen, who previously worked for Ann Taylor, is aware that this isn’t the way today’s younger consumers are likely to shop for new togs. She said the average customer age is between 40 and 55 years old.
Despite associations with a high-spending, older consumer, the benefits of a personal stylist — a personalized retail experience that excels in customer service — have become more in demand today. According to an Accenture survey of 6,000 consumers, 95 percent of millennials that reported that “being courted” by a retailer like a valued customer would increase loyalty. Data from the NPD Group in 2015 also showed that customers are likely to spend up to 100 percent more when influenced by a personal stylist.
As e-commerce surges for the luxury market, the personal shopper has evolved, too. Retail startups like Rent the Runway Unlimited combine an online shopping experience with the personalized element of curated stylist picks, while companies like Worth are beefing up digital strategy. At luxury online department stores like Net-a-Porter, personal style consultants are an added benefit.
“The reason why there is space for companies like Stitch Fix and Worth, even though they’re different, is because retail is failing today,” said Malinda Sanna, founder of consumer insights consultancy Spark Ideas. “It’s frustrating for most women in its current form, so alternative methods are popping up with interesting models.
Stitch Fix, the online personal shopping service that uses an online quiz, a data algorithm, and a team of stylists to send curated monthly shipments of recommended items to users’ homes, is valued at $300 million after launching in 2011. Customers interact with its 2,600 stylists, who comprise more than half of its 4,000 employees. COO Julie Bornstein said that this model appeals to younger consumers — Stitch Fix’s demographic ranges from 25 to 50 — who feel more comfortable communicating with a stylist online, rather than in person.
“We’re still able to build trust with our customers as we get to know them better,” said Bornstein. “They feel safer providing us with information they might feel uncomfortable sharing in person.”
Similar subscription models, like Le Tote and Rent the Runway Unlimited, both of which “rent” clothing to customers for a monthly fee, also rely on the data-first, human-second model when it comes to personal styling. Customers fill out quizzes, share their size and color preferences, as well as other details like where they work and the style (“boho” or “classic”) that they identify with most. From there, an algorithm takes care of the selection, while the human stylist is the final touch of the process, adding a human element of quality control. According to this model, the algorithm gets better with time, which pays off for loyal customers — but also requests that you wait it out for the service to improve.
“Rent the Runway’s smart brand strategy gives it an edge, they’re competing on multiple levels and lifestyles,” said Sanna. “Stitch Fix and the like can feel generic. Blue Apron makes you feel like you know how to cook, and Stitch Fix makes you feel like you know fashion.”
Worth is only now building up its algorithm for its digital styling service, but Larsen said that the company still favors human interactions. In the fall of 2015, it rolled out a screen-sharing tool that lets customers schedule virtual appointments, and build their “closets” in real time with a stylist.
“There are a lot of digital companies today now investing in stylists, but we started the other way around,” said Larsen. “Over time, the stylist gets to know the consumer personally and what she likes, and it’s much beyond what an algorithm could do. We use technology to help our stylists to be better.”
Sanna said that for online personal stylists, the human element and the science has to be equally represented. But she added that these companies should also invest in rewards like early access to sales and just-for-you picks selected by data mining, which Net-a-Porter and similar companies offer alongside their on-staff personal stylists.
“Quizzes can be fun,” said Sanna. “[But] that’s the important part of the luxury experience for most women.”