Modcloth co-founder and chief creative director Susan Gregg Koger speaks somewhat candidly in this talk at Parsons about the company's incredibly humble beginnings in her college dorm room in 2002, its relatively quick rise to Internet indie fashion fame, and its current supply chain management and marketing strategies. As we here at Huzzah! are quickly aging out of the Modcloth core demo- and psychographic and don't, therefore, really visit the site or 'engage with the brand' in any serious way, we were a bit surprised to learn about the many ways in which Modcloth customers 'work' for the company.
In addition to Modcloth's 'You Be the Buyer' program, which helps the company minimize the risk associated with purchasing inventory by asking customers to indicate which dresses they would buy given the opportunity, the web retailer also solicits customers to 'Be the Writer,' and 'name' selected items before they become available for purchase. But marketing and buying are not the only areas for which Modcloth recruits free labor. The company has also effectively begun to outsource aspects of customer care by encouraging shoppers to answer each other's fit, quality, and styling questions via product reviews attached to each item and, more incredibly, via conversations between customers on its very active Facebook wall. And in response to requests for live models instead of dress forms (which, Koger notes, are much less expensive than their respirating counterparts), the site will soon offer its customers the opportunity to upload photos of themselves in current Modcloth apparel so that other shoppers may see what the item looks like on an actual person--specifically, one who does not demand an hourly wage, smoke breaks or glossies for her portfolio. (Or a product placement fee a la popular fashion bloggers.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, this complimentary customer labor is cloaked in a rhetoric of 'fashion democratization.' Customers are flattered into believing that they are a contributing member of an exclusive sartorial collective, and that the free work they do for the site is somehow different, somehow less exploitative than that which paid focus group participants do for major retailers like Gap Inc. and Zara parent company Inditex. The reality, of course, is that the only thing different about Modcloth's strategy is that it is cheaper and has the value-added benefit of promoting much deeper engagement with the brand and website (something the company perhaps learned from its young, start-up savvy investors). Like so many Americans today, Modcloth customer-laborers are working harder and harder for less and less. As far as we can tell, this is not a model of democracy, but a capitalist's filthy wet dream.
Addendum (12/16/2010): Modcloth has started (seemingly within the past week) using more live models to display certain of its items. Coincidence? Perhaps, but our contrarian sensibilities think not.