Promising Solutions That Didn’t Fix

A friend of mine brought up a business a while back and asked what I thought. I never heard of it, but its model was to provide women with stylists who would find clothing for customers’ specific body types and ‘tude and send them in the mail once a month. One overarching theme was that apparently no one wanted to get off the couch to do anything for themselves, from trying on clothing to test-driving a car. Would they pay to have someone chew their food for them because it was too much trouble? But I digest.

This raised a whole lot of issues for me, but when I asked Dr. SJ what she thought, she just called bullshit. “How are they going to individually select clothing for a million customers? It’s nonsense. They’ll come up a few variations, like fat girl boho or skinny girl preppy, and everybody in that pigeonhole gets the same box.” In other words, the pitch was one thing, but she doubted the reality was possible, no less effective.

No matter. The company went public, along with others, and was adored for its innovative approach.

The best businesses often solve real problems. Amazon (AMZN) , for example, first made it possible to buy books without visiting a bookstore and eventually made it easy to buy anything from pretty much anywhere.

Netflix (NFLX) , at first made it so you could rent DVDs without visiting a video store, then it more or less ended the concept of DVDs with its streaming service.

A tad simplistic and not entirely accurate descriptions of either business, but they were tossed in to juxtapose the focus of the article.

That’s what Wayfair (W) and Stitch Fix (SFIX) are and what Peloton (PTON) may be. The first two address what their founders see as big issues that actually just aren’t. Both companies were built to address what its founders saw as a mass problem — and investors believed them — but neither addresses a real pain point felt by millions of people.

Did investors believe them, or did investors see companies that took advantage of the “innovative” idea that people had grown too addicted to convenience, to never having to get off the couch to do anything, that any business that sought to take advantage of this toxic combination of laziness and low standards stood a decent chance of success. Maybe the better mousetrap wouldn’t work, but if it did, it could be huge and worth the risk.

Stitch Fix sounds like a great idea. The company uses a mix of human stylists and artificial intelligence (AI) to send people clothes that will be both stylish and comfortable. The reality is that the actual audience for the company is people who want to look a certain way who don’t like shopping or don’t have the time to shop.

Add in that clothing is inexact and you get a system where some items don’t fit, you don’t like others, and some may just not be right for you. That leads to having to return things which is much more of a hassle through the mail than just bringing something back to the store (or not having bought it in the first place because you saw it and maybe even tried it on).

The idea of buying clothes through the mail is hardly innovative. LL Bean’s been on that for a while. The idea of SFIX is that you pay them to decide what clothing you get. Trying to rationalize why people would pay for this is a fool’s errand. People are buying boxes from companies with random stuff inside of all sorts. Why not clothing? Or couches?

Wayfair has a similar logic flaw. The company sells furniture over the internet. That’s things like beds, chairs, and couches which people generally want to touch, sit on, and lay on before buying without any chance to do that.

Ever try to find a box the right size to return ship a couch?

Both companies are supposed to make something unpleasant easier and mostly, they don’t. Yes, there’s an audience that simply hates shopping for clothes and people who buy furniture for rentals or rooms they don’t care about that much, but both of those audiences are niches, not mass market.

And while the business of Peloton is somewhat different, its fate may not be.

Peloton has a best-in-class product, but as they often say on “Shark Tank,” it’s a product, not a business. The company doesn’t really make money selling hardware. It sells bikes and treadmills to get people to pay for its live classes and library of old classes.

When Peloton ads started popping up during the pandemic, it was deja vu all over again. That fantasy of you sweating your butt off riding 197 miles to a spandex hottie imploring you to push through it. Apparently, this was meant as a substitute for going to the gym during the pandemic, but the fact remained that people preferred going to the gym as Peloton bikes flooded craigslist.

A lot of money changed hands on these three companies, and it’s not beyond the pale that they will pivot, find a viable niche to maintain a sufficient profit to stay in business, but unlike Brooklyn Barbecue, they will not take over the world. And that’s fine, as they gave it their best shot and, after their bright and shining moment faded, fell from grace.

One of the perpetual points I try to make here is that when we fail to accurately and faithfully recognize problems, usually because the root is in unpleasant conflict with the reality of human existence, we end up with fixes that fail. Even if we solved something, it wasn’t the problem in need of solving which we refuse to believe exists because it defies what we want to believe. Like there is a stylist sitting in a far off warehouse filled with beautiful clothing doing nothing other than finding stunning clothing for your idiosyncratic taste and body type, rather than Box Number 7.

16 thoughts on “Promising Solutions That Didn’t Fix

  1. Drew Conlin

    It might not be as prevalent as it once was but there was a time when clothes shopping was very personal. One would have a close relationship to a salesman and the salesman might call customer to tell him/her of an item that might interest them…. I know you know this.
    Aside from not having g to leave the couch, if that’s an advantage; the old way is better.
    I didn’t realize Peloton was on shaky ground. I confess I do enjoy the insurance commercial with the character “ Mayhem… who in his zeal for exercise rides out the window. It’s a good satirization of the unrealistic claims of Peloton.

  2. Leonard James Akaar

    StitchFix could pivot to the dork market (like me) who sort of know it’s important to have modern clothes that fit and colors that work, but have no clue how to achive that. I’d be happy with a garanimals for adults.

    “It’s Garanimals for single dads, youtube creators and twitch streamers — we’re looking for a $20M funding round…”

    Of course, dorks like me don’t understand why $30 socks are better than $10 for 3 pairs of socks, so they may have to adjust their profit expectations, but still, could be a huge market if they approach it right.

