personalized shopping Badly dressed men (you know who you are) get help from artificial intelligence

Selling clothes online can be hard. But German start-ups like Berlin's Outfittery are growing fast by offering customized services with personal stylists and fancy algorithms that know what you want, even if you didn't.
They've got better taste than you.

Men who have ever been served a glass of champagne while trying on new pants in a fancy store know they’ll be paying a sizable sum. Because this kind of treatment is about more than just the bubbly. It’s about personal service that means that the next time they visit, the staff will remember their names, shirt sizes and the style of suit they like, as well as the wine they prefer.

For consumers, male and female, who want this kind of attention but not the bill that goes along with it, several new online shopping sites using artificial intelligence technology offer such a “curated shopping” experience. One of them is Berlin-based Outfittery, which is specialized in men's fashion.

Those who don’t get into personalization early, will soon be history. Alexander Graf, e-commerce consultant

At first glance, the home page of the men's fashion site looks like any other online retailer. But deep inside is a complex artificial intelligence algorithm at work. Potential clients fill in a questionnaire that includes fine details such as whether they prefer their jeans light or dark blue as well as more esoteric quirks such as how old the respondent “really feels.” Clients can also upload photos of themselves and call the stylist for a chat.

After all the questions have been answered, a stylist puts together a package for the client. At home, the customer gets to try on everything in front of his own mirror and decide what to keep and what to send back. Every time a purchase is made or an article returned, Outfittery’s algorithm and the human stylist involved learn more about the client’s taste and style to tailor future packages accordingly. The company has invested consistently in fine-tuning its artificial intelligence software that makes these decisions and supports the creative selection of the stylist involved.

A Modomoto parcel for the dapper dresser.

It’s a winning formula. The fashion start-up, which has attracted €50 million ($62 million) in venture capital since launching in 2012, now sells in eight European countries to more than 500,000 customers, according to Julia Bösch, one of its founders. The company recorded its first profit last November.

“Every time a customer sends something back, makes an order or clicks on something, our software gets new data that it connects with the unique user,” Ms. Bösch says. “That means that the stylists also gets a better idea of what he likes and what he does not.” The software can also predict what labels, brands or styles a client might go for in the future.

But Ms. Bösch doesn’t think the artificial intelligence will completely replace the humans she employs anytime soon. “Fashion is a deeply personal means of expression – you need a human touch,” she says, arguing that this kind of personalization is the future of shopping.

Alexander Graf, an e-commerce consultant in Hamburg, agrees. “In the future, retailers will offer all customers their own individualized homepage, which only shows them what they really want,” he says.

Fashion idols: Outfittery co-founders Julia Bösch (L) and Anna Alex.

Outfittery is not the only fashion retailer offering this kind of service in Germany. Zalando has its Zalon service, and Modomot is another Berlin-based fashion company using artificial intelligence software, to provide just two examples.

According to Germany's e-commerce and mail-order association, online fashion sales in Germany rose by around 6 percent to €15.6 billion last year. More brick-and-mortar stores are heading online to sell their wares. But it’s not necessarily an easy transition, as witnessed by several big German clothing retailers that have come and gone online.

“At the end of the day, it is only the biggest and most coveted brands that will be able to do without personalization,” Mr. Graf concludes. “Those who don’t get into personalization early will soon be history.”

Georg Weishaupt covers the retail sector for Handelsblatt. Johannes Steger is a trainee at the Georg von Holtzbrinck School. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]