The Hub Cool News

Bonobos Bag

bonobos-guideshopsFor men, a shopping bag is "a tiny badge of shame," says Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn in a New York Times piece by John Koblin (7/3/14). "You’re running around, and you want to jump to dinner or back to the office or to the gym," says Andy. "You don’t want to have to deal with this bag." That bit of insight fits neatly with the Bonobos vision for the future of retail — stores where men can try some and buy some, but then have their purchases shipped, arriving at their home "a day or two later."

Bonobos, originally an online-only retailer of mens’ apparel, arrived at this concept in 2011 after opening "the lobby to its 25th Street headquarters with some fitting rooms to see if customers wanted to try them on. Sales started picking up for its shirts and its pants as well." This followed an earlier attempt to follow up its success selling pants online with shirts. "We made these great-fitting shirts and put them on the site, and no one cared," says Andy. "They weren’t selling well."

Bonobos has found other advantages to its 10 store — or Guideshops, as they call them — where nothing is in kept in stock. "You don’t have anyone manning a stockroom or playing defense against changing rooms where customers are dumping inventory in a corner," says Andy. "You don’t have the same folding nightmare or visual presentation nightmare." The only nightmare, so far, is making money — Bonobos has yet to turn a profit. But it is heavily backed in venture capital, and plans to open 30 more stores over the next two years.

Art of Commerce

warhol-walmart“The line between retail promotion and museum exhibits has become increasingly blurred,” reports Ellen Gamerman in The Wall Street Journal (6/13/14). Such convergence was highly evident in the Norton Museum of Art’s exhibit of works by “society jeweler David Webb.” The museum “employed the same architect and designer who worked on the brand’s Manhattan flagship location to design the galleries for the Florida museum, too.”

“We wanted people who were accustomed to creating luxe interiors,” says museum director James Hall. The designer, Katie Ridder, didn’t shy away “from using the same color scheme for the interiors and velvet for the display cases as she did for the Madison Avenue boutique.” “I think it definitely has a similar feeling as the store,” she says. A similar influence affected a Bulgari exhibit at Houston’s Museum of Natural Science, where reportedly “the museum exhibit was the main impetus for the Houston store’s makeover.”

Such collaboration does raise conflict-of-interest questions, which Gary Tinterow of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston dismisses, saying that ultimately “the exhibition stands or falls on the strength of the artistry of the material displayed.” In any case, Bulgari boutiques in Houston and San Francisco “were supplied with stacks of tickets” to exhibit openings and “in some cases, the shop set up appointments ahead of time so that visitors could go straight from the museum to the store.”

Olsen Spins

The Olsen Twins are making high-priced minimalist fashions for older women, reports Ray A. Smith in The Wall Street Journal (5/15/14). The Twins — Mary-Kate and Ashley — are now 27, and a lifetime away from their starring role in Full House. They’ve also evolved their fashion empire, The Row, from a T-Shirt design, which led to "the blazer and then the legging." Perhaps their most famous — and controversial — item was the "$39,000 alligator backpack that The Row began selling in 2011," which "reportedly sold out."

The T-Shirt, by the way, which Mary-Kate describes as "perfect," sells for $280, and that blazer runs about $1,300. But after eight years in business, "high-end retailers call the line a success," and the Twins just opened their first store, in Los Angeles. The intended customer is in her 40s or 50s, says Ashley, adding "it really could be any age. She’s — the women that I know are — sophisticated, very educated within the world of fashion." But The Row’s image is set by "runway models from decades past," such as Lauren Hutton, 70.

Savile Row is the inspiration for The Row’s name, "the idea of made-to-measure clothing," says Mary-Kate. The question, for some, is why ostensibly simple items cost so much. Mary-Kate starts the answer by noting their clothing is "made in the US," and Ashley finishes the thought by saying "we’re competitively priced." Their handbags are pricey, meanwhile, because they’re made in Italy. Many of their bags also feature expensive linings such as linen, and are made with "rare and exclusive materials," like crocodile, for instance.

Banker Glamour

prudentialPrudential is dressing up its retirement services in a red-carpet gown, reports Christina Binkley in The Wall Street Journal (5/15/14). Okay, the gown is not actually made of red carpet, but it was worn by actress Naomi Watts and “created by Marchesa in collaboration with Francesca Azzara, a retired new Jersey real-estate agent who at 61, is finally getting a shot at her dream of working as a fashion designer.” The big idea, courtesy of ad agency Droga5, is to use fashion’s allure among today’s younger consumers in hopes of selling them on retirement services later on.

