Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Modcloth and the Work of Shopping



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.

20 comments:

Sadie Rose said...

i have a huge brain-boner for your writing. smart smart smart.

A Wild Tonic said...

Brilliant.

Alicia said...

It's insanely clever marketing, and I must say that I'm guilty of falling into their evil little snares (I'm planning on blogging some gloves I won in one of their contests - HA). The points you've made have definitely crossed my mind, but you've expressed them more eloquently than I ever could.

What I really take umbrage with is their new sizing system. They've eradicated their individual garment measurements (which is something I actually loved about their site), and now expect their customers to input their measurements to give others a better idea of fit. I'm much less likely to buy a garment if I don't know its measurements, and I imagine many other ladies feel the same way - not to mention that I think most women are VERY hesitant to publicly post their measurements online.

Vintage Seen said...

agreed, as a marketing person for a fashion company I admire their audacity but completely see the light you shed on it also, they do seem to be cashing in on people wanting to have their say, it's so generational though as I am happier when it's all done for me (but I'm well over 30 too ;).

Huzzah! Vintage said...

It will certainly be interesting to watch the company grow. If nothing else, I was pleased to read in the latest issue of NEET that Koger plans on visiting the manufacturing plants that produce its designers' garments--presumably to ensure that items aren't being made in sweatshops. I'd rather that no laboring body--be it on Facebook or in Fuzhou--be exploited, but I suppose that of the third world worker is most immediately vulnerable, and therefore most immediately in need of protection/oversight. We'll see.

also: the expression 'brain boner' is definitely going into heavy rotation (especially during academic conference season).

anne chia said...

This is my first time here and i LOVE it. Clever & well said! xxx

blouse said...

i just spent the last hour and 13 mins watching her speak. honestly, i think she's brilliant. she has created a community and it's in turn working for her. people LOVE to have an opinion. i don't think it's exploitation so long as you like doing it. im willing to bet that people go into her store just to try and name a new dress.

that being said, i totally can see the flip side. i guess i sometimes just choose to believe people are bringing people together and not just using them....rose colored glasses?

Tiny Dancer Clothing said...

Interesting stuff! Modcloth is becoming less and less responsible for providing customers with the services it's usually assumed you pay for when buying retail - photography of the garments, sizing information, fit information, descriptions, customer service - so what exactly is included in the cost of products? We know from other insightful posts that their actual products come cheaply and in mass quantities, and if the customers are the ones doing all of the tasks (costs of which are typically things built into the markup of retail clothing) - what exactly are customers paying for when we buy $65 dress from ModCloth? They're making a pretty penny that's for sure.

Huzzah! Vintage said...

J - I completely agree that Koger seems to be very smart and mature beyond her 20-something years. It's precisely because she seems so smart that I have to believe that she must recognize the slippage between the rhetoric of democracy that she's spinning and the reality of intensified capital that Modcloth is generating as a result of its fashion 'benevolence'.

In so-called First World countries, we have long been divorced from the actual production of the things we use. We no longer build our own houses, bake our own bread or sew our own clothing. (In extreme cases reported by the NYT of wealthy socialites who were too busy to be pregnant, we don't always produce our own babies anymore, either--we pay poorer women to carry them to term so that we don't miss our annual Alpine ski trip!) We are but mere consumers living amidst a growing pile of things produced by other people.

What Modcloth (and many, many other companies) are doing is using social networking and web 2.0 technology to superficially restore the production/consumption dialectic that was sundered by the rise of industrial capitalism in the late 19th century. By asking us to 'help' them, they are effectively exploiting our desire to recover that part of ourselves lost to capitalism--that 'productive' part that legitimizes our consumption. But--and this is the important part-- they are not inviting us back into a democratic manufacturing collective where all members equally reap the rewards of their labor. In fact, they are actually inviting us back onto the shop floor where we are but mere handmaidens helping to produce thousands of widgets that we will never personally use (unless we buy one) and that will be sold for Modcloth's own economic gain. This is the basis of industrial capitalism, and if Modcloth would just stop insisting otherwise--if it would just stop spinning its interactive marketing and neoliberal business strategies as 'democracy' or consumer empowerment--I might begin to celebrate the company's incredible success.

{dissertation mode OFF}

Huzzah! Vintage said...

ps: I appreciate that you wear rose-colored glasses! I fear that mine were destroyed at the hellish gates of grad school ;)

Beth Trouble said...

BINGO. Thank the heavens someone is willing to say this.

Empowerment-through-consumption rhetoric has always rubbed me the wrong way. ModCloth's strategy seems to be empowerment-through-production, only people forget that they're not getting paid for their productive work! They are only getting the opportunity to buy back their labor at retail price! A dirty capitalist wet dream for sure.

alexkeller said...

simultaneously disturbing and enticing. damn. and i agree with brain boner.

