All posts by Ross Kressel

Nordstrom’s with a Personal Stylist

 Following my experience with the stylist at J Crew, I felt like actually experiencing working with a personal stylist would give me a better understanding of the premium apparel market. Beyond this, I really needed a few more pairs of pants for work, so I thought this would be a good way to hit two birds with one stone.

I’ve always liked Nordstrom’s. In terms of department stores, they are likely the highest end store in Pittsburgh (comment on this entry disagree). My thoughts about their brand and service made picking Nordstroms for this experience an easy choice.

I went to Nordstrom’s website and set up an appointment with a stylist for an appointment (I allowed their system to randomly assign me to a stylist). Soon after setting my appointment, I was greeted by the stylist named Susan.  She sent a brief email introduction asked for some basic information to get an idea of my style.

I explained that I was looking for pants that I could wear to work in a business casual setting and provided by pants size. In response, she asked me for my shirt size, shoe size, and a few other measurements. I knew that in setting up this appointment she would attempts to sell me things I wasn’t asking for, but I had no idea what I was getting into.

We exchanged a few emails and I attempted to paint a picture of the current state of my wardrobe.  I thought doing this would give her a better idea.  I also described the environment I dress up for at work (business casual except for Fridays).  With that information, she went about her job of picking out out some things for me to try.

 I got to Nordstroms about twenty minutes early, because I didn’t want to be late. I walked over to the section where the stylist told me to meet her and spent about fifteen minutes looking around. There was no shortage of sales representatives walking around offering to help me. I felt like I could have jokingly asked for a cup of coffee and would have found one in my hand before I could blink. About five minutes before my appointment, I let someone know I was there to meet with Susan and gave my name.

Timberland Boot Company ‘Wodehouse Lost History’ Boot (loved them, but a bit out of my price range)

My stylist took me to a dressing room filled with shirts, jeans, pants, shoes, and a few jackets. It was a little bit like walking into a dream filled with clothes that I would like minus a few of the shirts.Timberland Boot Company ‘Wodehouse Lost History’ Boot (loved them, but a bit out of my price range).  She was pretty spot on with my taste minus about two or three shirts that I just didn’t like and one of the three pairs of shoes. Unfortunately, I am not made of money, so I wasn’t going to buy most of the things she pulled.

After looking around the dressing room for a minute, we walked out to look around the store for anything else I might want her to pull. I looked at a few casual jackets and sweaters that were far outside of my price range, but wanted to try them on anyway. I asked about peacoats since it was the end of the winter season and they might have some on sale. I found one I liked, but of course it was one of the few that wasn’t on sale and far beyond my price range. At this very moment, I am wishing I had bought it, but there is always next year, right?

  I wanted to take a look at sports jackets and we both looked over there. She pulled a beautiful Hugo Boss sports jacket for me to try. It was slim cut navy sports jacket with side vents. I don’t know that I’ve ever put on a jacket that has looked as flattering as that one did. I asked her to pull it and started thinking to myself, is there any chance I am really going to buy this?

‘The Keys’ Trim Fit Check Sport Coat by Boss Hugo Boss (the jacket I loved that was too expensive) 

        Going back to the dressing room things were pretty simple. I tried something on and asked her opinion about the fit. I found that a few things were a size too big and she ran to find me the right size. I feel in love with a pair of wool pants by a Ted Baker London.

They were incredibly light, but still felt warm. They were exactly what I was looking for to wear to work and my stylist let me know that they would hem them for me for no additional charge. That sold me on them pretty quickly.

Ted Baker ‘Jefferson’ Flat Front Wool Trousers in Grey (bought these)

 I found another pair of pants I liked as well as a really sharp pair of Cole Haan dress shoes she picked out. I had no intention of buying shoes that day, but they were too perfect to say no to. I wore them while the seamstress there chalked the pants I was buying to be hemmed.

