Fashion tech CEO: Don't let high tech substitute for high touch

February 21, 2014

There's a big opportunity for technology-savvy startups to disrupt the fashion industry and seize a bigger piece of the more than $1.2 trillion dollars that are spent each year on clothing worldwide.

But that doesn't mean that companies should abandon the kinds of customer service that have made brick-and-mortar competitors so successful, either. At least, that's the opinion of Ruby Ribbon's Anna Zornosa, who is betting that technology can augment, rather than replace, the “high-touch” experience of working closely with a salesperson to find the perfect fit.

Burlingame, California-based Ruby Ribbon sells its specially-designed shapewear through a cadre of over 300 independent “stylists” in 44 states that help a customer find the right fit and right products for them. This model isn't new—it has been successful in selling everything from Tupperwear to cosmetics.

The technology comes in everything around that interaction—technology that lets the stylists find and reach out to their customers more efficiently, fit them better, and make it simpler to order more products once the company understands their measurements.

Ruby Ribbon has raised about $8.5 million in funding from Mohr Davidow and others. In the following Q&A, edited for length and style, Zornosa lays out the ways that technology has enabled her business to grow, and why it has never been more lucrative to start a fashion startup. (The following is an excerpt from the full Q&A, which can be found at the Silicon Valley Business Journal.)

Where do you see the big opportunity for tech startups in the fashion industry?

I think what is really critical in our thinking is that technology-empowered doesn't have to be equal to low-touch. When I think about the fashion industry and the opportunity for disruption, a lot of what makes that industry so right for disruption is that the service component is falling down. The woman goes into a department store and, for the most part, cannot expect to be well taken care of, to get great attention, and to have someone really speak to her. With the economics of retail being so challenged, the way most clothing sellers have addressed that is to actually cut down on the service quotient. For my thinking, reinserting high-touch—really giving a woman great service—is at the heart of the opportunity to create new brands, really fast-growing brands.

That seems a bit counterintuitive – the intersection of tech and retail has been about increased efficiency in the past, rather than better customer service. Why is that high-touch experience critical in fashion, and how does tech solve that problem?

It is absolutely essential to the concept of fit. A woman can't really know that she is going to get a beautiful fit if she is not able to try things on. And very often, trying a lot of things on actually means that you require a high level of service. And women always want the benefit of another person's perspective. Fashion in itself is often an exercise on taking risks and being creative. To be able to do that with the benefit of someone else's opinion is absolutely critical.

We believe that there is absolutely no tension between being technology-empowered and service rich. We usually meet a customer in a person-to-person way. But technology plays a huge role in everything that happens before that and everything that happens after that.

We really decided that the way to get a great experience to our customers was to create a nationwide network of independent stylists who work for themselves. Almost 100 percent of our customers, the first time they meet our product, it is usually in a one-on-one setting with a stylist. However, 100 percent of those stylists have their very own Ruby Ribbon website. Technology is absolutely critical to the businesses they are building. Almost all of them have smartphones and computers, and they are using them very aggressively as they are building their businesses.

We have taken something that is very personal and very analog, which is a stylist servicing a customer, and transcended it with the stylist completely propagating her business, building her business very often through social media, through all of her technology assets, and then continuing to serve her customer with her technology assets.

Is that really something new, though? How does technology change the economics of that equation and make that level of service possible for small business operators at the scale that they haven't been in the past?

Well, look at how quickly we've been able to scale. Our first move here in the marketplace was in 2013. Here, in February 2014, we had stylist in 44 states, over 300 of them serving thousands and thousands of customers. That level of propagation simply would have not been possible without technology and specifically without social media. All of our stylist have Facebook pages. An astonishing 75 percent of them have a Facebook friend community of over 250. Amazingly, 7 percent have over a thousand friends on their Facebook page. They are avid users of Pinterest and Twitter.

Thinking about these women as small business owners, they have the amazing benefit of an incredibly efficient way to find their customers, to create interest, to get their businesses off the ground. That transmitted into our ability to create—with virtually no cost—a large geographic presence. We couldn't do that if we had been trying to build brick-and-mortar stores all over.

So you think that the real opportunity in fashion isn't so much to replace the traditional experience, it's to use technology to make it a little more efficient, a little more scaleable, and a little easier.

I personally do. I do think that experience is still critical to brands today. It is where the customer's actual experience is. Technology gives you leverage so that when the customer actually interacts with the product, you can make those interactions incredibly satisfying for them. I do believe that the best are recognizing the importance of that. I often think about our own experience with Apple products. I think a lot of people's experience of their electronics starts with their experience with Apple retail—what happens when they go into store and they are immediately offered service, and they are immediately given access to a workshop, and someone is immediately there helping them to find things. Those two things are so entwined. More and more, the best brands are combining great delivery mechanisms, easy, just-in-time delivery, all the things that technology has given us with a highly satisfying set of moments when you actually encounter the product.

To read the full transcript, visit the Silicon Valley Business Journal.