It’s the age of mobile discovery in fashion.
Having oodles of looks isn’t enough — digital merchants have to find ways to serve style up to shoppers that are attractive, easy and aspirational.
That’s a tall order, both on the front and back ends for businesses.
Marketplaces like Amazon work well for people who know precisely what they want. But the question of just how to point shoppers toward other products they might like continues to challenge e-commerce across the board.
“Discovery is a huge problem,” said David Weiss, a partner at retail consulting firm McMillan Doolittle in Chicago and a veteran of companies such as Old Navy and Levi Strauss. “But it’s also a huge opportunity. Retailers that are able to make product search and transactions as easy as possible will be the ones to survive and thrive.”
Retailers and brands are grappling with several ways to tackle discovery, from manually flowing in recommendations one at a time to relying on artificial intelligence to serve up fashion selections. Many join forces with tech providers. Others rake through purchase histories, sizes, browsing behaviors and more themselves, using in-house expertise to build algorithms.
At the Code Conference in May, Stitch Fix founder and chief executive officer Katrina Lake offered a glimpse of how her approach to data. “We use experts and data science combined to be able to take that burden of discovery out of consumers’ hands,” she said, emphasizing that the goal was “to ultimately deliver them what they really want — which is the clothes that make them feel their best.”
Stitch Fix is known for its use of artificial intelligence, but the tech isn’t only for the Silicon Valley set. Forward-leaning brands such as Diane von Furstenberg have also been jumping into the fray.
“We’ve been working with Qubit a lot on that discovery phase on the mobile device, and trying to show the customer products that are most relevant to her,” said Felipe Araujo, DVF’s senior director of e-commerce, referring to the marketing-personalization tech company.
The latest to come up with a solution for discovery — maybe — is Manish Chandra, founder and ceo of Poshmark, the six-year-old social platform for fashion sales.
The company introduced a feature called Posh Markets, which at first blush looks like a relatively straightforward tweak to the Poshmark app and mobile site. The update adds menu items that take shoppers to one of six sections, devoted to men, women, kids’, plus, boutiques and luxury.
The notion isn’t new in mobile commerce. Other app developers offer similar sections or break them out into separate apps, á la the Amazon model, which distributes the Amazon app, Prime Now and a slew of other Prime service apps.
But something more is going on at Poshmark that speaks to the industry’s broader focus on discovery.
“Our initial idea was to create a collection of apps that focuses on each experience, so a Posh men’s app, a Posh kids’ app, a Posh luxury app, a Posh boutiques app,” Chandra told WWD. “But the challenge with multiple apps, is that it’s very, very complex for the consumer to manage them. As you know, consumers are really moving toward a fewer number of apps that they want to have a relationship with.”
DVF’s Araujo noted a similar app fragmentation.
“There’s a gap between discovery and shopping on mobile,” he said. “Discovery usually happens on social media, on Instagram, et cetera. Going from seeing an image on Instagram to shopping, it’s a very disjointed experience that you leave the app.” DVF aims to unify the discovery experience “within our four walls, versus being in one app and having to move to the other app.”
Poshmark, as a mobile social-shopping platform, has that approach baked in. But there was no obvious way to expand product discovery further. There were no apt examples to follow — not when e-commerce developers tend to split up apps or cram categories into existing ones. Both tacks create navigation issues, shuttling users off to new pages or applications.
Instead, Chandra aimed to take the best parts of each approach and blend them into something new. “It’s as if you have all these apps in one app,” he said. “When you swipe to a different market, it’s almost as if you’ve moved to a different app. But you never go to a different app. You’re just right there, and then you have everything consistent.”
The bottom “shop,” “sell” and “news” sections move along with the action, adapting to whatever market the user chooses. If the shopper selects men, for instance, the news section changes as well, flowing in feeds highlighting men’s wear and accessories from the user’s favorite seller stylists.
The simple interface belies the intensive work involved.
Chandra, who has a background in database architecture, knew that his team had a Herculean task in front of it. The group had to dig in and tag all the assets in the marketplace, which serves up 75 million listings from four million seller stylists across five million brands. According to the company, one in 30 women in America sell on the platform.
Reimagining the shopping experience at that scale is no easy feat. The developers used database technologies like Redis and MongoDB — “some fairly deep tech,” as Chandra put it — to sift through, label and categorize the items. Then it coded the new Posh Markets to focus on each theme and relevant featured products.
The result is a system that doesn’t force sellers to learn a new or more complicated process, but can still adapt based on the shopper’s interests.
“A customer could one day shop for [looks for] a boyfriend and be in the men’s category, or she could shop for luxury, or she could just be in generic women’s for her normal, day-to-day shopping,” the ceo said. “And so Posh Markets allows us to, in the same app, deliver not just to multiple people, but also to the same person who’s in different shopping modes through her life cycle.
“This is something that most retailers are missing. Because people think of mobile shopping in the same way they think of desktop shopping,” Chandra said. He pointed to the example of Amazon, which just broke sales records with its Prime Day. “In some ways, we’re a tiny, tiny little company compared to the big boys in Seattle. But in the end, they created the desktop-search retail generation.”
He noted that online shopping on full-fledged computers doesn’t pose the same navigational challenges as on mobile. The act of shopping on phones is much more repetitive, intensive and discovery-oriented. The stakes are also higher, because the smallest irritations or even a little sluggishness can prompt a customer to leave and go watch an Instagram video instead.
“We expect this to be a real parting of seas. We can launch new things on this platform and cover the broader landscape quickly,” he added.
With the outlines set now, Chandra believes this is just the beginning. “Over time, this gives us a platform for massive expansion,” he said. “We can add new things, we can add home decor, we can add streetwear into the platform. We also find the basis of international expansion because, if you think of a market, the U.S. is a market and Canada is, yet, just another market. It allows us to horizontally expand, geographically expand and also slice and dice different paradigms.”
He envisions new Posh Markets based on markets, geography, festivals like Coachella, seasonal shopping and other themes. With the tags, database architecture and a learning-based approach, the system could create whatever new shoppable categories the company sees fit.
The strategy smacks of artificial intelligence, though Chandra is careful not to label the Posh Markets development as full AI — “it’s roots-based and learning-based…so it’s in that direction,” he said — but there’s little doubt that the massive tagging effort will serve its AI ambitions well. The data, properly labeled and categorized, gives the system a robust wellspring of identifiable assets to use in automating recommendations.
Part of the $87.5 million in its last funding round in November went into this tech stack. This year, the company also passed a few more milestones, having disbursed as much as $1 billion to its community of seller stylists, one of which became the platform’s first official Poshmark-made millionaire.
If Posh Markets solves the mobile discovery equation, there could be many more.