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How ModCloth Built a Culture of Tech Experimentation

The startup has been busy decking out its site and app in fun new features lately. Here's why.

In the short history of fashion e-commerce, ModCloth is something of a dinosaur. Launched in 2002 in Pittsburgh, Penn., the site quickly endeared itself to a hip young clientele with a range of affordable, vintage-inspired clothing swinging toward twee. For context, Net-a-Porter left mouths agape when it took a gamble on selling luxury online in 2000. Like we said: a dinosaur.

But ModCloth has taken pains to stay nimble, and its tech team has been cooking up a storm lately, regularly rolling out new features to add a little something extra to its e-commerce experience.

First there was "Style Gallery," launched in November of 2012, which allows shoppers to upload photos of themselves wearing their ModCloth merch. Exactly one year later the company released "Fit for Me," through which customers can search product reviews from women of similar size to them. This April, ModCloth introduced "Love It or Leave It," a mobile feature similar to Tinder — just for dresses with Peter Pan collars, not for potential beaus. "Color Capture" followed in June, giving shoppers the option to take a photo of a color swatch on their phone and find products of a matching hue. 

A lot of them sound like startup ideas. In fact, a lot of them are: Consider Mallzee or Kwoller on the Tinder-for-shopping front. 

The thing about these add-ons is that they're fun. ModCloth has been investing money and manpower in building out an ecosystem of tech features that makes its site not just a place to shop, but something that's social and entertaining. 

The features serve different purposes, explains Jennifer Grasso, senior director of product. Some are designed to provide inspiration to shoppers (Style Gallery), while others are more about discovering and shopping new products (Love It or Leave It). But the goal is that they'll work together to create a shopping cycle that involves not just the individual but the community at large. Someone might discover a new product on Love It or Leave It or Color Capture, look at reviews of it on Fit for Me, purchase it and then add a photo to Style Gallery, spreading that item's reach to the next shopper. 

The economics of developing these new features also needs to be considered holistically. According to ModCloth CEO Eric Koger, each is a meaningful investment from an HR and budgetary standpoint, but not all deliver the same returns in the form of sales dollars. 

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"Some features pay for other features," Koger says.

But sometimes the benefit of a new tool isn't about how often it moves a user to the checkout page. Engagement means a lot. While the management of many e-commerce sites revolves around conversion rates on a visit-by-visit basis, what matters more to Koger is the share of a shopper's wallet or closet that ModCloth has at the end of the day.

"If you have an entertaining experience, you can't expect them to buy something every time they visit," he says. 

That's especially true for mobile, which is in many ways the ideal platform for delivering the fun. More than 50 percent of ModCloth's traffic now comes from mobile, be that on the app or a web browser, and the more fans play around and window shop on their phones, the more the engagement-to-purchase ratio is going to increase. Swiping through products on Love It or Leave It is designed to be addictive, but it's not necessarily going to result in an immediate sale. 

A lot of ideas get scrapped along the way. The original concept for Style Gallery effectively got killed, replaced by a series of iterations that finally arrived at its present form. Grasso's team often uses the app as its experimentation ground; it comprises a smaller but more loyal segment of ModCloth's customer base. She prefers to launch beta tests of potential features on the Android version since her team can develop them faster. 

So what's up next? Grasso's team is currently testing shoppable profiles where customers can see each others' outfit photos, favorite products and reviews in one place, with the hope of bringing that to mobile soon. Then the team will keep hacking away. Nothing about the way a retailer should sell online is set in stone just yet.

"This is still the Wild West of e-commerce," Koger says.