For Neiman, Saks, Nordstrom the retail battle is getting more personal

Wealth

As department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue try to get shoppers back into stores after the Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns, the shift to online sales may continue to accelerate thanks to personalization technology.

Richard Lautens | Toronto Star | Getty Images

Personal shopping services once reserved for the wealthiest consumers are becoming increasingly popular amid the pandemic as high-end retailers shift online and consumers make more retail purchases from home.

These customized fashion styling services are becoming accessible to lower end fashion markets through social media and other technology, allowing employees from high-end brands like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and stand-alone retailers to connect with clients through a simple text or social media platform direct message.

Brands like Nordstrom have long offered proprietary personal styling services like Trunk Club and Style Links which allow salespeople to curate looks and sell on their social media platforms. During temporary store closures, they launched virtual styling appointments, which accounted for roughly 30% of all styling appointments in the third quarter, according to the company.

In the past year, Neiman Marcus too has accelerated the use of apps that connect clients with style advisors who can share recommendations using artificial intelligence or help with immediate shopping over the phone.

“This integration into using social features as part of our regular services allows our style advisors to help many clients at once, and provides effortless access to inventory and imagery of merchandise across all Neiman Marcus Group stores and warehouses, including items that are not online,” said Elizabeth Gleason, vice president of digital selling experience at Neiman Marcus Group.

The pandemic impact on shopping

Personal styling is not a new innovation. The pandemic has simply accelerated the rollout and cemented social media as a viable platform for building client relationships. In the past decade, mobile applications like Style Counsel emerged, offering users shopping advice, while subscription boxes and personal styling platforms like Frank & Oak, Dia & Co. and Stitch Fix bring personalized outfit options straight to your door. The consumer shift online is only accelerating the need to hone-in on personalization whether that be through machine-learned recommendations, personalized emails or targeted advertising.

Victoria Rivkin is one Saks sales associate who has shifted operations to social media. Through platforms like Facebook‘s Instagram, the once time-consuming process of following a potential client through the store is whittled down to a simple direct message, saving time and allowing Rivkin to juggle multiple clients at once.

“I don’t see in-store shopping being a thing in the future,” said Rivkin, who currently works at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s so much easier for people to do stuff online. It’s so much quicker, more effective.”

Stylists like Rivkin are also seeing a surge in younger generations and millennial clients looking for personalization, whether that be through investing in streetwear or entry level designer goods, said Sean Chalich, a Long-Island based personal stylist.

While personal styling allows sales associates to cash in on commission and build clientele from home, it’s also a win-win for retailers that drives sales, and according to research from McKinsey & Company, personalization can increase revenues by 5 to 15 percent.

Luxury brands including Kering-owned Gucci, LVMH‘s Louis Vuitton and others have long used social media to appeal to younger demographics, a powerful tool also used by influencers to rally millennials through sponsored content and curated feeds.

Automation and machine learning is making personal styling services more affordable. Using a combination of quizzes and consumer feedback, among other things, retailers can tailor the experience to the client and better comprehend their customers’ preferences without forcing a one-on-one meeting with a client and stylist.

Stitch Fix is one platform that’s utilizing a mix of automated machine learning and person-to-stylist interactions to curate clothing options that consider clients’ budgets, preferences and measurements. In the fiscal first quarter, the San Francisco-based personal styling service with styling options beginning at $30 for adults and $10 for children, reported that active clients reached 3.8 million, up 10.2% from the previous year. Shares of the company have soared this year recently topping $100 — it went public in 2017 at a stock value of $20.

The company recently launched style shuffle, an online game that allows users to thumbs up and down items, and assists in creating a personalized feed that takes into account individual consumer preferences. More than 50% of in-app users played the game daily during the first quarter of 2021 and Stitch Fix collected over six billion ratings since the tool launched in 2018.

What makes personal styling services such as Stitch Fix popular is their ability to shift with changing consumer patterns like the sweatpants and athleisure trend readily adapted at the beginning of the pandemic. But barriers to personalizing consumer shopping do exist. According to a study from the IBM Institute for Business Value, roughly 60% of retailers say they are not competent enough in delivering personalized customer service experiences. 

Bricks-and-mortar retail challenges

While many brands have begun investing in augmented and virtual reality technology for personalization appealing to younger generations, generational gaps persist, and difficult to use applications and buggy software deters older generations, said Karen Lee, a senior research specialist at Gartner.

Personal styling is shifting toward a long-term trend and moving down from the luxury market, but it is still a niche offering that encompasses a subset of clothing sales, cautions Aaron Cheris, a partner at Bain & Co. leading their Americas retail practice. 

“Yes it’s growing, yes some of it we gained during the pandemic is going to stay, but I wouldn’t want to overshoot the mark on how big it’s going to be relative to the rest of apparel sales,” Cheris said. 

Personalized shopping may provide a boost to both workers and retail companies, but it won’t turn the tide in the retail sector’s larger struggles.

Over the past year, several large-scale retail operations have closed shop or filed for bankruptcy as nationwide lockdowns and an uncertain economy forced consumers to curtail spending. Large-scale department stores including Neiman Marcus and J.C. Penney, rocked by declining sales from the pandemic that followed a longer-term bricks-and-mortar retail landscape challenges. 

In December, popular high-end retailer Century 21, a staple of discount high-end fashion in the New York-area, shut its doors after nearly 60 years in business. Lord and Taylor, one of the country’s oldest department stores, announced in August they would close all of their stores after nearly 200 years in business

For decades, malls have seen declining revenue as the e-commerce business revs up nationwide. Data from Coresight Research suggests that within the next three to five years about 25% of the roughly 1,000 current malls will close in the U.S.

But while malls and brick and mortar retail have seen a decline, they’re not going away, Cheris said. Despite the pandemic, retail sales also rose about 8.3% from 2019, according to data from the National Retail Federation, and in-store sales were up 3.6% in November and December year-over-year, making up 75% of retail sales, according to a Bain analysis.

“Even if they’re not selling it as a service the way Stitch Fix is, everybody is trying to figure out a way to make their marketing message and website more personally relevant,” he said.

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