            I let the stylist know what I was buying and that I just couldn’t buy the Hugo Boss jacket that I adored and she told me she’d let me know if it went on sale. I’m crossing my fingers the jacket will be on sale for the anniversary sale, but I’m certainly not holding my breath.

Cole Haan ‘Lenox Hill’ Wingtip in milled black (bought these)

  Overall, I can see why someone would use a personal stylist or personal shopper. Having someone who can size you up and help pick out things that will look flattering on you and have them ready for you before you even step in the store is a really nice experience. There was something so simple about this shopping experience. It was so personal, but that may have been helped by the fact that she told me she had a son about my age.

  During this whole experience, I started asking myself if this service would live on. My idea from J Crew that stylists get most of their clients from recommendations was reinforced. She wanted to know what my experience was like using their website to be routed to a stylist since she wasn’t familiar with the process. She also seemed to have little knowledge or was unwilling to talk about the relationship between Nordstroms and Trunk Club.

J Crew: A Women’s Store with a Stylist

As I said in another entry, my want to learn about fashion was related to my goal to reinvent my personal brand. This goal has included a complete rebuild of my wardrobe. While this wasn’t a cheap thing to do, it was way overdue. At 25, it is sadly time to retire the t-shirt from a college basketball game sponsored by Mellow Mushroom. My t-shirts from high school youth group probably need to go too.

Along this journey, I’ve been looking for my own style and started to really like J. Crew’s shirts. I found a number of them at a second hand store in Squirrel Hill called Avalon Exchange (they are on Forbes Avenue between Murray and Shady if you are interested). With this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to find someone who could help me put together my own “style guide” so to speak. I went up online and found that J Crew offers a personal stylist service and decided I’d check it out. I knew there would be no pressure to buy anything and thought it would be interesting to write about.

Without doing much research, I called the J Crew store in Shadyside only to realize that the store is a women’s only store. After talking to the personal stylist for a minute, I decided that the academic value of visiting a women’s store provides an already well-segmented market. I agreed to meet the stylist on a Sunday afternoon just top get a better idea of what personal stylists do.

Outside of J Crew on Walnut Street

Going into the meeting, my knowledge of personal stylists consisted of Rachel from Friends working at Bloomingdales. I showed up to my appointment a little bit early since it was snowing out and decided to sit in my car for a minute to really survey the location of the store.

The J Crew store in Shadyside is located on Walnut Street along with a variety of other high-end retailers. The Apple Store is basically across the street from J Crew and a block away is a jeweler that sells Rolex watches among other things.

This J Crew location had a bright lighting design. The floor layout was clearly designed with female customers in mind. I can’t imagine a men’s store being set up the way this store was. It had warmth to it with clothes, shoes, and accessories arranged attractively.

I sat down on a couch by the shoes to talk to the personal stylist and get an idea of what a stylist really does. Some things I learned seem to be standard across the industry. For one thing, personal stylists at brick and mortar stores tend to get most of their customers by word of mouth and recommendations.

Personal stylists also deal with several different kinds of customers. Some come by when they need something for a special event like an interview. There are some customers who come in once per season looking to add a few outfits or items to their rotation. There are still other customers who want to know as soon as new items they might like come in.

I talked to this stylist about the future of retail, since I have an interest in some of the technology of tomorrow. I asked if she had any fears related to the smart dressing room of the future. Her answer was simple, some people will have trouble in that world, but others will sell a lot more because of those tools.

Technology in retail has the potential to really change the landscape as it already has, but my experience talking to a stylist at J Crew made me realize that at this level, the personal touch that a stylists gives is not replaceable by a computer. The question for the future is if people will value that the same way that I do. Is the service at a store worth the extra money?

A Technology Based Disruption in High End Suiting

While I am not in the market for a suit right now, I’ve heard from a variety of sources about technology had entered into the high-end suit market. While at the beginning of the semester, I found it hard to believe that any company was finding success in high-end fashion without a brick and mortar presence or with an extremely limited one, I found that the high end market for suits was no different.

