Before the financial meltdown, Olga Vidisheva worked in finance ("I wanted to make a difference, as surprising as that might sound") and found the job draining. When she was traveling overseas for work, though, she would take a breather, walk around an unfamiliar city, and do one of her favorite things—stop in a boutique. When she’d return to the states and friends would fawn over her purchases, Vidisheva was startled to learn that most of the boutiques she’d shopped at had no web presences to speak of. "Am I missing something?" she thought. The gears began to turn—and continued to do so through her time at Harvard Business School.
Recently, Vidisheva’s startup, Shoptiques (tagline: "Shop the world’s best boutiques"), entered a new and more serious phase, unrolling sales software that will enable the company to scale. Shoptiques—which enables users to buy clothes at boutiques from all over the world—provides inventory management tools for retailers, and offers web-based tools to drive sales (an ability to search for an item across all of a neighborhood’s boutiques, say). Videsheva endeavors to have 1,000 boutiques in its system this year. There’s certainly demand: "We reject over 80% of stores that apply to be featured," she says.
Before Vidisheva launched Shoptiques in 2012, she spent hours interviewing hundreds of boutique owners. What she found was that many simply had no interest in forming a web presence, even if they knew it would be good for their brand or bottom line. "These people just had no clue how to do this," says Vidisheva. "They’re brilliant in merchandising and supply chains, but they had no interest in e-commerce. We provide services that they just don’t know how to do, or don’t want to do."
As an example, she asks me to Google "Pinkyotto," a hip brand with a strong New York presence. Pinkyotto’s own website comes up, and I click through, but as soon as I try to shop through the site, I’m redirected to Shoptiques’ own Pinkyotto-dedicated page. Pinkyotto has essentially outsourced all their e-commerce to Shoptiques’ infrastructure, and Shoptiques takes a cut of the revenue.
If that seems like something anyone could do, think again (and consider that Y Combinator, for one, believed in Vidisheva, providing seed funding and making her their first non-technical, non-partnered cadet in the famed accelerator, she says). Vidisheva points to the example of OpenTable as another startup that would seem replaceable, yet has been extremely savvy about insinuating itself into restaurants’ businesses in a non-replaceable way—by integrating with their in-house table management systems, for instance. "The brilliance of OpenTable is that it went deep into the infrastructure of restaurants," she says. "That’s why no one’s been able to replace them."
Vidisheva wants to achieve something similar with her software, which is why Shoptiques has become something more than a mere payments infrastructure. By using point-of-sale software called LightSpeed, Vidisheva is able to link her own business to that of her clients’ in deeper and deeper ways. For instance, whereas formerly boutiques would have to manually enter updates to their inventory for those changes to register on Shoptiques, the LightSpeed integration does this automatically—making a store’s Shoptiques page a neat mirror of what goes on in the brick-and-mortar location. "We’re fully integrating into the lifecycle" of partner boutiques, says Vidisheva. "So if any competitor comes in, boutiques will say, ‘What are you talking about? We’re already fully integrated with Shoptiques.’"
Shoptiques has wound up being something like the IT guru for each and every boutique, in a sense. Take, for instance, the case of what Vidisheva calls #shopstagram. Many boutiques have gotten into the habit of posting Instagram photos of their wares for publicity. But there was no infrastructure available to allow followers to know how many of this item were available, or to point them in the right direction to buy online. Using a bit of back-end wizardry, Vidisheva trained her boutiques to include a bit of metadata with each Instagram posting, which Shoptiques algorithms would then process directly into its own systems. Now a boutique can post an Instagram photo, simultaneously stimulating demand for a product, letting Shoptiques know just how much of the product is available, and driving users to the relevant Shoptiques page to make a purchase.
The new LightSpeed integration goes a step beyond this clever Instagram hack, making Shoptiques constantly up to date on all inventory. It also allows novel shopping behavior: the shopper who eyes a dress in full stock on Friday, then sees its numbers dwindle online over Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, can confidently snap up the last dress online on Tuesday. And as Shoptiques acquires more and more data on behavior like this, it will be in a position to provide analytics back to the boutique owners. She aims to be far more than the pipes processing payment for fancy dresses: "I want to get to the point where if you’re a new owner starting a store, you say, ‘Shoptiques—that’s all I really need.’"
In a recessionary era—and one in which one particular e-commerce site is squeezing retailers everywhere—Vidisheva claims that her site can be the difference between life and death for some stores. She points to the example of one Arizona boutique, Clothes Minded, that recently saw a dreadful lull in foot traffic over a particularly sweltering summer. The owner wrote Vidisheva to say that but for online sales that season, the business was likely to have gone under. "They understand that we eliminate the cyclicality and seasonality of the business," says Vidisheva.
After all, she says, even if your New York boutique has leftover bikinis come winter, "you can send to Hawaii year-round."
[Images courtesy of Shoptiques]