By Adam Grant
The custom-menswear market has doubled since 2010, and entrepreneurs can learn a lot about building brands by studying the new crop of e-commerce companies that blend smart technology with up-close and personal customer experiences.
No e-commerce brands get personal with their customers quite like custom clothing brands, which gather detailed information about each customer’s body and often require photos of their customers to deliver their products. Customers enter their measurements, choose everything from the fabric to the font used in the monogram and, in the span of a few weeks, receive their custom-made clothes -- often for a fraction of the cost of a bespoke suit.
There’s a lot that entrepreneurs in all industries can learn about building a high-touch e-commerce brand from going through the custom clothing purchase process. I recently went through the experience as a customer at Black Lapel, Claymore Brothers and Deo Veritas, but I asked questions like an entrepreneur. And I found three lessons for anybody trying to break through with an e-commerce business today. Here are the big takeaways:
Don't Disrupt -- Disrup-date
The pace of change in menswear could be described as glacial. Suits have been the uniform of high finance and business for decades, but 10 years ago, if you were looking for an industry niche to disrupt, custom suits would have been it. Getting a custom-made suit meant getting a suit made by a traveling tailor or spending an exorbitant amount of money on a bespoke suit.
Rather than blowing up the whole system and starting from scratch, the founders of custom clothing companies took elements from the way custom suits had been made for years by traveling tailors and simply updated the processes. While a traveling tailor might have visited different towns with swatch books, now companies offer to send swatches, along with measuring tape to help customers measure themselves. This way, customers still see and feel the fabrics firsthand but at a lower cost.
Know When Low-Tech Is Best
With seemingly everybody and their brother forming a tech startup, it’s easy to get swept up in a wave of technological “advancements” that don’t really advance your business. I’ve come to expect some element of tech for tech’s sake in just about every e-commerce business I come across.
So when I first learned about the online custom clothing sector and brands like Indochino, I was prepared to see all sorts of pyrotechnics when it came time to measure myself and customize a suit. I’d heard about companies using 3D scanning to determine sizes. But at these three brands, there was no high-tech wizardry. You just get two choices: Schedule an appointment and have one of their stylists measure you, or follow along with a set of videos and have a friend measure you at home. If you have any questions, just send a good old-fashioned email and a stylist will guide you through the process.
“We follow the old carpenter’s rule of thumb: measure twice, cut once,” said Derek Tian, co-founder of Black Lapel, when I contacted them for a suit. For Black Lapel, that means a person double-checking measurements customers send in. If something looks off, a stylist will contact you and guide you through retaking the measurement.
Are there ways a personal touch could help your business solve problems before they arise? Of course, if you can get find a way for a machine to automatically handle issues, it makes a lot of sense. But it’s also important to spot times when the newest technology doesn’t yield the best results and address those situations with a low-tech solution.
Make Personal Scaleable
With all this talk about the human touch, you may be wondering how an e-commerce company can scale. After all, aren’t there limits to how much you can sell if you have to have someone dedicated to personally reviewing orders?
“The human touch is a constraint we have to work within,” Tian admitted. “But our necessarily complex process requires that we help our customers early on.”
Still, the bootstrapped startup has managed to grow steadily in its first five years on the strength of its reputation, a reputation that owes a lot to the level of personal service they deliver.
“We’ve worked hard to become efficient so that we can continue to deliver the personal touch,” Tian said. “We’ve looked at where our customers get hung up and have even gone so far as to eliminate choices that were getting in the way of someone building their perfect suit. It’s a delicate balance, but we’ve been able to find the sweet spot between holding our customers’ hands and scaling the business.”
There are plenty of great custom clothing companies in the marketplace today -- Hall Madden, Hive & Colony, Trumaker, Modern Tailor, BobbyMacc, to name a few -- and while each has a different plan for growth, all have harnessed that personal touch.
Adam Grant serves as CEO of Campus Commandos, a top youth marketing agency helping you market products/services to college students.