Most online retailers keep a safe distance from their customers (unless they're asking for credit card information). ModCloth, an e-retailer of vintage women's fashion founded in 2002, is deviating from this model by creating a community of fashionistas included in almost every part of the company.
Without the customer-company separation, ModCloth is more like a best friend who gives you fashion advice, shares her favorite recipes, and joins your book club. Wait, we're still talking about a clothing store, right?
Right. In October 2009, Modcloth launched its "Be the Buyer" program, an initiative that lets visitors vote on clothing samples. If an item gets enough votes, ModCloth will sell it. Sound familiar? Threadless was founded on a similarly democratic principle, but Modcloth is the first to add crowdsourcing as a supplement to a traditional storefront.
ModCloth takes its customers' fashion advice to improve its buying decisions, but it's also about building community. Customers leave comments on clothing samples and vote, but can also share their views with friends via Facebook or Twitter. It results in a group of people who may not know each other, but share in common an interest in fashion and a desire to talk about it.
These fashionistas are a part of a community more complex than garments, though. ModCloth's blog, ModLife, covers everything from fashion to recipes, and provides "cool links" on the Web. There's even a link to a Flickr account where customers upload photos of their favorite ModCloth outfits.
On March 8, ModCloth announced its reading contest, in which users who share the title of the book they're reading on the social-networking site GoodReads enter for a chance to a win a copy of ModCloth's book of the month. It's unclear whether ModCloth has officially partnered with GoodRead, but the partnership represents a significant shift in online retailing.
Online shops generally have a narrow frame of thought, assuming their customers came to them for only their products. But Web 2.0 is about community, and ModCloth was right in assuming that its shoppers have more in common than clothing.
I caught up with ModCloth founders Eric and Susan Koger via e-mail to find out more about the community they've built.
You guys crowdsource your inventory with your "Be the Buyer" program. Do you think you're a part of a shift in online retailing?
Absolutely. We think of Be the Buyer as a part of a much bigger shift in e-retail toward a more inclusive experience where communities and brands co-evolve.
Having your customers be the buyer helps you rule out items that would likely end up on clearance. What's in it for the customers?
It's actually about helping us figure out which items should get made in the first place, but it's also a really fun experience where the customer gets to voice her opinion, and participate in the development of the ModCloth collection.
How much responsibility do designers and retailers have in helping customers make fashion choices?
Within any community there are leaders and there are followers. Designers and retailers often assume the position of leader for the community, and the team at ModCloth certainly helps fill that role, but we also recognize there are very meaningful leaders within the community.
You have a strong relationship with your customers, and your Twitter feed shows constant interaction. How important is social media in building your business?
Social media is a powerful way of reaching out to our community, but more importantly it allows us to see how the community is interacting independently. It's customer research, customer service, and community engagement all at the same time.
How do you see the "Be the Buyer" program transforming over the next few years?
This is hard to answer succinctly. We see more designers participating, and it forming a bigger portion of the ModCloth collection with time. But most importantly, we see the user experience on the site improving in a big way, and then extending into social and mobile applications.
Can you give other online retailers a pointer on using social media, like Twitter?
Think of it as a fluid conversation with customers. So don't say anything, or react to anything, differently than you would with a room full of actual customers.