La Fille D'or said...

Word. Thank you - for writing this. I have serious issues with modcloth - and you know, not just because they haven't named a dress after me.

' I work for a Labor law and human rights firm/org. '

Fabienne Jach said...

This is interesting, I think it can be viewed several ways. Firstly, free contributions in the form of conversations and reviews are just that: Free. In this age of Yelp, facebook, etc...it's already happening. I don't think contributors are being tricked into doing what they do, they obviously have a passion for it and are having fun.

When I started shopping at ModCloth, I sent them my feedback suggesting they engage more with their core customer base to do exactly what they are criticized for doing here. (By the way, I'm not taking credit for those idea, I sent a bunch of suggestions with how I thought the experience could be improved, I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one.)

The fact is customer engagement is real and it's powerful. People like to contribute. It's not one-sided at all. When I suggested they have customers upload photos depicting how they chose to wear their outfits it's because I thought it would be inspiring to see what real people do, rather than models and stylists. I read the reviews and write my own. I like to vote on items I would consider buying.

It's forward-thinking of them to make the experience more engaging. This tactic will not be for everyone but I wouldn't undermine the mutual benefit it has. I'm grateful to be exposed to one of the ways to view this and I hope that I provided what it looks like from another vantage point.

Telene said...

Certainly it can be viewed in several ways, clearly, but I'm also of Fabienne's ilk in believing that what Modcloth is doing is a smart and simple use of social networking and the enjoyment (some) users get out of contributing.

Suggesting that Modcloth only hire models, writers, and buyers to do their "work" (sounds like fun stuff to me!), and not let their users contribute in such ways seems like a step in the wrong direction. Large companies like Gap or Prada would not allow their users to engage online in such ways; I think this sets Modcloth apart from the average commercial clothing retailer.

There's no requirement for users to "Be The Buyer" or the Writer; the users do it for sheer enjoyment. Additionally, it brings the users closer together as a community, and I just can't see in any way, shape, or form how that is bad.

Jensan said...

Thank YOU! This is one of the smartest things I've read about the emerging free (and flexible) labor force growing up around fashion blogging. I could not have said it better myself.

Are you by chance an Americanist? I'm putting together a panel on technology and fashion for the ASA conference, and a paper on this very topic would round out our proposal nicely. If you're interested, please email me at jenniesan [at] gmail. The submission deadline is coming up quick!

kim @ pineapplemint said...

It's all very clever, actually. I kind of give them credit!

But, I still think their clothes look like overpriced cheap crap for 7 year olds and I still cringe every time (which is like, 10 times a day) I see some blogger proudly showing off her Modcloth dress. Gag.

Personally I've only visited the site once, and I can assuredly say I won't be back.

Huzzah! Vintage said...

@Jensan

Thanks! That's very flattering, and the panel sounds really interesting. I'm not an Americanist per se, and I don't usually attend the ASA conference, but I'll definitely give it some thought. I'm PhDeep in my diss right now, so my conferencing has been scaled back dramatically.

@Telene @Fabienne Jach

Thanks, ladies, for your thoughts. It's this type of respectful debate and discussion with people I would likely never meet in-person (despite that fact that we all seemingly live in the same city?) that gets me jacked up about what I see as the true democratic and liberatory potential of the Internet.

Mary @ stylefyles said...

I have to agree with @ Telene on this....while I definitely appreciate the points you bring up in this post, product reviews are one of the greatest tools for consumers.....when shopping for anything. And especially online. I am VERY hesitant to purchase anything online that doesn't have reviews attached to it, be it a popcorn maker, printer or an article of clothing.

Huzzah! Vintage said...

Hi, Mary

Thanks for your comment. I also like product reviews; I use them on third-party sites like Amazon all the time to make better-informed purchasing decisions.

I am skeptical, however, of review systems hosted and monitored by the company whose wares are being reviewed. According to a number of blog posts around the interweb, Modcloth closely monitors the reviews. Modcloth representatives deny this, but I have no reason to believe that the bloggers would lie (and every reason to believe that Modcloth would--it's in the company's interest to protect its brand, after all).

To pick up the point made by Alicia earlier in this discussion, the elimination of the exact measurements seems, to me, to coincide nicely with the company's push for ever greater involvement/work from its customers. "Help each other out. It's better that way anyhow" seems to be the new mantra. That's certainly a lovely socialist sentiment, but one that a) conveniently relieves Modcloth of the onerous labor involved in measuring each piece itself and b) encourages shoppers to pick up the slack while simultaneously spending a lot more time on the website, amidst the clothes, and within 'clicking range' of their checkout page.