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IRX 2013 PREVIEW Interview with Sarah McVittie of Dressipi

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Ahead of IRX 2013 we’re previewing some of the key highlights of our annual expo. Today we speak to Sarah McVittie, co-founder and co-chief executive of Dressipi, who is speaking in our conference stream, about how the personal styling service learns from data to advise consumers as they buy clothes.

Internet Retailing: What will your presentation at IRX 2013 be about?

Sarah McVittie, co-founder and co-chief executive of Dressipi: I’m going to be focusing on the data piece of how we can deliver better insights for retailers. Dressipi has a combination of expert systems and knowledge that comes from our extremely good technology, our team and very consistent data structure which allows us to deliver efficiency on a number of levels to retailers. We are able to have great insight into our customers, regardless of whether they’re buying clothes or not. We reach out and help them to understand their relationship with fashion on an emotional and a practical level, and how they purchase clothes across all brands and all retailers, not just the one single retailer.

IR: How can you use data to understand emotion?

SM: We have a whole bunch of data points that we collect, some which are implicit and some explicit. We as a company believe quite strongly that fashion is one of those purchases that we make, like homes, holidays even careers, where the emotional context is as important as the concrete aspects that surround those items. I may be looking for a red cocktail dress, and there may be 50,000 cocktail dresses but I might want one that makes me feel glamorous or sexy. We need to understand the context around the purchase.

Fashion is dynamic and changes on a seasonal basis, while women are dynamic: we have kids, our body changes, we retire, and our style needs to change with that. It’s understanding what are the key questions and data points that allow you to extract that data in order to deliver a much better service to the consumer.

IR: Tell us how Dressipi has developed so far.

SM: We started working on Dressippi in 2010 and launched the first beta in 2011. We’ve had a closed working beta for about two years. [Co-founder] Donna [North] and I had previously met through Donna’s husband. Donna used to work at IMG, while I had a start-up called Texperts that I’d previously sold, and we’d talked about working together.

As busy working women, both wanting to look lovely but not having the skills and knowledge to allow us to do that, buying online was becoming more difficult, not easier. There was this whole glut of clothes, but nobody genuinely helping you as a consumer work out which of those thousands of cocktail dresses would suit you and how it would go with your wardrobe. We’re both technologists and love using technology to solve consumer problems and we set out to understand whether technology was good enough that we could now deliver what amounts to a perfect styling business. We started online but we’re beginning to take it multichannel, adding mobile and in-store, where you get that perfect personal styling experience.

IR: How have consumers responded to the service?

SM: We have had a very good response so far. We’re aware that to build this kind of service is very complex – there are so many measures, and fashion is a very personal choice, so for our technology to become very good will take time. The more people interact with it the better it gets. It’s now getting to the point where it’s now delivering good results, but it’s taken quite a long time for us to get the point where it’s good enough. We have more than 200,000 customers now, we’ve done very little marketing, except a small spend on Google Adwords. The retention is good and the usage is good, we’re quite happy with that.

IR: Who uses Dressipi?

SM: We have a fairly broad user base – the average age is 34 or35, but we have people in their teens and people aged 60 and over using the site. We tend to have lots of busy working women, very urban women, and mums as well. It’s more about attitudes and motivations around fashion than it is about age. It’s fairly broad in terms of background, though we slightly over-index in the A1 area.

IR: How will the service go multichannel?

SM: We have spent quite a lot of time focusing on the technology and the data to make sure we are delivering the service as is generally meaningful, and delivering good recommendations on a single product and an outfit. Now that is beginning to get good results, we’re looking at how people are using the service. Mobile and in-store is really important to people. That is the next stage. In the next six months we’re going to be working on finding out what kind of service and what aspects of Dressippi are important to people when they’re out and about shopping.

We’ve done quite a lot of work understanding our customers, and survey them once a quarter. What we think is important to them is about building outfits, not just new items but with their existing wardrobe. We’ve done a whole bunch of testing around it. People will soon be able to tell us the sort of thing that’s in their wardrobe, or if we have it in our back catalogue, the exact thing that’s in their wardrobe. They want to go into a shop, get a bar code, say this will look amazing and go with the jeans you bought last week. If they want a jacket to go with it, we can help them find a jacket in the high street that they can go and look for and try on. That makes the whole shopping experience far more personalised and far more relevant to them.

IR: Does Dressipi follow fashion or personal style – or is fashion a mixture of the two?

SM: Both fashion and personal style are very important. If we are looking for fashion advice we tend to seek out some level of expert knowledge we seek out, whether it’s through a magazine, a personal shopper or stylist, or asking our more stylish friends. We work with some brilliant, very, very well-respected stylists. Every single bit of code of technology we write always comes from the stylists first. Everything we test never goes live till they feel the results are close enough to what they would normally recommend.

That expert knowledge, whether it’s what’s on trend, people with bigger shoulders, bigger hips, longer legs, tall, petite or plus size, is all inbuilt in the system. There are seasonal tweaks as well when new styles are more prevalent. That’s the first piece.

The second piece is the collaborative filtering piece. When we launched we knew we were doing a fairly good job of dressing people for their shape but not their style. So we launched a fairly low-key service in November 2011, and needed to get enough people using it so we could monitor how style really worked. By this time last year we had about 50,000 people using the site and we could step back, tickle the data and have a look at how people’s personal taste could be defined.

It was very personal, all very different. This is where the data is so key – we have about 70 consistent metadata points assigned to every customer, and about 50 consistent and perfect features assigned to every garment, the neckline, sleeve, fabric, fit, pockets and so on. Then we do the same thing for every brand so we can quickly see how people’s personal taste evolves, and who they’re similar to and what the different factors of a person’s personality and characteristics are. It’s important for us to be able to predict how they will shop, and what they will like and what will look good on them going forward. It’s a combination of those two factors and both are very important.

IR: What are you looking forward to at IRX?

SM: I think it’s such an exciting space, there’s so much innovation. One of the things I find fascinating about the retail industry is that for many good reasons it is one of the last industries to really embrace the multichannel shopping experience. Consumers take a lot longer to get there, and so have retailers. I think the innovation and disruption that is coming over the next five years is going to be similar to the music industry 20 years ago. I think it’s a very exciting time to be in this space. We are having conversations with lots of big retailers and they are eager to deliver that experience and that personalisation for customers. I think it’s a very exciting space at the moment.

Sarah McVittie will be speaking at IRX 2013 in The Customer Journey conference. She will appear at 12 noon on March 21 at the event, to be held in the NEC in Birmingham.

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