Shopping online for apparel – same as electronics?

Online platforms focused only on fashion have received over $300Mn in funding in the last three years. And this is excluding what the horizontal marketplaces have spent on this particular vertical. So there’s no second guessing how big this segment is. However, with Fashionara shut down and Yepme foraying into brick and mortar stores, there is uncertainty in what works and what doesn’t. There are many different models focused on different categories of fashion including sale, rental of both new and used products it does seem that the common thread across all is that most of these models is the implicit assumption that the user will shop for fashion products the same was that they do for non-fashion products – open their app or browser, look for clothes or be recommended clothes, place order and buy.

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Different Business Models in Fashion

Fashion is lot more personal and the choice is more subjective than any other category. Here are some of the factors that make it somewhat difficult to get it right while shopping for fashion online

Picking a needle from the haystack:  A quick search for a dress and only in the ‘western’ category in the top 13 fashion platforms revealed the variety that was on offer. For those whole love online shopping (or browsing), you’d be happy to know that you now have 7 guilt-free days of incessant infinite scrolling – that’s a whopping 2 lakh items! Even if you filter for the price range, you’re interested in, say Rs.1000 to 2000; you’d be left with 80,000 pieces. If you were to display all this, it’d occupy two entire football stadiums.

Homogeneous products: It’s now become much harder to discover boutique brands and sorting the collection by “What’s Popular” has led to a very homogeneous sense of design and style.

Getting it right:  The variation of sizes and body types make it trickier to order online and be satisfied with the merchandise that lands up at one’s doorstep. Customers often struggle to understand what would look good on them (tend to buy clothes based on what looks good on a model) – this increases buyer’s remorse and leads to higher returns.

Not enough personalization: Personalization of an online fashion platform would definitely enhance the customer experience. However, to achieve this one requires a ton of accurate data. Most platforms rely on secondary data such as browsing patterns, purchase/return data etc. – this however can tend to be inaccurate as say a return could be due to sizing issues or the customer misjudged how it’d look on themselves. The feedback loop is not captured effectively.  A more direct data collection would be much more effective, but most business models do not accommodate this.

All of this makes one wonder whether the customer experience in online apparel shopping will be the same as that of say groceries, electronics or furniture?

While looking at newer business models in this space, The Modiste attracted our attention. They are trying to combine some basic human interaction with machine learning algorithm to understand the consumer. It’s similar to that of Stitch fix in the US which is estimated to be clocking over $200Mn in annual revenue with $45M in funding, thus far.

  • A customer signs up on the platform and schedules a call with a stylist. The stylist through semi-structured conversation, tries to understand the psyche of the consumer and preferences in styling; leading to contextually richer data.
  • This data is fed into an algorithmic engine, which reduces the inventory to just a handful. The stylist then chooses 5 items from this with a note giving tips on how to pair and style the products.
  • The products are then delivered to the customer at a predetermined time; customers try out the clothes and they purchase all they like and return the rest

Starting from data collection to the product delivery – the entire process was simpler and more direct. Even though, it might not be similar to ‘click of a button, easily scalable models’ out there, we believed that this provided superior customer understanding and delivered a better experience. And the data reinforced this.

More than 85% purchase at least 1 product with the overall median order value being Rs.1200. And more importantly, over 90% repeat the box for the next month!

Why do consumers like it?

  1. Professional and personalized styling
  2. Discovering styles that makes them look better
  3. Discovering boutique brands, a refreshing change from fast fashion
  4. No commitment, buy what you like
  5. Feedback gathered from a box, makes the analytic engine smarter; leading to consistently better customer experiences

The Modiste is raising a seed round now and Equity Crest is leading the round. In the next ten months, they’re targeting to service  ~1000 boxes a month and hit an annual revenue run rate of Rs.2 cr.

India’s online fashion market is expected to increase five-fold to ~15,000 cr by 2020. Whether pure machine driven fashion e-commerce platforms will continue to take center stage or will newer blended models like The Modiste carve a sizable segment, is anybody’s guess…

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