“Fashion rose to the top because it’s hip,” says Prudential advertising chief Colin McConnell. “It’s part of pop culture, which is a hard place for a financial brand to get traction.” The message is that Prudential “can help retirees chase their dreams, and is banking on the novelty of the gown’s backstory to go viral on social media. It is also buying supporting radio and billboard ads.

Francesca, the story goes, “was discovered by a casting agent while dining with her husband at a Manhattan restaurant … She fit the bill for what Droga5 sought: a financially comfortable retiree who once had a dream of designing glamorous clothing.” She attended the “Fashion Institute of Technology and worked for 17 years designing children’s apparel before quitting to raise her son,” and later became a real-estate agent. Marchesa recruited Naomi Watts to wear the gown at the Cannes film festival.

Beauty Queen

Andrea Jung never closed "the cultural gap" at Avon, but she did successfully export its "message of empowering women," reports Philip Delves Broughton in a Wall Street Journal review of Beauty Queen by Deborrah Himsel (5/7/14). Direct sales was the means of empowerment, "women selling to other women, often in their own homes." This could be something very different, depending on the locale: "In Argentina, Avon Ladies did a healthy business selling tires," for example.

Andrea’s challenge involved reconciling "the entrepreneurial, sell-anything culture of her reps with the command-and-control methods of a corporate marketer … She also wanted a more consistent global brand and was determined to rid the Avon Lady of her fusty image and remake her as a peddler of ‘masstige’ products — affordable, but with a whiff of prestige." She apparently was uncomfortable that Avon’s customers tended to come from "the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum."

She stumbled in other ways — a baby goods division that never took off, an acquisition of an "upmarket jewelry company" that ended in a $263 million writedown, and a bribery scandal in China that resulted in Avon paying a $135 million fine to the US Government plus another $350 million in legal fees. But she did transform Avon from a company that was 60% US sales to one that was 70% "in developing markets." Today, she is CEO of Grameen America, a nonprofit that helps "poor women build small businesses."

Wanelo

Deena Varshavskaya may be "doing for products what Twitter has done for information," reports Sheila Marikar in The New York Times (5/8/14). What Deena is doing is a "social shopping site" called Wanelo (pronounced WAH-nee-loh), a "virtual catalog of more than 12 million products from 300,000 stores." The name is "a mash-up of the words, ‘want,’ ‘need’ and ‘love’" and the site has "more than 11 million users, most of them women" who "create wish lists and follow one another, as well as brands and stores."

The easy comparison is to Pinterest, embedded with "buy" buttons linked to online stores. However, venture capitalist Ann Miura-Ko of Floodgate, a Wanelo backer, sees it more like Twitter because it enables "a following of people, stores and brands." This makes Wanelo attractive to retailers such as Sephora, "which will add Wanelo social-sharing buttons to its site this month so that users can share products on Wanelo the same way they would on Facebook or Twitter."

"It’s really frustrating when you’re in shopping mode and you want to go to buy something and it’s a blog article or a picture on Flickr," says Sephora’s Bridget Dolan. "People are coming in with Instagram saying, ‘Can I get this look?’ but with Wanelo, they’re coming in and saying, ‘This is my list, I want to buy these items,’" she adds. "It’s like, let’s just cut to the chase and get shopping going here." Deena, who hails from Siberia, says her ultimate goal is to "democratize" shopping, enabling small boutiques to compete against big chains.

Twice

twiceNoah Ready-Campbell sees an opportunity "for a tech startup that competes with consignment shops," reports Rhonda Colvin in The Wall Street Journal (5/8/14). Along with Calvin Young, Noah is founder of Twice, an online venture that "buys clothing directly from women who are cleaning out their closets," and then sells it. Noah says he got the idea while at boarding school and, struggling to afford its fancy dress code, discovered he could buy a $200 Brooks Brothers shirt for just $10 at the Salvation Army.

Noah says the experience gave him "a little bit more insight" into the value of used clothes "than probably your typical entrepreneur in Silicon Valley." Noah, 25, and Calvin, 26, are both ex-Google employees, who in 2012 invested $40,000 of their own money into buying up used women’s apparel and launching Twice. They used Google AdWords (the phrase: "sell my clothes online") to find the "10,000 items of ‘lightly-used women’s clothing’" they needed "to launch the online marketplace."

