Apparel is mired in quite the conundrum amid the COVID-19 crisis that means retail stores likely won’t see pre-pandemic levels of traffic for quite some time. Despite encouraging sales boosts in May, total apparel sales in the week of May 4 still plummeted 87 percent year over year, with the week of May 11 slightly better, but still down 71.8 percent, according to data from Placer.ai. And now, retailers across the nation are contending with a spasm of violence dealing brick and mortars yet another blow.
With the pandemic backing apparel into a corner, fashion tech platforms are coming out of the woodwork to leverage the changing landscape and get apparel brands out in front of audiences through different stages of the customer journey. While one platform, The Yes, is banking on an algorithm powered by a simple “yes” or “no” to determine whether products and brands are a fit for shoppers, another, BlackCart, is looking to eliminate the friction that “try-before-you-buy” and returns processes have in online retail.
The core thesis of The Yes is that the current shopping experience suffers from a static, one-size-fits-all approach. Founded by former Stitch Fix chief operating officer Julie Bornstein and Microsoft Google and Groupon alum Amit Aggarwal, The Yes features a personal home feed showing recommended brands, themes and trends curated for shoppers based entirely on a quiz that asks “yes” or “no” questions.
“Consumers are overwhelmed by choice,” Bornstein and Aggarwal told Sourcing Journal. “And our goal in building Yes was to create a user-centric, dynamic shopping experience―one that understands the user and learns from her. This deeply user-centric approach has been applied in other domains like news and music and our goal was to apply the same approach to fashion (which is a much harder problem). The quiz aspect of the product is just one of the many ways we collect information from users to build this next-generation experience.”
The Yes’ app also features “smart search,” which filters each shopper’s style and brand preferences across all categories, themes, and brands. As a shopper taps a Yes or No, the algorithm re-ranks products in real time. Key features include a personal feed of new relevant products that’s refreshed daily, one-tap frictionless in-app buying, automatic size recommendations and the ability for users see what their friends and family are “Yes’ing” for inspiration.
The “friends” component is one the founders thought was a necessary addition in the wake of COVID-19. “We understood that people are looking for more social connection and it has always been part of our vision to make shopping a fun and social experience,” they said. “So we added a feature where users can connect with friends and follow what products they are liking.” COVID also inspired the addition of a price-matching feature to the product so that customers can get the guaranteed best price on The Yes.
Amid the pandemic, the founders postponed launching The Yes not because they worried about operating, but instead to better understand the direction of the e-commerce landscape, the needs of brands and ultimately how consumers will want to shop and interact with brands as the platform moves forward.
At launch, The Yes carries more than 150 of the top-name brands including Ralph Lauren Collection, Altuzarra, Erdem, Everlane, La Ligne, Rosie Assoulin, STAUD, Balenciaga, Acne Studios, Ganni, Tabitha Simmons, FRAME and Vince. When a brand integrates with The Yes, the platform sells each brand’s full digital catalog, offering its entire assortment by integrating into The Yes fashion algorithm. This requires automatically decoding every SKU and ranking it to each shopper, something that a human buyer could never do at scale.
While The Yes is exclusively tied in with women’s brands, the founders expect to expand to men’s fashion once they nail the women’s category.
It’s easy to get lost in buzzwords such as “algorithms” or “machine learning,” especially within apparel retail. But Aggarwal and Bornstein’s backgrounds should indicate how serious the endeavor is. And if that doesn’t do it, then know that the company has three patents pending covering its machine learning-based approach to creating a style signature for every product that leverages natural language processing and computer vision; technology to quickly learn a model for every user based on visual feedback; and tech that builds a dynamic search experience using algorithms and UX improvements.
It took the company two years to build the algorithms, with the current product the result of 15 such iterations since May 2018.
“As we started building the product, we realized we needed to make investments in the core infrastructure to build the end-to-end product and also spend significant time on iterating on the algorithm,” Bornstein and Aggarwal said. “In order to do that, we started parallel investments in three areas: algorithms, the consumer app experience and a platform to ingest data. In order to test an experience with end users, we needed enough data and a reasonably comprehensive catalog.”
BlackCart, like The Yes, has taken a longer-term approach to launching to the masses, initially starting out as a Google Chrome extension that was compatible with approximately 50 different brands. But in May 2019, the company shifted to a more B2B-focused model that focused strictly on integrating its “try-before-you-buy” capabilities with fashion e-commerce players.
Using BlackCart, customers browse an e-commerce site just like any other shopping experience, except on the product page a separate button under the “add to cart” button that says “Try for free.” Through the platform, shoppers can pick out items they want shipped to their homes for free. They will then have five days to try out the clothing and send them back. Shoppers are charged for any items they keep.
The process is designed to alleviate the returns experience for online retailers, which deal with a return rate that is up to three times the rate of brick-and-mortar stores, often because shoppers buy various sizes of the same item to pick out the right fit.
“Try-before-you-buy worked particularly well with products that were moderate to higher price points, lower frequency of purchase and where the customer makes a considered decision,” said Donny Ouyang, CEO and founder of BlackCart. “Not fast fashion, $20 T-shirts or $40 jeans. You wouldn’t be able to see as big of an impact in try-before-you-buy with those kinds of products rather than a $200 sweater.”
The company remained in beta for nearly an entire calendar year, until the COVID-19 crisis arrived in North America, and apparel stores across the continent were forced to close. During the pandemic, the company raised $2 million in venture capital funding, pitching to investors through Zoom. The company started with 40 partner retailers under beta, but the BlackCart plugin will be available to all merchants, including Shopify stores, by June.
“We’ve seen everything increase because of the pandemic, in terms of try-before-you-buy and online sales in general,” said Ouyang. “For us, it’s been a nine percent increase in overall sales. Our conversion rates went from 25 percent to 31 percent. Everything has been accelerated and from there we realized that we needed to fast track our fundraising process and get this out there as quickly as possible.”
Ouyang noted that social distancing recommendations are likely to be in effect in brick-and-mortar retailers until at least 2021, signaling a change in how consumers approach the store and the dressing-room experience. With that in mind, he thinks this is a grand opportunity for online only retailers to introduce “try-before-you-buy” business models that can capture the newly available consumers who aren’t used to buying online but feel uneasy about shopping in a store again.