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Looking for vintage pieces from Celine designed by Phoebe Philo (creative director from 2008 to 2018)? That’s no problem in the new universe of personal shopping.
In a time-pressed world, personal shoppers can help savvy customers to find exactly what they want, including unique items that are sold out or hard to get. The margins however are small, and shoppers need volume for their businesses to succeed, experts say. With new technology being used to help scale businesses, personal shopping startups are prepared to think long term and believe it’s the future for luxury.
Sourcewhere, a personal fashion sourcing platform, is the latest entrant in a fast evolving and competitive personal shopping sector. Launched in Europe and the UK initially and created by former Net-a-Porter and Mytheresa PR executive Erica Wright, it launches on 26 January and enables users to request luxury fashion items without the need to pay fees (instead, a commission is taken from the seller on the total order). Users receive a “match” if a personal shopper within Sourcewhere’s network is able to source a desired product.
Sourcewhere is geared up for vintage but in-season stock is also possible, Wright says. The personal shopper is responsible for shipping the product via an approved courier, which is tracked within the app. There will also be an “available now” section on the app, which offers rare, in-demand items sourced by sellers within its network, who are available to purchase immediately. The platform will be available in iOS in an early-access mode, with a waitlisted approach to onboarding users.
Personal sourcing platform Sourcewhere allows users to request luxury fashion products from any season.
Sourcewhere, which is self-funded by Wright, will be up against the brands themselves, which are ready to access their global inventory; and luxury retailers, such as Net-a-Porter, Neiman Marcus, Farfetch, Mytheresa, Saks and Mytheresa, which have in-house teams of personal shoppers to cater for high-spending clients, who can account for as much as 40 per cent of business, according to the companies. There’s also a host of personal shopping apps, including Threads Styling, and the pre-owned sites like Vestiaire Collective, the RealReal and StockX.
Getting anything is core to their appeal, says Wright. “Our network is set up to be able to give shoppers the best possible chance of finding a specific item. In a space that is heavily dominated by peer-to-peer marketplaces, there’s an opportunity to grow a global network of trustworthy suppliers that focuses on personal requests.”
The platform will rely on an organic network of people to help spread the word. Joining as founding advisor and lead curator is Gab Waller, personal shopper to stars such as Hailey Bieber and Rosie Huntington Whiteley. She will oversee a team of 15 established personal shoppers, some who are former e-commerce employees, and private collectors and sellers across the UK and Europe, including @oldcelinearchive, @mies_preowned and @cricketfashion.
The sourcing capabilities of in-house personal shoppers are usually limited to the in-season stock and brands they carry. Today’s consumers don’t want to be siloed, says luxury consultant Robert Burke, who was formerly senior VP of fashion and public relations at Bergdorf Goodman before founding his own consultancy in 2006. “More than ever, customers are in control, and brands need to be as fluid online as they are in store,” he says, reflecting how this shift presents new opportunities for independent personal shoppers.
The idea for Sourcewhere was prompted by Wright’s own personal frustration at trying to locate coveted products, such as a pair of sold-out Celine sandals. “I learned it was a recurring challenge for fashion editors and industry insiders. I thought they would have access first and foremost but [they also] struggled to get their hands on these pieces,” she explains. Frustrated with trawling through search engines and setting “back in stock” alerts, she identified a gap in the market for a faster, less frustrating way to shop.
Personal shoppers have their own databases of suppliers, ranging from a boutique with archive pieces that are not sold alongside new merchandise on the shop floor to store associates and trusted vintage collectors. “It is like resale but executed in a considered way, with a focus on the service element of finding items for customers, rather than reselling them on marketplaces with high inflation costs,” Wright explains.
Sourcewhere faces some competition. Threads Styling, which founder Sophie Hill has evolved from a personal shopping service in 2010 into a broader social and chat-commerce platform, reports a doubling of revenues since the start of the pandemic. The UK-based company has been active in Asia since 2019 and launched in the US in 2020. Threads’ primary strength is social media content, which drives over 50 per cent of sales, says chief marketing officer Samina Virk. “We shoot a lot of our own content and we mix different brands and products. We’re styling them in a way that is relatable, which our customers love.”
Luxury e-commerce is a crowded environment, but Threads’ positioning at the intersection of social networking and e-commerce gives it an edge, Virk argues. Accenture forecasts that the social commerce industry is expected to grow three times as fast as traditional e-commerce, topping $1.2 trillion globally by 2025.
Alpha, whose founders come from Kering and Nike, is a duo of apps for luxury associates and their clients that could change how brands and consumers interact.