Enter Knot Standard, the first online source I stumbled on that will make you a custom suit at a fraction of the cost of your typical tailor. Knot standard asks you to take a few measurements of yourself and take some pictures using a webcam to help them create a 3D model of yourself. From this, Knot Standard creates a pattern and “laser cuts and hand assembles” a suit for you based on your choice of fabric, cut, pleats, and a variety of other considerations.

A photo from Knot Standard of two people wearing Knot Standard suits

After reading about this on their website, I felt the need to understand the suit market a little bit better and understand the different “levels” of suits.

At the very top is a bespoke suit, which is what Knot Standard provides. Using measurements and some directions from the buyer as well as several fittings, a bespoke suit is assembled. Bespoke suits are custom and start with a pattern specifically created for each customer. A step down from this is a made to measure suit. Much like a bespoke suit, measurements are taken, but a pattern exists that is adjusted to fit the buyer and only a limited number of options are available to the customer to change with the suit.

The next step down is an off-the-rack suit. This is what I have and most people you know probably have a suit bought off the rack. A suit like this might be ready to be worn when you leave the store or may require minor alteration. In most of the cases I’ve experienced, the pants aren’t made to a particular length when they are purchased and have to be hemmed before they can be worn.

The last kind of suit is suit separates. When you buy suit separates, you are buying the pants and jacket separately. These are really good if you have funny proportions like I did at the end of middle school. Finding a suit that is cut right for an awkward kid going through puberty is hard, so being able to buy the pants and jacket at different sizes is super helpful.

Alterations and made to measure at Nordstrom's
Alterations and made to measure at Nordstrom’s

While it isn’t necessarily obvious if you don’t have a great deal of knowledge about suits, Knot Standard is a huge threat to the market for bespoke, made to measure, and high end off-the-rack suits. Knot Standard suits start at just under $500, which is considerably less than the cheapest made to measure suits at Nordstrom’s ($795), Brook’s Brothers ($648), or your average local bespoke or made to measure suit.  A fairly decent off the rack suit can be found for around $300 or less, but might require tailoring.


Brooks Brother's Custom suits and shirts
Brooks Brother’s Custom suits and shirts

Stores like Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom’s would be smart to look to buy into the online bespoke and made to measure suit market.  This could be used as a springboard to their more premium suiting products. If either of these premium apparel companies or other similar brands do decide to enter this market, co-branding opportunities add value to both companies or don’t damage the big brother brands will be crucial to future success.


A Trip to Brooks Brothers: College vs Now

Shifting gears, I want to talk about my experience in shopping in high-end retail. A lot has changed in recent years with the services I’ve received at these kinds of stores.

Lets rewind a few years to when I was a student at the College of Charleston. I walked into the Brooks Brothers store on King Street wearing rainbow sandals, a hooded sweatshirt, and shorts. I was dressed about as casually as I do these days when I go to the gym.  I don’t know that I’ve been ignored inside of a store in my life (well, other than Walmart, but that is for another day) to the level I was that day.  Looking back, I probably looked like a slob and more than likely didn’t look like I could afford anything in the store, but even so, they could have been friendly at the time.  It didn’t seem to hurt them, at least in this case.

In recent months, I’ve returned to stores like Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, and Nordstrom’s, but dressed in a completely different way. I want to describe the experiences I’ve had in these stores recently.

Let’s start with Brooks Brothers since that is where I started with this. Following brunch with my friend Charles, we meandered over to the Brooks Brothers in Downtown Pittsburgh.  As I walked into the store, there was a piece of me that could hear Julia Roberts in the film Pretty Woman trying to burst out.

We entered dressed in sports jackets and dress shirts.  Unlike my experience in Charleston, we were swiftly greeted by a salesperson who checked to see if we needed any help. In what I can only describe as a stereotype, I walked directly to where I thought the sales rack would be.

