Fashion e-commerce websites

Source: NYTimes, May 2011

When Emily McNish shopped for jewelry online, she was overwhelmed by the options while searching for “gold necklace” on e-commerce sites or Google. Then she found a Web site called JewelMint that she lets shop for her.

JewelMint determined that Ms. McNish, 24, a university admissions counselor in Los Angeles, has “boho” style and likes big chunky jewelry. So on the first day of each month it offers her pieces that match her style. She has five days to choose a necklace, bracelet or ring.

She pays $29.95 a month for that service. “It’s sort of like being part of a secret club,” Ms. McNish said.

JewelMint is one of a new breed of e-commerce sites — which also include Send the TrendShoeDazzle,JustFabulousSole Society and the upcoming StyleMint — combining old-fashioned and new-fangled methods for luring customers. They present users with a limited selection of jewelry, shoes and accessories by coupling software algorithms that determine personal style with strategies culled from home shopping TV channels and CD-of-the-month clubs.

The sites are the latest example of retailers inventing new ways to shop online. The recent flurry of innovation in e-commerce has also produced private sale sites like Gilt and daily deal sites like Groupon. Like those, these shopping clubs aim to filter the seemingly infinite options online and show a small selection, catered to an individual’s taste.

JewelMint, Send the Trend and ShoeDazzle follow a similar recipe: a fashion celebrity designs or picks the styles (or just attaches his or her name to the project). Shoppers take a style quiz, confiding their go-to nail polish shades and whether they most covet the wardrobe of Nicole Richie or Reese Witherspoon. Each month, the site selects a handful of items and the shopper buys one for a set fee, skips the month, or forgets about it and gets charged that month’s fee, which can be applied to purchases over the next year.

“The first generation of e-commerce was about taking care of your chores — that’s Amazon,” said Jeremy Liew, managing director at Lightspeed Venture Partners, an investor in ShoeDazzle. “That’s not what gets people excited in the real world about shopping. This is about making shopping fun again.”

The shopping sites are the latest in a long line of Internet companies to try to use algorithms to determine personal taste. Pandora does it for music, Netflix does it for movies and eHarmony does it for dating. But the idea of applying a software algorithm to determine something as unique as someone’s personal style might seem anathema to dyed-in-the-wool fashion lovers.

The sites say they can do it because they learn enough from the style quizzes people fill out and their activity on the sites, like whether they view or buy certain items or mark them as favorites.

After a three-minute style quiz on ShoeDazzle that asks whether a shopper prefers Stella McCartney orGiorgio Armani and pumps or strappy sandals, the site proclaims, “If you were a shoe you’d be a calf-height embroidered-suede peep-toe bootie with a fringed cuff.” According to ShoeDazzle, that means she would like to buy steel-gray pumps with 4.5-inch heels or brown platform wedges with turquoise straps.

Google, which applies algorithms to nearly everything, is borrowing a similar concept for its high-fashion e-commerce site, Boutiques.com. Users take a style quiz and, based on the results and a shopper’s activity on the site, Google shows items they might like, including selections chosen by celebrities.

But the new shopping clubs add another element: monthly subscriptions. That gives them an excuse to send shoppers e-mail messages and pressure them to make a shopping decision on deadline as Gilt and Groupon do.

The strategy eliminates much of the business risk of ordering inventory, said BeachMint’s founders, Josh Berman and Diego Berdakin, because customers are urged to make a purchase each month and the companies learn to predict which items shoppers will buy.

Selling directly to consumers eliminates expenses too, the companies say. They generally design the items or hire private-label designers, find manufacturers to produce them and ship items themselves.

“Getting a piece of jewelry at Macy’s or Nordstrom, it keeps getting marked up all the way down from the manufacturer to the licensee,” Mr. Berman said. “We go right to the consumer.”

The items on the sites range from $30 to $50 a month. The retailers compare themselves to stores like H & M and Forever 21 — trendy and affordable, if not the highest quality.

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