Technology has become relatively chic since the introduction of sexy-thin smartphones and mobile shopping. But retail-talk trumped gadgetry at the French Institute : Alliance Française’s first ever Fashion Tech Talk on March 26th. Moderated by startup investor Ed Zimmerman, the guest panel featured four major e-commerce execs who are redefining what it means to be digital in New York fashion.
Fab.com founder Bradford Shellhammer kicked off the evening with a note on what characterizes fashion startups: “Fab.com was born of a personal place. I think most great design companies are born from someone’s heart rather than a way to make money.” Forbes dubbed Shellhammer the “King of Quirk” for his whimsical taste and product offerings on Fab, which made $100 million its first year.
“We’re actually trying to bring the offline experience online,” said Keaton Row CEO Cheryl Han, who co-founded the web-based personal styling service, “We want to restore the personal relationships of a place like Nordstrom’s or Saks. Our women can be connected to a real person, someone who truly knows her taste and what she’s going through in her life.”
The panelists underscored the continued importance of the brick-and-mortar shop to customers who still appreciate the rituals of shopping in-person despite online convenience.
Eyewear brand Warby Parker was one of the first retailers in the group to make this move. “People want to touch the glasses and see what they’re buying,” said Tim Riley, Director of Online Experience, “98% of people still shop in a physical location. We want the best shopping experience, and we don’t really care where it happens.”
Online beauty subscription service Birchbox is taking that step with its first brick-and-mortar store in Soho, opening this spring. “Just because you’re e-commerce doesn’t mean you have to stay only online, “said Mollie Chen, the startup’s Editorial Director, “We’ve always known that beauty is very touch-try-feel, you’re going to go into [our store] and learn how to use products. We’re adding a little magic, it’s not just about data and algorithms.”
But data has never been more versatile for fashion merchants, who are striving to use it as much to improve their customers’ experiences as to profit from them.
“Most of our clients go to Nordstrom’s and Shop.com and are overwhelmed and feel abandoned,” said Keaton Row’s Han, “The data tells our retailers what our customers prefer and how our stylists are servicing them.”
Shellhammer employs a creative approach to data analysis in his consulting work for outdoor-gear site Backcountry.com. “Heat maps showed us that [customers] are clicking on hands and parts of models, not products. I’m using the data to say we need to invest more in photography and bring the products to life a little more.”
And in an age when conversations begin in140 characters or less, a brand’s success depends on day-to-day interactions with customers via social media. Chen highlighted the importance of Birchbox responding to photo tweets from customers, “[They] want to see your product on real people, to see medicine cabinets that look just like theirs.”
Photo credit: Eamonn Wright