After looking a bit confused, the salesperson came over and directed me to the bin with my size (15) and described which shirts were the fit I was looking for based on their label (slim fit). With a little help from Charles, I found a shirt I liked and the salesperson saw me looking around and offered me a dressing room to try on the shirt. She stood close by to make sure I didn’t need anything and gave her opinion of how the shirt looked when I came out to look in the mirror. I felt skeptical and got advice from Charles.

After this, I decided  to also buy a plain white dress shirt to wear to the event I was headed to the next day. I described to the salesperson the cut of the shirt I was looking for and she ran over with a freshly packed shirt for me to try. After trying on the shirt, I found the sleeves to be too short. She ran in back and found the right sleeve size in the right cut (slim fit), collar style (spread), and sleeve style. I quickly tried on the correct size shirt and looked at it in front of a mirror along with Charles.

I handed the salesperson the other shirt I had picked out and changed back into my own shirt.  I finally walked over to the register where the salesperson had folded up the first shirt I had tried on and quickly folded the other. She asked for my name to look up in their database and then told me my total for the day. After paying, she came out from behind the register with my bag and her card in the other hand and encouraged me to let her know if I needed any more shirts or anything else.

This experience was obviously a lot more positive that my initial experience. I found the attention of the salesperson to be somewhat intimidating at first, but that changed as I became more comfortable inside the store. My experience in the store made me feel more positively about the Brooks Brothers brand that I already felt. The combination of service and quality products that I’ve bought have created a sense of brand loyalty for me.

The Challengers For Tomorrow’s Luxury Retailers

One of the most challenging places for web-based companies to compete has been with clothing.  While traditional brick and mortar retailers have found the need to have a presence on the web, few companies have developed through a web only platform with a focus on clothing.  Retailers like Amazon and Zappos sell products from other brands and don’t maintain physical stores and sell little that of their own brand.  Today we are seeing a handful of companies with a focus on clothes come to the market with a focus on luxury and service that are even developing private labels.

Companies like Macy’s, J Crew, and small local apparel boutiques face this new threat in luxury apparel.  Personal stylists or personal shoppers at brick and mortar stores are facing a challenge from the new online personal stylist.  Trunk Club (now owned by Nordstrom’s), LeTote, and StitchFix are only a few examples of companies looking to take on market share through a model with luxury items with good customer service, but a lower cost.

These online stylists work much like an in-store one would.  Trunk Club has customers complete a profile before a customer is connected with a stylist.  The customer selects a few styles or outfits and puts them together in a “trunk” that will be shipped to the customer.  Once received, they can then try on the clothes and decide what they want to keep and ship other items back.  Customers only pay for the items they keep and shipping is free.  The model seems like it could be convenient, especially for someone who lives a busy life or just needs help finding a style that fits him or her.

Trunk Club describes what they do quite well on their website:

Trunk Club was started to solve a simple problem – shopping for clothes in stores or online just doesn’t work for most guys. It’s overwhelming and inconvenient.  With Trunk Club, guys discover awesome clothes that are perfect for them without ever having to go shopping.  We combine top brands, expert service, and unparalleled convenience to deliver a highly personalized experience that helps guys look their best.”

These types of services are in their infancy, but have the potential to challenge existing retailers or expand the market for luxury items.  A fear of the impact of these programs led Nordstrom’s to purchase Trunk Club over the summer and to help them join the e-Stylist business and J. Crew’s launch of their J Crew At Home Service.

My Personal Brand Through Clothes

In the last month or two, I started to question what my personal brand is.  I’ve changed a lot in the last six months, so this thinking has had to change along with it.

Part of defining my new personal brand has been putting together a new wardrobe.  If you don’t talk to me often, you might not know that I’ve lost about sixty pounds since late June 2014, with most of the weight loss occurring since September.  This means that nearly everything I own from the past looks less like my clothes and more like some pajamas I got at some point.

