Online stores such as Amazon and Zappos are known for offering a vast array of products. But is that always what shoppers want? When people are confronted with too many options, they often walk away without buying anything at all.
To combat that choice fatigue, a wave of new companies are creating cleaner, simpler product-purchasing experiences by eliminating the selection process altogether. Stitch Fix, Quarterly, and Fancy, among others, let customers shop via subscription, automatically sending a package of handpicked items each month. It's like the Fruit of the Month Club meets a Barneys personal shopper.
The Silicon Valley–based startup Stitch Fix—which was created by Harvard Business School alum Katrina Lake and recently closed $12 million in funding—uses a combination of algorithms and personal stylists to select clothing for custom-made boxes, or "fixes." Customers fill out an extensive survey on the site, which helps determine what they receive. Fixes include five pieces of apparel and accessories, each averaging $65. (Fix recipients can send back whatever they don't want, free of charge.) Kiwi Crate, founded by former eBay fashion GM Sandra Oh Lin, sends its members collections of themed activities and games (safari bingo, pixie paper dolls) tailored for young kids. And companies like Quarterly and Fancy tap celebrity curators to cull the offerings: Quarterly has boxes put together by Project Runway judge Nina Garcia ($100 per box) and musician Pharrell Williams ($50 per box), while Fancy sells subscriptions to collections created by celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Kelly Rowland ($39 a month). "People want a new way to connect deeper with someone they value either as talent or a curator of style," says Rory Golod, VP of business development at Fancy. "I think people like the idea that they get a surprise."
Subscription retail has been around for years (remember the Columbia House record club?), and newer companies such as Birchbox have found success applying the model to beauty samples and other relatively inexpensive products. But the latest curation services offer higher-end products—and a more intimate experience. For Williams's recent Quarterly box, for example, he personally annotated a copy of Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist. "It's one thing to talk about something I love on Twitter or Facebook, but it's a completely different experience to share it in the physical form," says the music producer. "The only way to truly explain how much I love The Alchemist was by sharing Post-it Notes on all the pages that especially resonated with me."
At both Quarterly and Fancy, curators receive a percentage of the revenue that their boxes generate. This winds up being "decent money for the amount of time they spend," according to Quarterly CEO Mitch Lowe, who previously ran Redbox and cofounded Netflix. "But they usually do it for other reasons," such as brand building.
For all of the fun and convenience that subscription services offer customers, the business itself has its share of hurdles. Coordinating the distribution of such a broad assortment of ever-changing products is—to put it mildly—complicated. "There are a lot of moving parts," says Golod. "You need to package these things together, ship them out on time, and when you multiply that by thousands of subscribers, it can be very challenging."
And procuring enough unique, appealing products to regularly fill boxes isn't always easy. "We're doing our best, but our model really does depend on us being able to have five wonderful, relevant things to send," says Lake. "Every once in a while, we have to tell customers they have to wait to get a fix that's perfect for them. We'd rather you have one that you love rather than one that we can ship tomorrow."
Keeping a diverse assortment of subscribers satisfied is ultimately the biggest challenge, since customers will stick around only if they truly love the products that are being picked on their behalf. With that in mind, Lowe is deeply invested in detailed customer feedback, a strategy he also employed at Netflix. So far, it seems to be working. Typically, Lowe says, each Quarterly shipment results in just two to three refund requests per curator.
As yet, these services are small. Lowe is hoping to attract more customers—Quarterly now has about 11,000 subscribers—by expanding his current list of 46 curators to include YouTube stars, athletes, and CEOs. But the real key to expanding these businesses might lie in the tastes of their ordinary customers. "If you have 50 friends who like your style and follow you on Instagram and Twitter," says Golod, "why shouldn't you be able to package together a bunch of products that they'd sign up for each month? That's something we think could be the future of this business: turning everyone into a curator."
A closer look at one of Quarterly's offerings, curated by fashion guru Nina Garcia
- Faux-fur stole created exclusively for this box by Adrienne Landau
- Pearl+ detox soap, made of charcoal and crushed pearls
- Vbeauté antiaging skin-care products
- Too Faced lip cream
- Essie Shearling Darling nail polish
- Leather studded cuff designed by BaubleBar, also available only in this package
NOT PICTURED: JACK VARTANIAN EAR CUFF, COPY OF MARIE CLAIRE MAGAZINE
A version of this article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.