More people turning to online 'personal' shopping services

Karin Lundquist got hooked when she received her Kensie white skinny jeans in the mail. For Whitney Kippes it was the orange-and-gray color-blocked cardigan. And Marian Gunther fell in love with a pair of zip-ankle pants from Nicole Miller Artelier. The three Baltimore women regularly consult the help of online personal shoppers and are often pleasantly surprised by what arrives in the mail each month.

"I think it's challenged me to think outside the box," says Lundquist, a 33-year-old accountant. "A lot of [what I buy] is stuff if I went to the store I would walk past it and I wouldn't try it on."

All three women enjoy fashion but don't have the time to shop on a regular basis. And they love the idea of a personal shopper but aren't willing to shell out the big bucks for an in-person consultation, which can cost $75 to $350 an hour.


So they have signed on to online personal shopping services that ship a handful of outfits, jewelry and accessories monthly to fit their size, style, budget and personality, based on their online profiles. Each month they spend about $200 for clothing and accessories through services such as Stitch Fix

Though the clothes usually fit their personalities, all three women say the sites have helped them take risks with style.


Many of the services are free, but some charge a styling fee ($20) and the fee is usually waived if the customer purchases at least one item. Prices per item range from $30 to $300 or more, depending on the service.

"As a working mom, I just don't have all the time I want to shop for all the aspects of my life," says Gunther, a 36-year-old marketing representative. "It just saves me time to do it that way."

For all three women, their online personal shopping obsession started with admiring their friends' cute dresses, fun tops or flattering pants. Now they usually can guess when their friends are wearing outfits sent by their personal shoppers. And none of the women and their friends have received identical items.

"One of my neighbors and also a good friend of mine started using it," says Lundquist. "There's a core group of friends who do it every month."

Personal shopping is a growing industry, according to the Association of Image Consultants International. Membership in the organization, which provides certification, education and mentorship programs, has more than doubled in the past 10 years to about 1,400. Most of the members provide personal shopping services.

"We're in a huge growth spurt," says Zayna Mosam, vice president of marketing for the association. Though online personal shoppers are not yet included in membership numbers, Mosam says "it's a growing trend."

"The styling industry is growing generally, so we're seeing more online services," she says.

The industry is growing because the segments of the population who are inclined to use personal shoppers are prospering.


"The top 10 percent of America is doing tremendously well," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment firm based in in New York. While these people may have money, they lack time, Davidowitz says.

Because there is a retail overload in America, Davidowitz says, companies have to differentiate. One way to do that is by providing time-saving services such as personal shopping.

"I think it's all going to grow," he said. "People are time-poor, and it can save people time. Personal shopping is editing an assortment for you. They're picking out things that are right for you."

Maryland in particular could be fertile ground for online shoppers, says Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "If you look at our income as a state, we are at the high end of that; therefore I would presume we have a much higher rate of purchases online compared with other states," he says. "Online shopping is directly related to income."

Typical personal shoppers — not the online variety — usually meet in person with their clients, and often visit their homes to assess their wardrobes and edit their closets. And they might spend hours trying to get to know their clients before stepping foot in a store.

"I like to go to their home and see the way they decorate, and see the styles they feel comfortable in and the colors they feel comfortable in and work around the body type but push them out of their comfort zone," says Stephanie Bradshaw, owner of the eponymous Baltimore-based company that provides interior design, branding and event planning, as well as personal shopping.


While online services offer stylists and wardrobe personalization without the hefty price tag, traditional personal shoppers contend that the superior level of service isn't there.

"Online shopping and personal shopping are two completely different experiences. One electronic, the other personal," says Gillian Armour, CEO of Fashion Stylist Institute in San Francisco, which offers personal shopping services. "Trying to personalize it by collecting intel does nothing to make a woman look and feel good in the items she buys."

Even so, online personal shopping services, such as Keaton Row, are catching on, according to business owners, who say their sales continue to grow each year.

"Besides the service being free, unlike other in-person personal shoppers, our customers use Keaton Row because they are busy and they want to shop and enjoy the personalized service on their own time," says Cheryl Han, who, with business partner Elenor Mak, founded the online personal shopping service in 2011. About 10,000 clients use the service.

Stitch Fix, which opened in 2011, celebrated its 100,000th shipment this past spring.

"It's a growth rate of seven times what we were doing the prior year," says Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake.


A sampling of online personal shopping-related services

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Keaton Row
Clients are matched with three stylists, who create personalized "Lookbooks" based on profiles. "Customers shop their Keaton Row Lookbooks, which include five to seven personalized looks with her stylists' comments and tips," says founder Cheryl Han. The company has 1,000 stylists and 10,000 registered clients who on average spend $450 per order.

PS Dept.
This is a free iPhone app that connects customers to personal shoppers at stores around the country. The app allows users to send messages to personal shoppers at stores, who then will find and ship outfits. (The app re-launched version in September, so the old app will no longer function.)

"You can ask your personal stylists to help find items for you and receive personal recommendations shared from in-store," says Michelle Goad, co-founder." Users can buy in one click either from the live in-store feed of recommendations posted by the personal stylists or from their personalized recommendations within your chat."

Shop it to Me
This free service is akin to a personal bargain shopper. Based on personal profiles, Shop it to Me will hunt for sales on favorite items from more than 150 mid- to high-end retailers. "We tell you when things go on sale in your size," says Charlie Graham, founder and CEO. "We act like a matchmaker."

Stitch Fix
Stylists select outfits for customers based on profiles. A package with five items is shipped to customers, who can choose which items to keep. Any or all items can be returned in a box with prepaid shipping. Stitch Fix charges a $20 fee, which can be used toward any items purchased. If nothing is purchased, the fee is not returned.


A fairly new company which launched in March, Stylit has 50 stylists who create outfits based on each customer's size, body type, budget and style preferences. Outfit ensembles are emailed to the customer.

"Stylit finds you items to fit, not only your body type, but also in your price range and brands you love, as well as introduce new ones," says Maya Kramer, chief stylist and co-founder. Stylit has about 20,000 customers. The service is free.