    > Ever try to find a box the right size to return ship a couch?

    The dirty little secret, I guess, is that you may not have to return furniture. Prior to a scheduled big surgery thing, I bought a $300 recliner from Wayfair to recover in that turned out to be way too large for my small apartment. When I called to return it, suddenly I found I had a free chair: they told me to keep it, sell it, or dispose of it. That might not be true for a $3000 sectional, whatever that is.

      1. Leonard James Akaar

        > Cool, but not a sustainable way to do business.

        It’s not an environmentally sustainable way to do business, but I think that is what they do, probably for “heavy bulky furniture that cost less than $500” where there is no easy, inexpensive way to ship it back, and they then “make it up in volume”.

        I think the mattress by mail companies do the same thing, they give you 100 days to return your mattress, but they won’t ask you to ship it back, they’ll ask you to donate it to charity or to just dispose of it.

        And yes, guilty as charged, at $300 it was too large for the apartment and had to go back, but when it was free, I did find a way to make it work. But at the time, I was in no shape to lug it down two flights of stairs and 200 feet to the dumpster. By not taking it back they had created a real problem for me.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m going to order a buncha furniture for my kid’s apartment and then tell them I want to return it so he gets to keep the furniture and I won’t have to pay for it. I’ll use you as a reference.

    1. Rick Smith

      I am one of those dorks. I used StichFix for a while. I hate shopping for clothes, so I thought it was worth a shot. It got me out of my comfort zone with things that I might not have picked myself, but I ended up really liking. Some of my favorite shirts came from there. Overall, it was a good experience. Eventually, I had enough new clothes that I dropped it, but it was worth it at the time.

      1. SHG Post author

        Not a dork. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that it worked for you, but that’s the point, working for Rick isn’t a mass market business model.

        1. delurking

          This is just funny. You and Daniel Kline are sure that there aren’t enough dorks who don’t give a rats ass about how they look, but know that their careers depend on looking presentable under current standards, to make a business model like this viable. But why are you sure about that? Because you like paying attention to about how you look? I’m one of those dorks, too. There are many many things I would rather do than shop for clothes, and just about all of them contribute more value to the world than me shopping for clothes.

          Of course, I’ve never used this service. My wife cares about how I look.

          1. SHG Post author

            I’m a simple man when it comes to what I wear. What I do not need is to pay extra a stylist to randomly send me stuff when I can order what little I need from Orvis or Bean.

  3. Fubar

    One of the perpetual points I try to make here is that when we fail to accurately and faithfully recognize problems, usually because the root is in unpleasant conflict with the reality of human existence, we end up with fixes that fail. Even if we solved something, it wasn’t the problem in need of solving which we refuse to believe exists because it defies what we want to believe.

    Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, attempts to solve the wrong problem fail but yield results that eventually solve the right problem.

    Divining the future is a problem that most in this hotel would consider in conflict with the reality of human existence. But ancient attempts to divine the future approximately a thousand years BCE developed the I Ching. That did not solve the problem of divining the future.

    But in the 17th century CE, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, inspired by the I Ching use of only two values, yin and yang, developed the binary number system using only the values one and zero.

    Needless to say, Leibniz’ insight into the actual worth of ancient failed attempts to divine the future, makes this hotel possible.

    Thus I egress.

  4. SamS

    Your friend’s business idea takes three old concepts and combines them. There is nothing new here. Selling remotely first by mail and catalogue and now over the internet started in the 19th century. Sears and Montgomery Wards started by selling from a catalogue and were very successful companies for a long time. Mailing a product to the customer, charging for it and having the customer have to return it to get credit was perfected by Book of the Month Club. Targeting specific niche’s and customers has been around since the first goods were sold.

    Th problem here isn’t the concept but whether the companies can make the concept work.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    I think Stitch Fix is a throwback to the early dot com boom where like the underpants gnome “do it on the internet” was a magic formula. The dot com crash showed otherwise. Stitch Fix is trying to do the “personal shopper” online and on the cheap. I don’t think enough people want that for them to be profitable

    1. CLS

      I do, but largely because the few times I’ve used Stitch Fix have been rather pleasant, compared to what I used to deal with when clothes shopping.

      Instead of getting judgy looks from Kaylen, Aiden and Jaylyn at the mall rolling their eyes at me while I scan racks and inevitably pick out the same shit I would usually buy, I can message someone and tell them a budget and certain things I want to wear for a particular event. They ask me if there’s any colors or patterns I don’t want to consider, and then they send me stuff to try on.

      It’s not about staying on the couch for me, it’s that I’ve got two small children and zero time so having suggestions for clothes to try on sent to me is a lot easier and more convenient than going to a store and coralling the kids while I try stuff on in a cramped dressing room.

      Plus all the stuff they send comes with the return boxes/bags you need and preprinted labels to slap on so the return is pretty much a ten second interaction at the local UPS store.

      I like the way they do business. There’s flaws to it, but I’m willing to deal with it as long as I don’t have to interact with judgy salespeople when clothes shopping.

      No way in hell would I ever consider buying a suit like this, though. That’s a horse of a different color.

  6. KP

    Automobiles peaked in the late 1990s, after solving the rust problems of the 1980s tin cans. (Some may say the 1960s actually)
    Since then we’ve had 20years of extra rubbish added to cars that no-one needs, we’re making driving easier for dumber people, and I see that the whole society has run like that too.
    Once we didn’t have to struggle to ‘get ahead’ or ‘advance society’, we regressed to entertainment and social media, and having your Mum buy clothes for you now is no surprise.

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