Marrying data, tech and fashion at Stitch Fix
Talking With ... Julie Bornstein, COO of Stitch Fix
If you haven’t heard of the online styling service Stitch Fix, you will soon. Using a combination of sophisticated algorithms and personal touches from stylists, the company ships a tailored selection of items to each customer’s door. Customers keep what they like and send back what they don’t, all while giving loads of data back to Stitch Fix to make their next “fix” even more on point.
That intersection of data and fashion is where Julie Bornstein shines. Joining Stitch Fix as chief operating officer in April, Bornstein oversees strategy, marketing, styling and client experience. She spent the previous seven years as Sephora’s CMO and chief digital officer, where she quadrupled its e-commerce business and developed the industry’s leading loyalty program — Beauty Insider.
Before she takes the keynote stage at the Shop.org Digital Summit in October, we chatted with Bornstein about her philosophy on building a career, the trend toward personalization in retail and what it takes to innovate.
How did you get into the retail industry?
I loved fashion and shopping since I was a kid, and thought I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was young. When I was graduating from Harvard University, my friends were going to law school, medical school or investment banks. Meanwhile, I sent resumes to all of my favorite design houses and was lucky enough to be hired by DKNY in merchandising. I ended up spending my time building an inventory model to help us better project our production needs, and realized that there was a lot of opportunity to improve the efficiency of retail and fashion. After going back to business school and working briefly on the investment banking side of retail (not for me), Amazon launched and e-commerce became a “thing.” The combination of analytics and technology with shopping and fashion captured my imagination immediately and I spent six months trying to convince Nordstrom to hire me to help launch Nordstrom.com.
You’ve been in your current role for less than a year. What excites you most about the opportunity you have as Stitch Fix’s relatively new COO?
I was on Stitch Fix’s board for two years prior to joining full time, so I had the opportunity to get to know the company and the founder Katrina Lake, and I can honestly say that I have never seen a company quite like Stitch Fix. My passion is providing amazing service to consumers and this business is completely focused on that mission. Stitch Fix brings together an unusual blend of art and science to deliver true, 1:1 personalization at scale, something that’s not yet been seen in the fashion industry. I was excited by the opportunity to work alongside Katrina and Stitch Fix’s amazing management team to help grow the company and take advantage of the huge opportunities we see in the market.
How is Stitch Fix’s approach to personalization different than what you’re seeing at other retailers, and how do you think the personalization trend will evolve in the industry?
Personalization and big data are buzzwords that everyone talks about, but it’s very hard to operationalize these concepts. At Stitch Fix we are able to deliver a “fix” of five items that have been selected to fit each individual client’s budget, taste and lifestyle. It is personalization at a whole different level, and it’s very exciting. In some ways, it’s the combination of big and small data that is enabling us.
I think true personalization will get better slowly over the next decade, changing the way big retailers market as well as service clients, but also through new competitors and software companies emerging and providing new models to bring personalization to life.
How does mobile fit into Stitch Fix’s strategy?
The core of our experience is about the client getting her “fix” of five items, hand-picked for her and delivered to her door. Mobile is a common part of the initial onboarding process and we see about half of our clients signing up and checking out on mobile. We will continue to look to this channel as a natural extension of how we deliver a great service experience as we evolve over time.
Innovating and evolving is so important for retailers today. What works and what doesn’t when trying to foster a culture of innovation?
What works to foster a culture of innovation in established retailers today is to hire the right people and organize them so that the core business doesn’t slow them down. Most critically, top management must believe, support and engage. If the CEO doesn’t get it, the company doesn’t stand a chance. I suspect the next generation of retail CEOs will look quite different from today’s.
What’s the best piece of career advice you have for young professionals starting in digital retail?
Build expertise. Don’t fret over where to begin, just find something that looks interesting and dive in. One’s path naturally unfolds over time. Sometimes the process of elimination (finding what you don’t love) is as helpful as finding what you do love. Work hard, love what you do, become great at it and opportunities will continue to open up.
What do you want to share with digital retailers at the Shop.org Digital Summit — and what do you hope to gain from the experience?
I was recently at a summit of many of the initial e-commerce leaders who I met 15 years ago at the first Shop.org conference and I had a great time sharing with them the new work being done by companies like Stitch Fix, so that will be fun to do in a bigger forum at Shop.org. And of course, its always great to see old friends in the industry and learn from other innovators!
Get more insights from digital retail leaders like Bornstein at the 2015 Shop.org Digital Summit, to be held October 5 to 7 in Philadelphia.
Shop.org is the industry’s largest, most vibrant and experienced online retail community, offering exclusive research, events and networking opportunities.