On the surface, Allume looks like yet another on-demand styling service. The experience begins with a questionnaire and ends with a box of clothes on a doorstep. Indeed, at its core, that’s essentially what the apparel subscription business will offer female consumers, starting today.
The company is entering a crowded space, with rivals like Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, Wantable, DailyLook, Gwynnie Bee and many more. Meanwhile, the popularity of subscriptions seems to leap from one vertical market to the next — from cosmetics purveyor Birchbox to Gap, which is selling baby apparel subscriptions.
Allume is betting on its primary differentiator: Its personalized service comes courtesy of an actual person, who hand-selects every item in a subscriber’s box. The concept may seem quaint, but it could be a breath of fresh air for a retail sector that’s bursting with artificial intelligence stylists and machine curation.
There’s another twist, which is evident upon reviewing the founder’s bio: Mauria Finley counts stints at eBay, PayPal, AOL and Netscape on her résumé. She’s also founded two start-ups that have sold for millions to Care.com and Motorola, and holds a pair of computer science degrees from Stanford University. With her current enterprise, the seasoned e-commerce pro looks like she’s pulling a 180-degree reversal from everything she’s ever done.
The connection between her business and her experience might not be obvious, but for Finley, it makes perfect sense. Citrus Lane, her previous start-up, familiarized her with the subscription model. The service sold monthly subscription boxes of products for children and babies. Moms loved it. So did Care.com, which bought the business in 2014 for $48.6 million.
Her experience as lead of new ventures for eBay gave her another tentpole. “I fell in love with e-commerce at eBay,” she said. “Fashion, home decor, electronics and the tech powering the site. I had the really fun job of how to win above Amazon, [and when] they decided to go after fashion, I spent a bunch of time learning how women shop.” Later, she joined the board of Fossil Group, giving her even more fashion cred.
One thing she’s learned: A box of surprises might be fun, but women often don’t like what the algorithms put inside.
“Tech can create efficiencies, but it needs a human element,” said Ann Crady Weiss, venture partner at True Ventures. As an investor, Weiss is wary of innovation-obsessed firms that put the technology first and the user second. When Allume hit her radar, she saw an opportunity and signed up as a client during the beta test. Then she drove her firm’s $3 million investment in the start-up’s seed funding.
“I’m almost entirely an e-commerce buyer,” Weiss explained. “Now I have a personal stylist, who knows who I am, what I like. I tell her to ping me every two weeks.” The stylist has scouted some personal favorites, including a pair of jeans. She was uncertain about the splurge, but now adores the item. “[The experience] has made me feel more confident in my style evolution,” she said.
That trust and relationship are the linchpins of Allume’s business. “The idea is technology, wrapped in humans,” Finley said. Her team of part-time professional stylists scours the Internet, effectively making the web its vast product catalog. Clients sign up, submit a detailed questionnaire and view selections through the online portal. Along the way, the company tracks the success of certain looks against general preference profiles. But its algorithms do not choose the clothes. They choose the stylist and match the client.
“The idea is to use data to help you find the right personal shopper,” said Finley. “It’s a human relationship. For the first consultation, they connect via text messaging.” The founder eschewed a mobile app, figuring that calls and texts would “create a really personal feeling.”
Compare that to Stitch Fix, which applies data science to practically every aspect of its operation. The company, which rolled out a luxury service this summer, has teams of data scientists to analyze price points and subscriber preferences. Machine learning informs its inventory forecasting system. A human edits the looks and makes adjustments to the final offering.
“Our human stylists are just as important as our algorithms,” said a Stitch Fix spokesman. “While the algorithm aids the stylist to surface many potential options for the customer, based on highest match scores for particular items to specific clients, the algorithm itself does not make any final selections — it simply narrows down the vast choices in Stitch Fix’s inventory to support the stylist. Our human stylists are far more than a quality assurance inspector — they’re professionally trained on fit, fabrication, seasonal trends, brands and more. Our algorithm is a powerful tool to the stylist, but our stylist provides the valuable human context to our client, relates to them, empathizes with them — tasks that computers are still very poor at.”
The distinction is one of ratios, with the new service leaning heavily toward human. There’s no difference in price, however. Like Stitch Fix, Allume costs $20 per month, and the fee goes toward any purchases.
For the money, Allume’s subscribers seem to get more than a couple of outfits stuffed inside a box. They get the care of an experienced stylist. If all goes well, they also get a relationship that could evolve and may be even inspire for years.