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Monday, 2 September 2013

Box and Netflix-Like Clothing Swaps?

Free at-home try-ons. Subscription socks in a box. Monthly doggie treats. Robot-chosen bras. If “regular” online retailers were starting to disrupt brick-and-mortar stores ten years ago, niche businesses like these now want to change the way we buy our clothes — and nab repeat customers in the process.
I’ve been curious about these services because, frankly, I hate to shop. I’ve done at-home try-ons before — like Warby Parker eyeglasses — and subscribed to BirchBox for a while, which sends boxes of beauty samples for $10 a month. Could I possibly never have to shop for clothes again, either?
The three services I’ve been testing the past couple weeks are StitchFix, Le Tote and True&Co. All three use computer algorithms to personalize the fit and experience for you, based on the information you provide in an online quiz. And all three cater to women — though there are similar options, like Trunk Club, out there for men.
StitchFix is both an at-home try-on service for clothes and an optional subscription service. The clothes kits, called “fixes,” often contain staples, like a good pair of black pants, but will also include a couple wildcards and accessories. You’ll pay a $20 “styling” fee for every fix you get.
Le Tote is a clothing rental service — think RentTheRunway, but for everyday clothes — that sends you a regular rotation of items that might be outside of your usual style repertoire. You can keep these clothes for as long as you like, as you might a Netflix DVD, but the monthly rental fee is a hefty $49.
True&Co is focused mostly on undergarments. You can try on up to five bras at home for free, although you have to make a $45 deposit. Like StitchFix, you can then opt to buy whichever ones you like for about $45 to $60 a piece, which is deducted from your deposit.
Of the three, I had the best experience with Stitch Fix. I started by filling out my online style profile, entering in my height, weight, usual clothing sizes and bra size. Then I told StitchFix my style preference, whether preppy, glamorous, edgy or classic. The quiz also asked me my occupation, whether I was a mom and if I wanted to link to a Pinterest page. This whole process took about five minutes.
Then I was asked when I wanted my first clothing “fix.” I like that StitchFix works around its customers’ schedules, instead of saying the shipment will arrive within three to five business days. With StitchFix, you can select a specific date that’s three or four days out. In my case, the lead time was closer to a week. I chose August 21, and that’s when my box arrived.
You also have the option to get regular monthly fixes with StitchFix, but I opted not to sign up for that to start.
I was pleasantly surprised. Five items were delivered — a lacy trench coat, a blouse (with cats on it!), a striped sweater, a cardigan and pair of black stretch jeans. Most of the items fit well, with the exception of the striped sweater, which was snug. The clothes ranged in price from $30 to $158. The box not only includes a clear-cut list of all of the items and their individual prices, but StitchFix also attaches a label to each piece of clothing that offers more insight into the fabric, or style suggestions.
What really sold me, though, was that the fix actually felt personalized. I had written in a “notes” section of the site that I’m about to make a lifestyle change and move to California, so a StitchFix employee included a note explaining why she chose each piece for me; the high-waisted black jeans are good for bike riding, for example.
I kept the $78 jeans; the $20 “styling fee” I had already paid went toward that purchase. The biggest downside to StitchFix is the return time: The company requires that you return any items you don’t intend to keep within three days. (All three services I tested provide a free shipping label and pouch, but their return times vary.)
StitchFix Note
The company says it does this to maintain its inventory, and also to prevent users from treating StitchFix like a pseudo-rental service. If you call StitchFix customer service with a request for extension, they might grant it, but there’s no guarantee.
My experience with Le Tote was similar to StitchFix, with two big differentiators: Le Tote is first and foremost a rental service, though you can also purchase the clothes; and I didn’t love all the clothes that came in my first box.
I filled out a style profile on the site, as I did with StitchFix. Then, I paid a $49 monthly fee to “rent” the clothes sent to me.
With Le Tote, I had to ask the company to expedite the shipping of the first box, due to the fact that I was moving and wanted to make sure I received the package beforehand, but Le Tote says most shipments usually arrive within five business days.
In my first box I received a fitted blouse, a printed skirt, a long, flowing dress, a chunky beaded necklace and a chain-link silver bracelet. I didn’t like the dress at first, but it eventually grew on me, and I considered buying it. The blouse and skirt weren’t my style. The necklace was the only item I really liked.
Le Tote also doesn’t tell you much about the clothing label or designer. I had never heard of the labels I received. Then again, I’m not much of a fashionista. But even on its website, Le Tote doesn’t show any info for the clothes it’s listing. For $49 a month, I’d like a little more insight into what I’m getting.
The good thing about LeTote is you won’t get charged any late fees if you hold on to the clothes. You can return the current batch and receive a new one as frequently as you’d like within a month. If you would like to keep an item, you simply send the other items back and hold onto that one.
Also, prices are better than StitchFix’s — dresses are $50, other garments are $30 and accessories range from $10 to $20. But the quality didn’t feel as good.
And then there’s True&Co. Ah, the bra. It’s a critical part of a woman’s wardrobe, but as you’ve probably heard before, many women are wearing the wrong size. True&Co aims to fix that for you. The company sends you five bras to try on at home, two of which are picked by the company after the site crunches your data.
Again, I filled out a detailed quiz. True&Co not only asked about my bra size and favorite style, but asked how my straps fit and which clasp I usually use in the back (apparently, any clasp other than the loosest one could be an indication of an ill-fitting bra).
The company then uses the data from the quiz and matches it to find bras with the right properties. Each bra True&Co lists has been tested extensively, the company says, and has more than 30 pieces of metadata — or, data about the data — attached to it, which helps True&Co make its recommendations to you.    
I was given a list of a few dozen bras that could work for me. I could choose three to try on, though there wasn’t an overwhelming number of bras in my size to pick from. Then the company picked two bras for me.
True&Co usually sends the bras for free within five to seven business days, but I paid $12 for expedited shipping. The bras arrived, and I liked the style of a couple of them, but didn’t like how they fit. They just didn’t do much for me. And, in what felt like an effort to reaffirm I’m wearing the wrong size, the bras the company chose were not my usual cup size and back size.
True&Co says that some of the bras it selects are from boutiques or European designers that may size things differently, which makes sense. You won’t see any Victoria’s Secret bras here, although you might see popular labels like Betsey Johnson. I may try it again, but in the meantime, I’ve exceeded the seven-day window for free try-ons and have been charged $130 in addition to the $45 deposit.
Fortunately, True&Co’s customer service reps were responsive and assured me that I’ll be refunded the full amount once I return the try-on box, as long as the bra tags are intact.
For these types of businesses, free try-ons or regular subscription shipments tackle both customer acquisition and recurring revenues in an efficient way. For the customer, though, a lot of it hinges on the fit, feel and overall quality of experience. Some of them nail this, but it’s clear others are still finding their way.