Today, Twice "carries about 400 different brands … has about 160 employees and plans to expand to 250 workers by year end." Noah says Twice improves on eBay, for example, "through better merchandising, photography and data attached to every item." To arrive at pricing, Twice looks "at a culmination of historical data and some algorithms" as well as "human judgment." Noah says he considered creating a marketplace for men’s clothing but it just didn’t add up, as "the women’s apparel market is so much bigger."

NASA Fashions

NASA is using fashion and design to help keep interest in space exploration alive, reports Belinda Lanks in Bloomberg Businessweek (4/30/14). The device was a public vote on various "next-generation spacesuit" designs, otherwise known as the Z-2. This year’s model is a sequel "to Z-1, a Buzz Lightyear-esque getup" (image) that in 2012 was "named one of the year’s best inventions by Time. It was also the first major overhaul of the spacewalking suit in about three decades."

This year’s winner is a suit called ‘technology’, "a subtle homage to spacesuits of yore … a gray uniform with glowing patches of turquoise on its upper and lower torso," designed "to help identify individual crewmembers." (image) Where Z-1 featured "a soft, flexible body for greater astronaut mobility," Z-2 has "a hard composite torso" which works better with larger body types. Developed using "3D printing technologies that make prototyping quicker and cheaper" it is specifically designed "for walking on the surface of the moon."

Even on the cheap, the suit "cost $4.4 million to develop, according to Wired." It will be "built by November" but "won’t be deployed" as it "does not offer protection from the micrometeorites, heat and radiation found in space." The suit beat out biomimicry, "which mirrors the bioluminescence of aquatic creatures found in the deep ocean … as well as trends in society," based on a prediction of "what everyday clothes will look like in the future" — apparently not much "different from today’s workout pants."

Altuzarra’s Weave

altuzarraDigital printing is transforming a fashion designer’s impractical creations into mass-produced pieces, reports Ray A. Smith in The Wall Street Journal (5/1/14). When Joseph Altuzarra featured "four striking, colorful handwoven ensembles" at Fashion Week, he knew full well they would never be sold in stores. "The reality is they’re beautiful, but they’re quite thick," he says. "They’re a wool/silk woven piece, which is not the most comfortable for a dress." They also "would have cost customers at least $10,000 each." (image)

But Ken Downing of Neiman Marcus wanted them, and Altuzarra was ready with a solution: "He reimagined the looks using high-resolution digital prints. The result is three garments, two made with silk twill and one in stretch cotton, instead of the originals’ silk and wool." Sensing that "the handwoven pieces would resonate with retailers … his team developed the digital-print versions at the same time as the woven pieces." (image)

It’s actually a fairly standard practice among designers to show an impractical item and then offer a workable alternative. This was just fine with Ken. "When we found out the textural pieces were being recreated, we were very excited," he said, noting that the digital-print versions still had "that depth of texture and of the weave." The costs will be considerably lower, too — though still expensive — with the three Altuzarra items ranging in price from "$795 to $995." They will "arrive in stores in August and September."

Farfetch.com

A Portuguese entrepreneur has developed "an Open Table-like platform that connects shoppers to 300 boutiques" worldwide, reports John Koblin in The New York Times (4/30/14). "When I go to New York, I don’t go to the department store," says Jose Neves. "I go into that tiny little boutique, that hole in the wall, where I discovered a selection that I can’t find anywhere else. But how do you do this at scale?" The answer to his own question is his own creation, Farfetch.com.

The six-year-old site has grown "into a big business" that attracts "well-heeled" customers who spend an average of $650 per visit. Farfetch holds particular appeal among millennials: "For millennial customers it’s beyond comprehension that there’s something available in a physical store that’s not available online," says Jose. "They just don’t get it. It’s like an artist who releases an album but they cannot download it from iTunes … I do think we’re changing the way we shop for fashion."

For retailers, the opportunity, obviously, is to reach a global marketplace. "If you have a store in say, Dallas, or in Chicago, you only have your own local clientele," says Jose. "That clientele is not shopping online as well. This is a huge missed opportunity. These boutiques in these places don’t appeal to the customer just in Chicago or Miami. They appeal to a global audience these days." Farfetch has raised more than $100 million in venture capital, and "had more than $160 million in sales last year."

