Insights

The Lion, the Witch and the Amazon Prime Wardrobe

Head of Fashion and Retail
Valtech

August 14, 2017

Is it just me, or is anyone else out there a little scared by Amazon’s unrelenting advances on – apparently – pretty much any and every area of the retail world?

Is it just me, or is anyone else out there a little scared by Amazon’s unrelenting advances on – apparently – pretty much any and every area of the retail world? The scariest thing, in my opinion? Every digital agency, not least us, here at Valtech, bangs on about the importance of beautiful user experiences. And yet Amazon has managed to reap huge successes based on a user interface which appears to hail from somewhere in the mid-90s.

With this perplexing backdrop, I was fairly shocked to learn that Amazon had launched their “Prime Wardrobe” service in the US. Shocked, but also indignant. I felt that it was an audacious move by the organisation which, let’s face it, is hardly known for its haute couture. Yes, they’ve hired a few design and buying director people from well-known clothing brands in an attempt to bring in some cool. But one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Aren’t they going to need a more fundamental repositioning in people’s minds to enable them to conquer the deeply brand-driven and feverishly competitive land of clothes?

I also feel that, if they are going to launch such a concept, they’ve really missed a trick. What is Amazon known for? Amazing algorithms. World-class data capability. So why have they not thought to add some of their machine learning into the new service in order to replicate a real-life stylist? As I understand it, so far the service offers no such capability.

Online personal styling is a concept I’ve been fascinated by for a while now. I think it gives a real insight into people’s psychology; and specifically, the buying habits of men vs. women. Several men in the Valtech office are customers of such services, such as The Chapar and Thread. I once persuaded Mr Howard to mystery shop one of the UK styling services. Whilst the sign-up was fun and straightforward, what happened next was less “seamless” (sorry). He received a truly massive “trunk”, and from the printed list of garments within, it was difficult to identify which thing was which. No pictures, no clues, no slick little app, no real-time feedback. For an ostensibly digital service, it was a bit of a let-down.

There have been plenty of start-ups which have tried and failed in this space. It’s a tough market, where convincing customers to pay extra for a styling service which they may perceive they can get for free elsewhere is a real challenge. And, even where these companies have negotiated deals with retailers, the margins are pretty small. However, I like to see the little guys succeed, and it seems to me that some of the latest companies have decent digital offerings which they’re working hard to improve iteratively.

I bemoan the fact that there are precious few such online services for women. Thread.com’s website still says that their women’s service is “in the pipeline”. Why, Thread, why?! From what I’ve witnessed vicariously, these companies offer good customer experiences, especially in the initial sign-up process; albeit there are a few start-uppy wrinkles in the execution further down the line. They’re mostly simple and intuitive to use. And the people who use them get to feel a bit cool by subscribing to a hipster-esque service for “those in the know”.

This is why I just don’t get the Amazon version. It has precisely none of these attributes. It’s not known for its sartorial expertise or cutting-edge capsule collections. It doesn’t have a lovely, gamified, user experience. And it’s certainly not remotely edgy or exclusive.

Is this a bridge too far for Amazon? Or will their team of data scientists come up with the mother of all styling algorithms to defy all the preconceptions of people like me, and make me eat my words in a few months’ time?

For the time being, I’ll be watching with interest to see what happens with Amazon’s latest service. Will people – especially women, whose shopping habits and loyalties are probably more complex than men’s – flock in their droves to get a piece of the action? Or will they hang this latest idea out to dry?

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