Confessions of a Stitch Fix addict: The key to subscription e-commerce

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on December 26, 2013

From The News Desk

When you google startup Stitch Fix, you'll come across the requisite TechCrunch, AllThingsD and Pando articles. It is, after all, a company backed by the likes of Benchmark, with none other than Bill Gurley on its board.

But as you skim the search results page, those stories are quickly drowned out by link after link to random blogs. If you follow the Internet rabbit hole, you'll find women of all shapes and sizes posing for selfies in front of mirrors, rocking statement necklaces and boho dresses.

With Stitch Fix, you fill out a fashion profile online and then every month you get a box of 5 clothing items picked for you by a 'stylist.' You keep what you want and send back what you don't want in a prelabeled, prepaid bag. It's free shipping both ways, so the service costs almost nothing. For each box you pay a $20 stylist fee, but if you keep even one item the $20 goes towards its cost.

Online, there's hundreds of posts from bloggers detailing their Stitch Fix experiences, all following roughly the same format. Selfies of them wearing each item, critiques of the clothes, decisions about what to keep and send back.

The grassroots passion for the service is clear and the excitement of the bloggers shines through their first post…and their second…and their third. People get hooked and keep coming back, because they love the delight and surprise of opening their "fix" and seeing what's inside.

Therein lies the Stitch Fix magic. After receiving my first Stitch Fix a week ago -- one I paid for myself -- I totally get it. It's like Christmas in a box. Every month. It helps that the items are personally selected for you by someone else, and said stylist hand signs the card.

With its delight-the-user touch, the company has avoided the classic subscription problem of spending loads of money to acquire customers who only stick around a few months. Since women are so fanatical about the service, they spread the word themselves, telling friends, family, and anyone who will listen on the Internet about it. Stitch Fix has been around for more than two years, but it only just hired its first marketing person in June.

The blogs penned by the Stitch Fix fans come with their own addictive qualities. When I wrote my first ever story on Stitch Fix, I spent an hour going through blog after blog of women posing in their "fix" outfits. It was fun. I picked out which items I thought were hits and which were misses,  examining the materials and the cuts. It was a visual feast, and I just kept clicking to see more.

"A lot of readers read these blogs to see what these clothes look like on average girls, not people styled head to toe for a look book or a catalogue," says Kaelah Bee, a longtime fashion blogger who has received 42 fixes since first trying the service in December 2011.

Perhaps this is what struggling subscription services like ShoeDazzle and BeachMint have been missing. With these subscription services, customers choose in advance what they're going to get. They're never surprised, and they never push their fashion or beauty boundaries by trying something they wouldn't have picked for themselves.

The joy of getting a box of goodies every month is not knowing what to expect. That's certainly part of the mojo that has kept beauty subscription companies like Birchbox and GlamBox going. Stitch Fix is just applying the same logic to clothing.

It's difficult to set up the massive operations behind such an endeavor. Since people are sending clothes back and forth to the Stitch Fix warehouse, the company has to make sure every piece is in top quality without rips, tears or stains, and re-iron them to perfectly-new perfection before shipping them out to the next customer. That would be the first critique of Stitch Fix a journalist might have made when writing about it in the early days. How the hell can such a complex e-commerce operation survive?

CEO Katrina Lake grew the company as slow as possible for that very reason. Stitch Fix is not afraid to employ long wait lists. Even today, the company has braking mechanisms in place. I bought my mom a Stitch Fix gift card for Christmas, and she couldn't schedule her first fix till March.

Stitch Fix may wind up losing customers who don't want to wait, but the team probably knows what they're doing. In addition to securing $12 million in a Series B led by Benchmark, Stitch Fix has also landed executives from Netflix, Walmart, Nike, and Crate&Barrel, with expertise in data science, retail operations, international markets, and marketing, respectively. The dream team is rounded out with a Bill Gurley - board member cherry on top.

My first box was by no means a home run. Many of the shirts were fashionable versions of 'mom jeans' clothes. I did, however, love a pair of bold purple jeans I would never have picked off a rack myself. In an ode to the Stitch Fix bloggers of the world, here's what I received. As you can see, I am terrible at taking selfies.

Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 3.18.51 PM

I have faith that my stylist will learn from my feedback card and send me more suitable clothing items next time. I liked this box enough -- and had so much fun opening it -- that I'm already hooked on the service and will give it at least a few more tries.

"Im so heavily invested in my Stitch Fix I haven't even wanted to look at any other [subscription e-commerce companies]," devoted Stitch Fix user and fashion blogger Kaelah Bee says. "I'm afraid it would just get out of control."

[Illo courtesy: Hallie Bateman for Pando]