Cosmetics & Coffee

sephoraThe growth pattern of Sephora and other cosmetics boutiques mirrors that of Starbucks, reports Alix Strauss in The New York Times (5/2/14). Sephora dates back to 1970, and opened its first American store, in SoHo, in 1999. Today, it "dominates the beauty boutique business, with some 1,300 stores in 27 countries, over 300 of those across North America," as well as "430-plus spots in JC Penney." "It’s the Starbucks phenomenon," says Maria Corbiscello of Studio MC2, a beauty company.

Maria says cosmetics stores are cropping up like coffee shops because they fill an undying desire — in the case of cosmetics for "magic in a bottle." Another rapidly growing cosmetics shop is Space NK, which originated in London and now has "23 shops in the United States and 63 in Britain." Its founder, Nicky Kinnaird, says she owes her success to the increasing irrelevance of department stores, arguing that "mono-brand counters" are at odds with the way people buy cosmetics.

"If you look in your bag or your bathroom cabinets, you have different brands with different price points," she notes, adding: "We identify and nurture niche innovators within the beauty world and edit products down to what we feel is important to our customer." Another fast-growing boutique, Ulta, uses data to decide where to open new stores. "We know how much they’re spending, how often they’re visiting, where they live in reference to where they shop, or if we need to put a store closer to where they live," she says.

Catalog Commerce

bonobosOld-fashioned catalogs are playing "a crucial creative role in modern e-commerce," reports Elizabeth Holmes in The Wall Street Journal (4/17/14). Catalogs are "bait for customers, like a store window display, and a source of inspiration, the way roaming through store aisles can be." Bonobos reports that about 20% of its website’s "first-time customers are placing their order after receiving a catalog" and "spend 1.5 times as much as new shoppers who didn’t receive a catalog first."

"A catalog gives us a bit more breathing room to grab folks’ attention," says Bonobos marketing vp Craig Elbert. "We’re able to tell a bit of a fuller brand story." Done right, says Williams-Sonoma marketing chief Pat Connolly, catalogs give shoppers "ideas for things they didn’t even know they wanted before they got there." Producing catalogs is not without challenges. Long lead times make it difficult to stage seasonally-appropriate photo shoots and it can be hard to coordinate what’s in the catalog with what’s in the stores.

However, producing and mailing catalogs typically cost "much less than a dollar" all in, but "each catalog mailed results in about $4 in sales," according to Polly Wong of Belardi/Ostroy, a consulting firm. Shanie Cunningham of Boden says shoppers "spend up to 15 to 20 minutes with a catalog … compared with an average of just eight seconds for a Boden email and about five minutes with the Boden iPad app." Boden catalogs include "sticky tabs that can mark pages with sayings like, ‘Must Have,’ and ‘I Need This Now’."

Suite 1521

You no longer need to be a billionaire or celebrity to shop like one, reports Christina Binkley in The Wall Street Journal (4/10/14). That’s the concept behind Suite 1521, which is "built on the way designers sold clothes decades ago: personally, with the designer, by appointment only." This does mean you have to wait "for a designer to come to town, make an appointment, show up on time, then wait weeks for an order to arrive." And it does, of course, help to be fabulously wealthy (this kind of service doesn’t come cheap).

Suite 1521 was founded last September "in a third-floor gallery space at 76th Street and Madison Avenue" by Kim Kassel and Lizzie Tisch, wife of Jonathan Tisch, "chief executive of Lowes Hotels and a member of a wealthy New York family." For customers like Caryn Becker, who otherwise "tends to shop online on Net-a-Porter and Barneys," Suite 1521 enables a "return to what she refers to as ‘physical shopping’." For designers, it’s a chance to "have more of a connection with consumers."

"It’s a nicer way of building up your customer relationships," says designer Antonio Berardi. Another designer, Lion Blau, "says the access to clients helps the design process." "In the studio, we always work with model sizes," he says. "Here I can see if something is too big or too small." It’s more likely the latter, as "the fashions on display are mostly tiny sample sizes." To shop at Suite 1521 requires an annual membership fee of $500, "and with designer-level fashions, outfits easily cost several thousand dollars."

Dover Street Market

dover street market"Walking into" Dover Street Market "can feel like entering an exotic aviary," reports Matthew Schneier in The New York Times (4/10/14). The store sells apparel, not pets, but its staff comes "from as far afield as Tokyo; Seoul, South Korea; Brisbane, Australia; and Chanute, Kan. They are dressed and dyed following their own inclinations" and include "punk rockers, young designers and former gallerists in addition to the usual career sales people."

