The AI Revolution: Failing Plus Size Shoppers at Every Turn

Posted on May 30 2020

The AI Revolution: Failing Plus Size Shoppers at Every Turn

 

I've spent a bit of time on this blog talking about how difficult online apparel shopping is, and how being a plus size shopper magnifies those difficulties exponentially (want some stats? Reread this blog post about why you can't find any clothes).  I go to no small effort to make it easier for you - precise garment measurements, painstaking size charts, free return shipping - but even then, I know that a small boutique lacks the most powerful tools that are truly transforming online shopping, creating personalized recommendations and serving individualized wardrobe options to shoppers.  AI has arrived, and anyone who ever had a Dia & Co subscription knows how powerful it is.

The AI revolution is in its infancy, and the COVID epidemic has hastened its burgeoning upheavals.  Julie Bornstein, former COO of Stitch Fix, has partnered with Amit Aggarwal in a new venture, The Yes, that hopes to capitalize on those changes by transforming the online shopping experience for women.  The Yes is a powerful e-commerce engine that curates personalized content for women based on their search history and other continuous data gathering mechanisms.  This service is designed to cut through the enormous noise of too many options, too many sites, too much everything.  But, how does this service rate for the plus size shopper? 

After all, her dilemma is not "too much," but "too little."

I decided to sign up for The Yes as a size 20 shopper with a style that is not too wild.  I wasn't demanding plus size crop tops or cut-out bodycon micro-mini dresses (although there's certainly nothing wrong with wearing them), but the kind of styles that plus size women with a decent budget might want to wear to the office, a fancy restaurant or bar, or church.  

 

The Sign-up: Where Things Begin to go Wrong

I accessed the shopping experience through the app.  After gathering my personal information, we got the very first screen:

"Tap the brands you want to see in your feed."  Indeed.

Let's take just a moment to look at that message from the point of view of a plus size shopper.  We have previously noted (here) that only about 0.1% of clothing on high end designer e-commerce sites is plus size.  That's one out of every 1000 clothing items. How much time does The Yes think a plus size shopper spends perusing designer clothing sites in search of her ideal style?  Does she prefer Frame, Trave, or Khaite?  Cuyana, Staud, or Vince?  None of them carry clothes in her size, so the answer falls somewhere between "I don't care" and "I have no idea."

This opening screen shot is saying "If you were thinner (which you most definitely are NOT), what would your style be?"  And to answer that question, the shopper would need to spend hours combing through the designers' websites being told, every single second that she's on those sites, that she's too fat for the clothes.

That's a big ask.  Thankfully, you can just "Next" your way right off of that screen, but the damage has been done.

The subsequent screens are less aggressive. 

Color preference, common styles some women might want to avoid (crop tops, super high heels, strapless tops, etc), and the typical "would you wear the outfit that you see on this straight-sized model?" shots that hone in on style choices.  Finally, they ask the nitty gritty questions about height, weight, and size.

Let's start with the positives: this is a great company, and I look forward to what they do in the future. They exhibit philanthropy, support fashion brands during an economic downturn, prioritize easy checkout, and for some women, have a great selection of clothing.  The fact that they have a strong and successful female CEO who raised venture capital in a sometimes-hostile environment is the cherry on the sundae.  In theory, I'm in.  In practice, the plus experience really needs work.

Problem 1: The clothing recommendations were boring

And voilà!  My feed, designed to present me with exciting and fashion-forward clothing options, was created!  Here were my very first recommendations:

 

I'm not lying, these were literally the first two items.  A light blue tee shirt that I could find at Target, followed by a pair of boots, because evidently after the tee shirt recommendation, they gave up.

The top-level recommendations section also contained 2 more pair of shoes, a pair of jeans, a black dress, a really cute Zara ruffled miniskirt, and a raglan top. 

That's passable, as far as results go, but not exactly exciting.  A black dress and jeans are a bit of a yawner; I don't need a personalized search engine powered by cutting-edge, sophisticated AI to know I should own those.  The raglan top is nice.  I like the color.  The skirt is super cute. 

