At its founding a decade ago, Stitch Fix’s disruptive idea was to leverage data plus human stylists to provide customers with curated boxes or “fixes,” eliminating the hassle of clothes shopping at stores or websites. Since then, though, the company has retooled that to include the ability to shop directly from its site, called “direct buy” in discussions with analysts and press, and “Your Shop” in communications with customers. In recent weeks, Stitch Fix quietly eliminated the requirement to be a fixed customer to shop this way.
On Wednesday, Stitch Fix unveiled a new name for this option, “Freestyle,” and a marketing campaign to go with it.
This is “a major milestone in the evolution of our service enabling everyone to shop personalized recommendations in their own personalized store,” the company said in a blog post.
The branding of Freestyle as a separate shopping vehicle indicates that Stitch Fix believes a more conventional online shopping experience is the way to grow.
Anyone who signs up with Stitch Fix and takes a styling quiz can shop via Freestyle, and its subscription box customers automatically have access. The suggested apparel is selected using parameters from the quiz and any past purchases. Eventually, the site will also show “collections that have been curated by an ‘expert’ with a unique style point of view (i.e. an influencer, celebrity, stylist, or client),” the company said.
Shoppers can’t search the site, but can browse this personalized assortment using various filters, including “Trending for you,” (outfits the company has deemed stylish); “Complete your looks,” (based on the previous Stitch Fix purchases); Categories (clothing, footwear, and accessories); Department (workwear, jackets, activewear, etc.), and “Fresh finds,” (trendy and seasonal). Shoppers can also look at certain brands, including Free People, Universal Standard, Vince, Madewell, Mother, Rag & Bone, The North Face, Club Monaco, and Girlfriend Collective, with more to come, the company said.
“[A] shopper’s personal online shopping feeds refresh throughout the day as inventory updates, so there’s always something new to discover and try from more than 1,000 brands and styles consumers know and love,” a Stitch Fix spokesperson said by email.
The move likely addresses the high rate of returns inevitable in the curated-box model, according to Keith Anderson, Profitero’s senior vice president of strategy. A semi-curated online experience leveraging a quiz could minimize returns, he said by email.
“It’s costly to ship products back and forth, only a fraction of which ultimately are paid for and kept by the consumer, so I can see why they may be motivated to explore a more traditional e-commerce model in parallel,” Anderson said.
The option isn’t entirely e-commerce as usual, however. The DTC player is holding fast to a key element of its differentiation — curation — by requiring customers to sign up before browsing, and by withholding the ability to search. This holds both potential and risk, experts say.
“I see why they are doing this. By not having a search box and making people rely on the personalized recommendations and curation, they are trying to set themselves apart from the typical online clothing retailers and general retailers (e.g., Amazon, Nordstrom, Target), and are emphasizing the ‘value-add’ from the algorithms and the good taste of their in-house stylists,” Colorado State Business School Professor Jonathan Zhang said by email. “These are their highly publicized points of differentiation since the very beginning (and to investors, their core competitive advantage).”
The requirement to sign up and take a quiz also recalls flash sales sites like TouchofModern and Gilt Groupe, which don’t reveal their inventory until customers sign up, Zhang said.
The inability to search will frustrate some people, but be attractive to others, according to Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at Publicis.
“I think Stitch Fix’s perspective is that [search-based shopping] is the one use case that the internet has done a good job of solving,” he said by email. “The ‘fix’ box was designed for customers who wanted more of a ‘do it for me’ experience. So the new Freestyle experience is to expand their audience to people that want to self-service browse, but don’t know exactly what they want. If they added a text search with no personal curation how would that be different than Kohl’s or Nordstrom?”
The question is whether the appeal outweighs the turnoff. About 45% of e-commerce sales derive from an on-site search experience (as opposed to public search engines like Google), according to Hamish Ogilvy, CEO at AI-powered site search platform Sajari. Shoppers using site-based search are higher converters “by a large margin” than those who don’t, and “if an online retailer doesn’t have search on their site, customers are likely to head to Google to find what they want,” Ogilvy said, noting that on-site search itself can be curated using AI.
“Search technology is particularly good at using machine learning to quickly optimize the order of products being displayed to maximize metrics like sales or revenue,” Ogilvy said.
The effort to provide a more personalized shopping experience is laudable but isn’t enough for most retailers, Ogilvy also said. “Stitch Fix has a pretty unique business model of curating shopping based on a shopper’s preferences,” Ogilvy said by email. “Most companies have very different business models, however, and can’t rely on visitors browsing through their site in search of something to buy.”
Stitch Fix’s inventory may also be too limited to support a fruitful search, according to Profitero’s Anderson. Sajari’s research finds that, while site search is critical if a business’s SKUs number in the hundreds to millions, search-less e-commerce works for smaller sites.
“Bigger brands greatly benefit from search,” Ogilvy said. “There’s ample data from study after study that points to the value of e-commerce search. It can greatly improve customer experience by helping customers pinpoint exactly what they want faster. So, the risk for Stitch Fix is twofold: removing the search function creates a poor on-site experience, and customers are likely to abandon their site because they can’t find a specific desired item.”
Then again, the objective may not be sales per se, according to Rick Watson, founder, and CEO of RMW Commerce Consulting. “It’s not for shoppers, it’s to get new subscribers,” Watson said by email. “The quiz is for getting you hooked on the site, and gives them data.”