"We hired individuals with strong style," says James Gilchrist, the store’s general manager, who "estimated he interviewed 400 people for the 40 positions." This means that "anyone hoping to find a piece that a staff member is wearing on a nearby rack may be out of luck." "A lot of what these kids wear, we are not necessarily selling," says James. The goal is "to become one of New York’s most esoteric and inspiring shopping experiences." In addition to their sartorial splendor, the staff is also carefully trained.

The store is owned by Commes des Garcons, "which may explain both its emphasis on customer service — a particular obsession of the Japanese … and its encouragement of self-expression." "I feel that my eyes are being trained to see everything in a Comme des Garcons way, in a sense," says staffer Nina Hahn. "Every job I’ve had has prepared me for success here," says co-worker George Oh. "I feel like an astronaut that’s finally made it to another galaxy." In addition to New York, Dover Street Market has stores in London and Tokyo.

Normcore

The latest fashion trend may not be a trend, or even fashion, reports Alex Williams in The New York Times (4/3/14). It may just be a meme called normcore, "a supposed style trend where dressing like a tourist — non-ironic sweatshirts, white sneakers and Jerry Seinfeld-like dad jeans — is the ultimate fashion statement." It all apparently started with K-Hole, a "group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recent trend-forecasting report, Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom." (link)

This was not a report prepared for presentation to a client or an industry confab, but rather "as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery." The premise "is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes … that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of a group." So, it’s okay for trendy types "to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream."

As such, journalist Christopher Glazek says normcore isn’t a fashion trend. "The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club." Nonetheless, New York magazine published a "splashy trend story" on normcore, and "online, the normcore-spotting of celebrities … became sport." Car and Driver, meanwhile, has published "The 5 Most Normcore Automobiles (they selected five Toyota Camrys)."

Saks Fashions

gucci sneakerThe new Saks Fifth Avenue president has decided that customers aren’t interested in bland apparel anymore, reports Christina Binkley in The Wall Street Journal (4/3/14). "Our customers already have everything they really truly need," says Marigay McKee, Saks’s new president. "We really have to offer rarer, more unique things." She is scaling back "safer, more ‘commercial’ styles" in favor of "runway clothing and accessories" from "leading labels."

She is also adding "more emerging designers — a group whose inexperience and often-shaky finances scare off many retailers," and ordered the retailer’s "financial planners to relax their budgeting systems in the field," and trust them to trust their instincts. "What I was telling them, is we have to buy from the gut," she says. Saks fashion director Colleen Sherin adds: "Pieces that were once icing on the cake really need to be the core of the buy." This can mean "prices rising to more than $20,000 for some coats and dresses."

Even the sneakers "range in price from $300 to $1,000 or more." (link) "The colors are aggressive and the prices are aggressive," says Eric Jennings, fashion director for men’s. "There is zero price resistance." After the 2008 economic collapse, Saks was among the first to slash prices — "by as much as 80% within a few weeks." Shoppers learned to wait for deals, and eventually, its "discount-based strategy left it posting quarterly losses on relatively flat sales. Meanwhile, rival Neiman Marcus, focused on top-tier luxury, saw its sales and profits grow."

Alex and Ani

A firm belief in the "supernatural power of what she sells" is driving rapid growth for Carolyn Rafaelian, reports Mark Oppenheimer in The New York Times (3/29/14). Carolyn is founder of Alex and Ani, a jewelry-maker and retailer whose "profits have increased fiftyfold since 2010." Indeed, the company reports it has "moved over 18 million units ‘between 2012 and 2013′," for a total of $230 million in sales last year. The Alex and Ani line is currently sold in 40 US stores, "and in 1,500 other retail outlets around the world."

Among its offerings is the Buddha Charm Bangle, which promises the wearer "limitless power, limitless good karma and limitless wisdom." For "divine direction and soulful enlightenment" it’s the Saint Anthony Charm Bangle and for "union of masculine and feminine energy," the Star of David Charm Bangle. These items range in price from $24-$28 and promise to "capture energy." To achieve this effect, Carolyn says she collaborated "with physicists all over the world" and says the items "hold vibration of pure energy, healing love."

