October 15, 2012
For Jessie Neff, Christmas doesn’t just come in December. She said it’s “Christmas every month” when she receives her package from Birchbox.
An online beauty subscription service, Birchbox sends members a collection of sample-size beauty products tailored to individual preferences once a month. The site may not know Neff as well as friends and family who give gifts around the holidays, but it’s trying. In September, the 28-year-old’s box included nail polish in her favorite color: lime green.
By having users fill out personal style surveys, tracking browsing and purchase history, and employing behind-the-scenes styling teams, e-commerce businesses are trying to make every customer feel as if they have their own personal stylist.
Besides Birchbox, they include BaubleBar, ShoeDazzle and BeachMint’s six celeb-backed sites representing everything from home decor by Justin Timberlake to fashion by Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen.
As e-commerce continues to grow, shoppers are presented with a seemingly endless array of choices and decisions to make about what products to buy. Personal styling sites are attempting to make that process easier by “editing down all the noise,” as Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp said, using shoppers’ personal style and brand preferences to make specific-to-the-individual recommendations on everything from clothes to jewelry.
“Instead of ‘build it and they will come,’ these e-commerce merchants practice ‘personalize and push it, and they will shop,’” said Nita Rollins, a trends expert for digital marketing agency Resource.
And they are shopping—in some cases by the millions. ShoeDazzle, which sends users an email with a link to their “personalized boutique” of shoe styles every month, has 13 million members. Birchbox has “hundreds of thousands” of subscribers, Beauchamp says. And BaubleBar, which sells jewelry, says it gets about 400,000 unique views a month.
Tailored to taste
Any site’s specific number of users doesn’t necessarily translate into the same number of unique recommendations: ShoeDazzle has a team that classifies the site’s offerings by personality type, and at Birchbox, “different groups of people get the same types of boxes,” Beauchamp said.
But there are several ways each site targets its customers with products they will like. In general, the sites create user profiles based on style surveys and subsequent customer service interactions, including emails and phone calls, and a user’s browsing and purchase history. And the style surveys are often interactive.
ShoeMint, a site that sells shoes designed by actress Rachel Bilson and celebrity stylist Nicole Chavez, prompts first-time users to answer a series of questions about their style and brand preferences through photos of people and products, asking them to pick their favorite celebrity look or the shoes that most resemble what they would wear to work.
BaubleBar doesn’t use surveys but employs a SWAT team—Service With Accessorizing Talent—that’s on hand to answer customer questions via email or phone about how to pair jewelry or put together an outfit around a user’s new purchase.
“The minute they make a purchase, we keep a customer profile on them, and our SWAT team starts a dialogue,” said Amy Jain, who cofounded BaubleBar with Daniella Yacobovsky. “We have notes on them and can customize our recommendations or answers to what we know they like.”
The duo say their team gets 50 to 75 emails a day from customers seeking styling tips, and BaubleBar customers often get handwritten thank-you notes from a style team member along with their delivered purchases.
To keep up interest, many of the sites constantly display new products. Birchbox, where customers can also buy full-size versions of the samples they’re sent, boasts at least 350 beauty brands. With such an extensive product line, “The thrill of discovery doesn’t diminish,” Rollins said.
At BaubleBar, customers can find 100 new products a week, encouraging many of them to come back several times in a short period, Yacobovsky says.
Try it out
The sites’ tailored shopping experiences not only cut down on time normally spent trying to find your favorite products by doing the work for you, but also let shoppers try different looks without the worry of spending a lot of money on something that may not work out.
“Our price point makes it possible to experiment with different trends and fashion,” said Yacobovsky of BaubleBar, where the average price for jewelry is $40 to $70.
A Birchbox subscription costs $10 a month and includes boxes filled with four to five beauty samples—from nail polish to lip gloss. “It feels like you get a lot of reward for not a lot of personal cost,” Sara Hogan said of the service. The 27-year-old also shops with BaubleBar, personal styling service CakeStyle and personalized nail polish subscription site Julep Maven.
While she admitted the shopping sites are “a little addicting,” she says it’s worth it. “Having that little bit of personalization makes it feel valuable,” she said. “It makes it feel worth it to spend $10 for things you’ll actually use.”
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