NEW YORK, United States — Fashion brands are finally making a real effort online, launching increasingly sophisticated e-commerce sites that often do more business than flagship stores. But as usual, Andy Moss is ahead of the curve.
A British transplant to California's Silicon Valley, Andy launched fashion shopping site ShopStyle back in 2007. Then described as "a search engine devoted to fashion," the site set a new standard for shopping online, providing a front-end experience that was more like browsing a fashion magazine or shopping a clothing rack than squinting at thumbnail results.
Today, Andy is on the cutting edge of "social shopping," a combination of shopping and social networking that's changing the way we shop for fashion online. Indeed, ShopStyle now offers social features that let people create their own looks and share them with friends, harnessing the "many-to-many" medium of the web to turn consumers into online stylists who inspired each other as they shop.
In September 2008, as retail sales began to slip, ShopStyle launched in the UK, with high street and designer partners alike, including Net-a-Porter, Miu Miu, Christian Louboutin, Topshop, Miss Selfridge, French Connection and House of Fraser.
BoF recently caught up with Andy over email to talk about the evolution of ShopStyle, the initial results of the UK expansion, shopping as entertainment, the power of community, online fashion mavens, and the future of social shopping.
BoF: Let's start at the beginning. Why did you decide to start ShopStyle?
My previous company was focused on shopping locally, everything from electronics to groceries to fashion. Every day, "shoes" was one of the 10 most popular search terms. When that company did not work out, I started looking hard at the fashion space and quickly determined that existing shopping engines were great if you wanted to buy a camera or book, but did a terrible job for apparel and, as a result, most women went directly to their favorite store's own website. But they were still cross-shopping many stores and a site that brought together the best stores and brands in one place would be compelling. And so we started ShopStyle!
BoF: When you first launched, ShopStyle was described as "Google for the fashion world." How has the site evolved since then?
We strive to provide the best search and browse experience in fashion - your "Google for Fashion" analogy - but equally important has been the development of our social shopping and community features that let our users create personal stylebooks to capture their favorite looks, creating spreads with favorite items from across our stores and brands. Fashion in the real world is a highly social activity - where shopping is entertainment and best shared with friends. We wanted to replicate that for the online world. Our stylebooks allow any ShopStyle user to be a stylist with an unlimited budget. We are continually amazed and impressed by the quality and looks that are created - which in turn provide inspiration for other ShopStyle users who actively comment and share ideas with their ShopStyle friends and followers.
BoF: Although it's often described as a shopping site, ShopStyle doesn't actually sell clothing or accessories. How do you generate revenue?
Much like Google, we help our users search and browse bringing together the most fashionable stores and brands - all in one place. Once you find an item you like, you click through to product page on the retailer's site where you can make the purchase. We either get paid a commission for sales that occur based on our referrals or simply a cost per click for each referral we make. Given the popularity of ShopStyle (plus partner sites like InStyle and Elle where we power shopping) we are already one of the top referrers of traffic to many of our retail partners.
BoF: As you mentioned earlier, ShopStyle brings a social dimension to online shopping. Your "stylebooks" feature lets shoppers create and share looks, follow the looks created by others, and becomes "friends." Tell me more about "social shopping." How large is the ShopStyle community? And how important is it to the overall site?
The ShopStyle community creates hundreds of looks everyday that are browsed by thousands of users comprising a core audience that simply loves fashion. And in today's world people actually trust other users as much, if not more, than they do traditional channels (especially marketing). For our community, ShopStyle is as much about entertainment as it is shopping.
BoF: But what is the impact on sales? Does "social shopping" generate higher sales figures than traditional online retail?
All of the items featured in stylebooks link to the stores where they can be purchased. Users that engage with our community come back more often and typically spend more through ShopStyle. We also make it easy to take the looks that you create on ShopStyle and embed them within a blog, alongside an editorial story, or to add to their Facebook profile. So social shopping also significantly extends our reach beyond the core ShopStyle website.
BoF: Last autumn, as brick-and-mortar retail sales dropped dramatically, ShopStyle launched in the UK. How have the initial results been?
Our US site launched in 2007 and has over 3 million unique visitors/month. We launched ShopStyle UK in September 2008 and is actually growing at a faster pace, quickly reaching half a million unique visitors/month. We have seen little slowdown following the holiday season - for example, our February traffic was higher than December. Moreover our online retail partners have been very impressed with the quality of the traffic we send them.
Fortunately, online remains the one bright spot in the retailing landscape!
BoF: Malcolm Gladwell says the success of any kind of "social epidemic" depends on the participation of mavens, "people we rely upon to connect us with new information." One might say fashion trends follow a similar logic. Does ShopStyle foster and/or reward fashion mavens?
I would agree that a core group of fashion mavens comprises the heart of the ShopStyle community. And from the earliest days we were fortunate to resonate with fashion bloggers and other key influencers. That said, the only rewards we really provide come in the form of enjoyment in participating and recognition from other ShopStyle members. We do sometimes run "create a look" contests or sweepstakes - usually to win a beautiful prize furnished by own of our retail partners - but those are open to anyone, not just the mavens.
BoF: Your "celebrity stylebooks" feature looks worn by Kate Moss, Lindsay Lohan, Julia Restoin-Roitfeld, Mary-Kate Olsen, Gwen Stefani and other celebrity style icons. How influential are these stylebooks? Does the community follow the celebs or do they favor looks posted by fellow users?
The celebrity stylebooks are popular, especially amongst newer users to ShopStyle, and help get people interested in creating their own stylebooks. But, I'd say that the looks from fellow users are far more important and the community places a much, much higher value on these.
BoF: How are fashion brands participating in ShopStyle? Do they create and share their own stylebooks? Are they a credible part of the community?
Yes, fashion brands are able to create their own stylebooks, but we require that they acknowledge that they represent that brand as part of their profile. We maintain credibility by not allowing brands to pay us for participation or placement of their stylebooks.
If they create great stylebooks and are brands that help and resonate with our users then they can engage in the conversation. And they have to be authentic.
BoF: Social shopping is growing in popularity. Are we going to witness a social shopping boom? How will ShopStyle compete with the mainstream social networks like Facebook who are positioning to enter the social shopping space?
ShopStyle is both a shopping and search engine for fashion as well as a social shopping site. Our focus on a single vertical allows us to do that vertical extremely well rather than a Google or Facebook that cover all categories and topics. And we believe that online will continue to take a much larger percentage of overall retail sales for which we are very well positioned.
By providing widgets and APIs we make it very easy to integrate our shopping content with the mainstream social networks. We also partner to provide fashion shopping with many editorial sites including Elle and InStyle in the UK (with several more to be announced shortly).
So, I am very bullish about all aspects of our business - including social shopping!
Vikram Alexei Kansara is a digital strategist and writer based in New York.