When Quincy Apparel arrived on the scene last spring, many female shoppers rejoiced. The online clothing company promised made-to-order clothing for every body type. But after 10 months in business, Quincy ceased operations. Late last month, the company said its first collection, released in September, would be its last.
“We literally ran out of money,” said Quincy co-founder Christina Wallace. “Consumers will give you one chance, and if it’s not the most perfect thing, they’ll try something else and that was your shot.”In the crowded world of e-commerce, apparel brands that promote ever more customization—and indeed strive for creating products that hew perfectly to the whims of customers—can face more pitfalls than new entrepreneurs might realize. Fledgling firms receive venture-capital investment—in the past year, e-commerce apparel companies attracted $325.4 million in funding, a 47% increase over the year-earlier period, according to research firm CB Insights—but several startups, like Quincy, have folded shortly out of the gate or trimmed their offerings after missteps.Those that survive are forced to quickly revise their initial business plan by offering more specialized fare.
That can backfire. A custom-made product often leaves retailers grappling with supply issues, stocking just enough inventory to meet demand without having to mark down excess. Many have also had trouble finding the perfect fit for shoppers.
Steep learning curve
“It’s a really hard operational challenge to get right,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, a vice president and principal e-commerce analyst at Forrester Research. “There’s a difference between mass customization and truly bespoke.”
Ms. Wallace, a Harvard Business School graduate, set out in 2011 to offer a better fit in clothing for women. She created blazers and blouses based on bra size and torso length, and pants modeled on body type, waist and height. The site went live last spring.Over the course of 18 months, Quincy raised just under $1 million from angel investors and venture-capital funding, and generated $250,000 from just under a year of e-commerce sales. Yet it was not enough. Though she tried to save her customers the hassle of grappling with a tape measure, Ms. Wallace found her measuring methods were still not as specific as customers demanded.Shoppers also expected fast deliveries—easily solved by local manufacturing in the garment district—but Ms. Wallace had trouble figuring out supply and demand. Quincy also had to deal with a steep learning curve when teaching local factories the new sizing method.
Fine-tuning business model
“The problem is, you have a lot of [items] to keep on the shelf, which is where it gets hairy on the supply chain and manufacturing side,” she said. “There were a lot of changes for our suppliers.”
Other companies have had similar problems but have fine-tuned their business model in time to better serve fickle consumers and stay afloat. One such company, Acustom Apparel, began selling to consumers soon after its 2011 launch.The firm, which has a second-floor store in SoHo where customers get measured by body-scanning technology and then buy online, initially sold both men’s and women’s denim. Yet by the end of 2012, co-founder and Chief Executive Jamal Motlagh dropped women’s clothes from the lineup.”When you’re making custom, they can’t try it on,” he said. “It’s hard to build a one-fitting-and-done process.”The changes appear to be working. Mr. Motlagh, who has raised $450,000 in funding so far, expects to reach $1 million in sales by the end of the year and open a ground-floor shop as well.In September, Acustom was recognized by the city’s Economic Development Corp. for its digital innovations.Since its 1999 launch, e-commerce site eShakti has undergone several iterations. It started out as an Indian lifestyle site, but after nine years transformed into a fashion house selling custom sizes of Indian-made clothing.
Eventually, eShakti began to also offer custom apparel options, such as sleeve shapes and lengths, different necklines, pockets and embroidery. About 60% of sales are to plus-size women, according to Chief Executive B.G. Krishnan, who noted that the company offers sizes up to 36W and fills a void in retail.
But because items are made overseas, they take about two weeks to arrive. Still, Mr. Krishnan expects sales to surpass $75 million within the next three years. He’s planning to offer bridesmaid dresses later this year and include as much customization as possible, even down to the fabric choices.”Any area where customization is involved becomes good,” he said. “We’ll keep expanding through the year.”