Brands can learn plenty from the entrepreneurial energy of the personal shopping sector. In 2011, Michelle Goad, a former wholesale merchandiser at Marc Jacobs, launched PS Dept as a simple messaging app connecting in-store sales associates with customers looking for specific products. By 2016, it had evolved to become a business working with over 10,000 sales associates who were employed at over 100 retail partners including Net-a-Porter and The Webster.
The business stopped operating when it was discreetly acquired by Nike in 2017, absorbing Goad herself into the company as well. PS Dept’s approach to building one-on-one relationships with customers helped to inform the development of Nike’s app, its House of Innovation flagship stores and social commerce strategy, which Goad worked on for four years. (She introduced conversational commerce, a first for Nike at the time, and launched a Nike product concierge team on Twitter that operated the way PS Dept would). When PS shut, members of the team, who were part of the in-house concierge business, joined Farfetch’s private client division, she says.
Newcomer Sourcewhere is taking a different route, focusing more on luxury’s growing interest in the pre-owned sector. Pre-owned luxury items currently account for 21 per cent of secondhand customers’ closet share, forecast to increase to 27 per cent in 2023 — more than other channels like rental or subscription marketplaces, according to data from Boston Consulting Group and Vestiaire Collective. Many brands are still figuring out how to implement this trend into their business models, while consumers tend to frequent sites like Vestiaire Collective or Goat for sold-out pieces they’re after, Wright says.
“The sourcing space is still relatively untouched,” agrees Waller. Some 20 per cent of Waller’s personal shopping business is already driven by requests for past season or hard-to-find pieces, and that percentage is growing.
Sellers are responsible for determining returns policy and communicating it to buyers on the app. Waller is confident this approach will prove satisfactory, backed by comprehensive information shared with the customer upfront. “We need to be upfront with our community and give them the best experience and knowledge, so they don’t over-purchase and end up with things they want to send back,” she says.
Industry experts are intrigued. “They’re taking things one step further by going direct to the consumer. There’s less relationship building,” observes Burke. “It might be the evolution of where we’re going with personal shopping, because the customer already knows what they want. They don’t need to be told. They just want to find it.”
Personal shoppers face the challenges of juggling multiple requests, developing a reliable payments process, and the necessary gamble of occasionally buying pieces without a guaranteed end customer, says Waller. “I have thousands of clients that I service and we’re making hundreds of purchases weekly.”
Sourcewhere wants to standardise the process for its personal shoppers by offering effective client management tools. “We don’t consider ourselves a personal shopping or concierge service. The app acts more like a marketplace because it brings all these people together in an easy, personal and accessible way,” says Wright.
In August 2021, Threads Styling introduced Threads Connect, a B2B service that offers independent personal shoppers access to its technology and digital tools, such as tracking systems for client sales, order status and invoicing. Shoppers can also access Threads’ sourcing network and brand relationships. In return, Threads’ takes a cut from commissions.
“We felt that there was a strong personal shopping community out there and we saw an opportunity to give some of those personal shoppers the ability to scale their own business, while also driving our next stage of global expansion,” says Samina Virk. Since launch, Threads Styling has on-boarded over 100 independent personal stylists.
A drive towards standardisation in the personal shopping industry is also emerging in Asia, says Thomas Piachaud, head of strategy at Re-Hub, a Shanghai-based company that works with brands within LVMH, Kering and Richemont to provide omnichannel clienteling services. Personal shoppers who operate in China, also known as daigou, are often simplistically considered to be students, who, for a side job, “put a bunch of purses into their suitcases and come across the border via airplane”, he says. The reality is that it’s a highly evolved business with cross-border operations including a customer service team in China and a sourcing team in Europe. “There’s a high degree of sophistication,” he emphasises.
Consolidation is inevitable, says Piachaud. “The margins [for personal shopping] are built razor thin; they’re about 5-10 per cent these days. These personal shoppers are shipping a container of 200 luxury products every three days or so,” he says.
Burke identifies the potential of wholesale management platforms such as Joor or Nuorder, which have helped to digitise and standardise the buying process and also an added layer of data that can inform future purchases. Personal shopping could follow a similar route, he says. “For so long, so much was left up to individual salespeople and their ability to be entrepreneurial. I believe that personal shopping is going to become more standardised and mainstream as the technology emerges to support it.”
Sourcewhere may take between five to seven years to hit profitability, says Wright — but, she’s ready to play the long game. “The most important thing is being able to get the customer exactly what they’re looking for, whether it’s a new season item or a piece from Margiela's Hermès years,” she says. “This is a tool that uses digital and human intelligence to make shopping more accessible and personal. That’s what the future of luxury looks like.”
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