I decided to ask friends and family for help picking out things that would look flattering.  This has meant three trips to outlet malls as well as numerous trips to a neighborhood second hand store.  Time and time again, I found myself buying clothes from the same few brands.  Shopping for new clothes made me realize that some of the clothes I was buy reflect the image I want to show others.

In the past, I had rarely shopped at Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, or J. Crew, but if you look in my closet today, that is the majority of what you’ll see. I saw these clothes as an investment in my personal brand.  I wanted to show people that I care a about my appearance and show semblance of a fashion sense.

My feelings about these companies speaks more to the work that these companies have done to develop and maintain their brands than it does about any individual person.  In my upcoming blog entries, I will be looking at these brands as well as a few others and how people my age interact with these brands.

My interest is specifically is in the space of premium apparel brands.  How do these brands stay ahead?  How do they maintain value while catering to changing consumer taste?  Along the way, I will talk to people in this industry and people who purchase from it.  I plan to also explore the biggest challenger to brick and mortar premium apparel, the web.

Digitization of Retail: It’s Coming Whether You’re Ready or Not

There are big changes coming to the retail world.  Indoor malls are struggling to survive.  Space that was once premium is becoming costly and of little benefit to the those that inhabit them.  The retail model for the future won’t be able to compete directly with online stores in price, so value added services and convenience will be the ultimate drivers for shoppers to buy in person at any brick and mortar retail outlet. Microsoft and Accenture have created a prototype for a Smart Fitting Room concept, while consulting industry leader McKinsey & Company have provide insight on how the smart store of the future can benefit retailers.

Fast Company’s online design section gave us a glimpse of Microsoft and Accenture’s connected fitting room.  The fitting room is connected to items in the store using RFID technology.

A photo of a smart fitting room (Photo Credit Fast Company

When a shopper walks into a fitting room, a digital screen shows them the items that they have picked out and shows them the size options and makes suggestions of other things that shopper may like.  With the click of a button, a shopper can order a different size, color, or item to try on without having to leave the fitting room.  This convenience alone will  increase sales, but as well as provide excellent data to the  stores that employ these systems.

Using this new data, a store can more easily track inventory, have a feel for how many items a person typically tries on, and even how long someone typically takes to try on items in a visit to a dressing room.  Stores will be able to make decisions about how many dressing rooms are needed, how much space is needed for clothing hangers, and even how pegs for hangers are needed.  The RFID tags will allow stores to know what routes are the most common while looking for clothing to make sure that stores have the best layouts possible and can strategically organize items around the store based on this information.  In the future, these dressing rooms can be used as a substitute for the cash register.

Despite competing with Accenture, McKinsey & Company project retail the same way.  They provide information on their projections and give advice in their most recent Quarterly Insight in an article titled Digitizing the Consumer Decision Journey.  The piece is by three of McKinsey’s Principal consultants, Edwin van Bommel, David Edelman, and Kelly Ungerman.  They describe the rapid changes in technology in retail and how a cross channel experience can change the way shopping feels to a customer.  In the article, they describe a couple that has bought its first home that needs to buy a washer and dryer.  The couple decides to utilize the websites of several big box stores before going to one with a saved shopping list on one of the store’s website.  When they enter the store, the process of ordering the item is not only as simple as it would be if purchased online, but also provides the convenience of being able to see, touch, and measure the item.  

The couple can use Google Maps to navigate to the store.  Transmitters much like the RFID tags used in the system being developed by Accenture and Microsoft, are installed near the entrance to the store. These are set up to recognize the information for the couple and send them personalized offers as well as provide directions inside the store to locate the items they are interested in.  If the couple has particular history, it may provide additional offers related to previous purchases or even specifically target a sale.  Payment and scheduling delivery can all be done electronically without having to take out a wallet.  Notification for delivery can be set with in a thirty minute period so customers won’t be stuck waiting at home all day.  