But with the entire internet at its fingertips, The Yes should be able to find plus size clothes that are more fashion-forward.  After all, the reason I opened There Wrens was to find and showcase beautiful clothes for plus size women, and with some legwork, I was perfectly able to do that.  The Yes simply hasn't put any effort it the curation of its plus size offering.

 

Problem 2: The Yes boasts 150 clothing brands.  My feed shows only 3.  

The Yes claims to have 150 brands in their inventory, I only have 3 different labels in my feed  (not including shoes).  We've previously pointed out that on large, multi-brand retail sites, only 2.7% of the clothing offered is plus size.  This number fails even to reach that low bar - it would need 4 brands to do that.

All of the top level clothing recommendations for a size 20 woman were Zara, Madewell, and Michael Stars.  Under that top, highlighted section, there were sections titled The Essentials and Having a Moment, in which all product recommendations were shoes.

 

Lastly comes the section titled "Widen your circle: A few brands we think you'll love," devoted to helping our shopper discover new brands which fit her style.  It contains items from Zara and Madewell, two of the three brands that were already featured in the top section.

 

 

In total, there were three designers featured in my feed.  The prices of the clothing ranged from $9.90 to $128.  If a woman has more money to spend than that, too bad.

How disappointing.

Problem 3: Once I see the difference between the choices for plus and straight size, and it makes me even more angry

As you can imagine, the straight size options were quite different.  When I changed only my weight and size in the quiz, my feed featured a total of 22 designers.  The clothes were varied and fashionable, with an entire section devoted to pretty puff-sleeve tops to wear on a Zoom date (what a cute idea - focus on the shoulders and face!).  The price range went from $39 to $2,495 for a Dolce and Gabbana suit, truly something for everyone's budget.   

 

A summary of the comparison between the two size ranges demonstrates that plus size clothing is less fashion-forward, restricted in style, and cheaper than straight size clothing. Again, I did not include shoes in the designer count.

  Plus Collection Straight Collection
Section  Designer Count Price Range Designer Count Price Range
Top Level Recommendations 3 $36-$78 7 $49-$265
The Essentials 0 NA 4 $54-$525
Having a Moment 0 NA 13 $39-$264
Widen your Circle 2 $10-$128 2 $114-$2495
Total Number or Designers 3   22  

Problem 4: Plus size models were nowhere to be found  

Nowhere do we see a plus size model.  All of the clothing was shown by straight size models, with the exception of the skirt which was not on a model at all.  Plus size women cannot effectively choose clothing that they cannot see on bodies that approximate their own size.

While that is likely not the fault of The Yes (they don't photograph the clothes, that's the brand's responsibility), I would hope that they are demanding change from the designers.  Their entire business model is based on online apparel shopping, and they need the brands to do a better job of actually trying to get sales from the two-thirds of American women who are size 14 and above.

Honestly, it's as if they don't even want our money.

Even I was shocked at how poorly this product performed for a plus size shopper, and it's pretty hard to surprise me in this area. The plans for improving and expanding The Yes include men's fashion and an Android app, so an expansion into a better plus selection does not seem to be coming any time soon.

It hurts my heart that so many women are going to go onto The Yes, with a tiny glimmer of hope in their hearts that this time it will be different, only to be confronted with a light blue tee shirt and a pile of shoes.  

This blog post was intended to serve entirely as an unbiased product review rather than self-promotion or marketing for Three Wrens, but please forgive me - I just can't let you walk away thinking this is the best you can do.  I work hard to curate a collection of fashion-forward, exciting, and high quality pieces for you.  I have far more than three brands, and you'll find much more variety than a black dress and a pair of jeans.

AI is changing how we shop and in some cases, how we live.  This product, however, will not change the lives of any plus size shoppers, who (have I mentioned?) comprise two thirds of American women.  The Yes is leaving a lot of money on the table.

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