Online personal shopping services are exploding

Online personal shopping sites like Stitch Fix, that send consumers a curated box of clothing, seem to be proliferating.
Online personal shopping sites like Stitch Fix, that send consumers a curated box of clothing, seem to be proliferating. TNS

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.

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.

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 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.

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 personalized picks. And that’s just what’s available for women.

But not every retailer wants a piece of the online personal-shopping pie. For some, face-to-face interaction can’t be replaced.

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.

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 percent discount for buying the entire box.

In one box, Heather Rudnicki of Chanhassen, Minn., got a shirt with a colorful 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 color.’ 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.”