Companies need to start thinking about how they can make their stores more efficient and the data of the store of the future provides bright possibilities.  Better knowledge of your customer base, whether you are selling organic vegetables, clothing, or electronics will help to cut down on excess inventory and help create greater margins for retailers.  To make this happen, investment in people with non-traditional backgrounds from the norm in retail will be critical.  Experts in data mining, statistics, and supply chain will be crucial to being effectively using newly gathered customer data.  The value added service of having the right items at the right time is the only thing that will keep retailers competitive against online retailers like Amazon.  Retailers have to re-invent their showrooms and understand that customers start shopping far before they open the door to the store.



Where’s the Sharing Economy Headed?

I thought that the sharing economy was something very generational and that the millennial generation and those younger are interested in participating in. Thumbing through Fast Company online today, I found an article suggesting a different pictures and set out to investigate.

Globally, more than two-thirds of people want to share or rent out personal assets for financial gain, according to a Nielsen survey of Internet-users in 60 countries. Similar numbers want to use products and services from other people.

The Fast Company cited a Nielsen Study that states that 68% of people surveyed around the globe are willing to share or rent personal items including power tools, bicycles, clothing, sports equipment, cars, outdoor camping gear, furniture, homes, motorcycles,  and pets.  The study found that Millennial Generation and Generation X were the most likely to use the sharing economy globally.  Baby Boomers were willing to use the sharing economy at a higher than expected rate.  The study found that globally, 7% of Baby Boomers were willing to use the sharing economy for goods and services compared to 42% of  the Millennial generation and 17% of Generation X.

What exactly does this mean and why on earth is this important?  The markets for start-ups like Uber, Sidecar, Lyft, Airbnb, BlackJet,, Taskrabbit, and the like in the sharing economy are larger than I expected.  It also means there will be some major changes in consumption that will be a disruptive force to the global economy.

The companies I’ve listed above as well as other companies in the sharing economy may want to look to ways to gain market share from Baby Boomers and Generation X.  Marketing to these populations will have to be different from what is being used to attract the Millennial generation to these services (word of mouth primarily).  A small, but targeted traditional media campaign using things like billboards, radio ads, and print media ads would go a long way to inform these consumers of their services.

These companies provide services that both of these aging generations need, but they haven’t been told why.  For example, both of these generations may have doctors appointments, but don’t have an easy way to get there sometime.  Services like Uber and Lyft are both affordable and convenient for these users.  The ride-share business has an incredible opportunity to expand into this market as well as create partnerships with hospitals and other medical centers.

Above is just one example of how the sharing economy can develop and position products for aging generations and it barely scratches the surface.  For people who enjoy DIY projects, the ability to rent large tools from others in their area rather than a big box store like Home Depot is not only more convenient, but can help develop synergies for those planning a project.  If I plan to build a shed and need to borrow a circular saw from someone, they may have some advice I didn’t even think of.

Not everyone is a fan of the sharing economy though.  The current regulatory climate for the shared economy could be the doom for these young start-up ventures. The Guardian pulled no punches in their recent article about the sharing economy.

“Insofar as Airbnb is allowing people to evade taxes and regulations, the company is not a net plus to the economy and society – it is simply facilitating a bunch of rip-offs.”

The essential element for success for the sharing economy is to get ahead of regulations.  Companies in the shared economy will have to work together and ask to be regulated in ways that are fair and allow their business model to continue to succeed.

Beyond this, the lingering question is how to turn all of this into long-term success.  Some point to pre-recession excesses in consumption as a driver of today’s sharing economy.  Some suggest that more limited consumption in the future will drag down the ability for the shared economy to succeed.

In the end, I predict that more limited consumption will force drastic changes in manufacturing that will completely change the way we look at goods, services, and ownership.  We will own fewer things, but have access to a greater diversity of products and services.  The future won’t be about ownership, but access if Millennials have anything to say about it.