She says her priests and shaman bless each piece and that they are "protected from radio frequency, from radioactivity." Carolyn consults with "three or four scholars" to make sure she has the "right design" for every item, however she does not claim that wearing one of her items "will make you a better person," just that it "inspires you to put good energy out in the world. And if you put out good energy, good things will come back to you." Accordingly, Alex and Ani lets nonprofits use its stores for fundraisers, and "has given away $9.4 million since 2011."

Gap

gap jeansGap is betting that a creative director can chart its return to relevance, reports Susan Berfield in Bloomberg Businessweek (3/24/14). The creative director is Rebekka Bay, a "Danish fashion designer who had never worked in America until October 2012, when she joined Gap." "What I think I heard was that they were looking for one person to create a singular voice for the brand," says Rebekka. "I don’t know if that’s what they said. But that’s what I heard." Gap’s interest, apparently, was just as much in Rebekka’s skills as a trend forecaster as a designer.

Her boss, Steve Sunnucks, says Rebekka’s "experience in trend prediction means she takes a much broader view and thinks about the brand, the product, and the customer experience holistically." The result, so far, is what Rebekka calls the ‘American uniform,’ which starts with T-shirts and denim, and continues with "bomber jackets, moto jackets, parkas and peacoats." "My role is to balance creativity and commerciality," she says. "Good design is less about taste but more about integrity … I think we can do less, and do it better …"

"We probably have 12 to 20 blue shirts and 6 to 10 white shirts," says Rebekka. "They’re effortlessly cool. We’re a denim brand, but we’re really a casual brand. It’s a lived-in attitude." The premise is that, around the world, customers want "an American look." "That’s not founded in any research," she says. "That’s just superintuitive." Allen Adamson of Landor Associates sees a canyon ahead: "Gap spent 10 years screwing it up," he says. "One collection, one ad campaign, one of anything won’t be enough." Gap has "almost 1,700 stores in nearly 50 countries."

Birchbox

Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp hope that a physical store will solve the Birchbox conundrum, reports Hilary Stout in The New York Times (3/24/14). Birchbox’s inventive idea — selling "vivid pink" boxes of cosmetics samples via online subscription — certainly has caught on. The service now has more than 800,000 subscribers, twice as many as last year, each paying $10 a month. The speedbump is that subscribers who like a sample typically buy the full size "at department store counters or chains like Sephora," not via Birchbox.

Hayley and Katia are thinking that having a store of their own will change this, that shoppers will get the idea that they’re supposed to try some and then buy some — from Birchbox. Their new, 4,500 square-foot store, in SoHo, will feature "about 2,000 products for sale … (representing some 150 to 250 brands). It will have a row of vanities for product testing. A BYOB — build your own Birchbox — section will let shoppers fill those pink boxes with samples of their choice for $15. A separate floor will be set aside for classes on makeup, hairstyling," and the like.

Touch screens will also be placed throughout the store, enabling customers "to answer questions about themselves and pull up product recommendations and customer reviews." The store is designed to provide a more complete, "total" retail experience. As consultant Craig R. Johnson notes, the internet "can never match the experience of being there in person." Katia says the store’s primary goal is growth, not profitability. "We like the idea of building a store along with the business," she says. It likely will open in May.

House Account

house accountApps may be better suited to a more personalized shopping experience than e-commerce sites, reports Alexa Brazilian in The Wall Street Journal (3/15/14). That’s the thinking behind House Account, a shopping app that "teleports users inside the doors of more than 370 independent boutiques" both in the US and abroad. With e-commerce, the "personal connection just wasn’t there," says House Account co-creator Laura Vinroot Poole, who is also founder of Capitol, a Charlotte NC boutique with a cult following.

The idea is to give users the opportunity to visit faraway boutiques, reserve an item at a local shop, and chat with store owners and personnel. Basically, users choose which stores to follow, and then "scroll through a feed of informal pictures — everything from straight product shots to playful pics of store staffers modeling ensembles." Live chat enables questions and conversations about featured items, which typically are displayed without price tags. Users can search by designer and trends, and also pre-order items.

House Account is free. So far, it has been downloaded by "more than 20,000 users, and now averages 10 new stores a week," each of which pays "a monthly membership fee of $100." The app also provides retailers with "access to valuable data: top shoppers, which images had the most views and likes, and how a shop’s follower-count stacks up against a competitor." "It’s an excellent way to increase volume while minimizing risk," says accessory-maker Meredith German. "You have feedback from the customer before you produce."