There's no question that if there's one area ripe with potential on the retail market, it's in expanded sizing. But reaching plus-size customers isn't as easy as continuing to scale up existing patterns into bigger numbers; it can require a lot of costly trial and error experimentation with everything from new pattern-making to a change in fabrics, resources smaller brands don't always have at their fingertips.
Stitch Fix is aiming to take a lot of the guesswork out of those changes for many of its brands. Rather than hoarding their valuable data, the online personal styling service instead shares it with its brands, helping them to make the necessary tweaks to become successful in extended sizing.
"With the vision of Stitch Fix, from the very beginning, plus was part of it; what we're delivering at Stitch Fix is helping clients really transform the way that they're finding what they love," says Clare Benzian, Director of Plus at Stitch Fix. "It took us a few years to get the dedicated teams, to get the dedicated resources to work and educate our vendors, to be able to launch in a way that met our expectations and our client expectations."
The company was finally able to launch plus in 2016, and it's been working on improving it with the data ever since. Here's how it works: Stitch Fix is able to garner feedback from customers when they keep or return pieces from their boxes, learning every detail about their preferences, from the cut of their jeans and color palettes to what details on dresses they don't like and what kind of prints they don't want. They take that feedback back to their design teams to make the necessary changes that will better serve their customer.
For example: Stitch Fix learned that more tan half its plus customers were under 5'5", and realized the inseams it was offering were insufficient. Now, it offers eight different inseams so customers can buy jeans that need minimal tailoring. And instead of keeping this information exclusively for its in-house design teams, as many other retailers might do, it's sharing the same information with its other brands.
"They're very transparent with their information, and that's very innovative for a retailer because usually, a buyer comes in, chooses product based on X, Y, Z personal preference, but none of it is really customer-focused," says Sara Ahmed, CEO of Warp + Weft. "They give us that data, and then we use our supply chain, our fit expertise, our technology, and show them a bunch of fabrics in fits that already work for them. That really helps us come to a higher success rate."
"We're just relying on in-store staff feedback, which is nowhere near as accurate because with store staff, you're relying usually on their memory from their last customer," adds Arkun Durmaz, President of Mavi. "With this different approach, we can go to product categories where we normally wouldn't have; we know that we can start with something. We can get the feedback. We can improve it."
Indeed, many of the brands only began to broach the plus-size market thanks to encouragement from and partnership with Stitch Fix. That ability to know why a customer loves — or hates — a certain product saves brands valuable time and money. When Mavi first launched plus denim, Durmaz says, something went awry with sizing "on the edges" of the spectrum, but the middle numbers were being well-received. "That enables us to go back and look at our patterns and change the grading for certain sizes," he says.
Beyond fit, the data from Stitch Fix is also being used by brand partners to develop styles which might be better suited to the desires of the plus-size customer.
"A lot of times, we're taking things that are working in [straight] sizes and adapting them into the plus size," says Jonathan Greenberg, President of Kut from the Kloth. "Doing this business with Stitch Fix has really given us the ability to focus on the plus-size customer as just that customer — not treating it like an extension of another customer, but really catering to what that customer's needs are."
Greenberg notes that the Kut from the Kloth team sits down with the Stitch Fix team and go over the customer feedback, even including notes as to where the quality of their product sits in the customer's mind compared to other brands. The details get granular; a style of work pant with a hook and eye closure wasn't getting great feedback from the plus customer, so Kut from the Kloth switched to a button closure.
"It's little things like that where you're just getting the direct feedback that you wouldn't normally get in a retail situation," Greenberg says. "You may have a style that just didn't sell and you never know why: Was it the pants? Was it the plaid? Was it the color? It could've been that they didn't like the hook and eye and they really needed a button."
Many brands argue that the plus-size customer isn't looking for more trend-oriented pieces, but by gathering this kind of precise data, Stitch Fix is able to show that perhaps the reason something isn't working comes down to something more technical than a skittishness around style. Benzian uses the example of a bright floral top.
"We might have that come into inventory and it didn't sell really well; we're able to really quickly dig into why and we can quickly find data that shows, 'oh, it's because all of our clients are saying, the crossed-back might be too tight, they can't move their arms when they put it on,'" she explains. "We use our technical design team to help support on how we might fix it and improve that product rather than say, 'Maybe we shouldn't sell yellow, floral tops.'"
Brands are able to take this feedback to product sold through their own e-commerce sites or even other retailers sites, but the relationship with Stitch Fix proves itself irreplaceable. Greenberg notes that Kut from the Kloth's own customers only send through notes if they really love or really hate the product, versus the constant feedback loop provided by the company's business model.
There are a lot of other bonuses to the model; brands are able to cut back on waste and produce more sustainably, reduce returns and discounts and experiment more with styles. Ultimately, though, the biggest beneficiary of all the data is the plus-size customer, who is being given more options in better quality than ever before.
"I think for a long time, fashion companies, retailers, have been all about a few people at the top dictating what happens with the customers, to the customers, and how they create the product," says Ahmed. "I think in the reversal of that role — especially for essentials like denim, knitwear, dresses — Stitch Fix has been very instrumental in giving the power to the customer, and so have we."