CSA Q&A: Black Lapel keeps its focus online

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CSA Q&A: Black Lapel keeps its focus online

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy - 05/04/2018
Unlike other e-retailers that are jumping into brick-and-mortar, menswear retailer Black Lapel is keeping its distance from physical retail. Instead, it remains focused on a singular goal: to make ordering custom-tailored clothing online as painless as possible.

Black Lapel was launched in 2012 by first-time entrepreneurs Derek Tian and Warren Liao with just shy of $400,000 in seed money. During the past six years, the brand has grown into a popular online destination for custom tailored suits and formalwear, along with custom shirts, blazers, vests, trousers and outerwear. It also sells accessories such as ties, cuff links and tie bars.

Despite having a showroom attached to its corporate office in New York City, the company is very much dedicated to online, which generates approximately 70% of Black Lapel’s custom orders. To simplify the process, the site offers digital content and solutions that enable customers to take accurate measurements in the comfort of their home, along with a “concierge team “that handles any post-purchase alterations. These personalized services are contributing to a less than 10% return rate, and a 70% customer retention rate, according to Derek Tian, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Black Lapel.

Chain Store Age spoke with Tian about the company’s commitment to a personalized, online-first strategy.

How do you get customers comfortable with ordering customized merchandise online?
We try to give people a visual experience that doesn't create confusion, particularly for infrequent shoppers or those not overly familiar with custom designing their own clothes. To experience begins with a design wizard that helps them create their suit, from style and color to more specific details, including jacket finishes, vents and lapels to pant cuffs, pockets and belt loops, among other details. This process can range between five and 30 minutes, depending on chosen design elements, and help tips they access.

The site also takes users through a 15-20-minute measurement wizard and precise video instructions that assist them in submitting body measurements. We also have an algorithm that checks measurements for accuracy. Once this one-time process is completed, measurements can be stored in the customer’s profile and used for future purchases. When customers place their order, garments are made and shipped within three to four weeks.

How did the company overcome customer resistance to ordering custom merchandise online?
For many customers, the decision of whether to buy online and which brand to purchase from doesn't come down to price, but rather confidence in execution. A complex process like ordering a custom suit online has many areas where mistakes can happen even before the order reaches us. How a business identifies when these errors have occurred, and operating procedures that correct these potential issues, are key to providing a consistent experience.

Over time, we've managed to achieve a level of consistency in this area, and earned a stellar reputation to go with that consistency. Our Google and Yelp reviews are universally five stars and importantly, our Net Promoter Score consistently sits between 65 and 70, which is incredibly high for apparel & fashion and for retail in general. This positive reputation earns us a lot of word of mouth referrals. That, combined with the content we publish via our style blog, The Compass, are two of the largest drivers of our growth.

What have been some of the company’s growing pains?
One of our biggest issues was how to help customers perfect their fit post-purchase. With a showroom, this is a relatively simple task, as you can hold a customer's hand throughout the journey. Every interaction comes with a proposed next step, so the process is fairly linear.

Online, you're not in control of the path a customer may take to diagnose their fit, which ultimately is the largest component of their satisfaction. Mismatches in expectations; inconsistent information from websites and online forums about style and fit, and an overall lack of product knowledge can each create a situation.

Since we want to reach a broader audience online, we train our online concierge team to be proactive, thoroughly diagnose fit, and make recommendations on fixes if and when garments aren't perfect. We also continue to tinker with some solutions to better meet the needs of customers shopping for suits online.

For example, we're simplifying our measurement experience with a goal to significantly reduce the number of required measurements from 13 to as few as five based on a few survey questions. We're currently testing this program, and aim to roll it out during 2018.

How do you keep your return rate so low?
This is where our concierge team really shines. For the occasions where alterations are needed, we created our ‘Flawless Fit Promise,” a three-prong policy that makes every purchase risk-free.

First, we offer customers alteration credits. Our concierge team asks customers for photos of the garment to diagnose issues with the fit. We share exactly what alterations are needed, as well as local tailor partners that can make the revisions. Customers are then reimbursed by us, up to $75 per suit. Credits are available within 30 days of receiving the suit.

In the rare situation when merchandise is unalterable, we'll remake the garment without cost. Again, we ask for pictures to determine how the garment should look, and then our stylists will correct the fit.

And if a customer just isn't happy with the garment, they can ship it back to us within 30 days for a full refund. Combined, these three options help prospective customers overcome the hurdle of purchasing from us online.

What’s next for Black Lapel?
While some competitors are opening physical stores, we are focused on reaching a broader online audience. After wrapping up the measurement wizard simplification, we want to help customers shop more contextually on our site.

Specifically, we want to translate the sophisticated interactive experience available in our showroom online. This will help reduce the time and effort needed to get to the ideal solution for each customer, something that currently still contains several friction points.

For example, unlike personal styling subscription programs that curate merchandise based on a customer's general style preferences, suiting requires a deeper level of understanding of why they need, or wear, a suit. Understanding the customer's context is the only way we can make the best recommendations for design and the utility of their purchase. This will be a pretty large undertaking for us, but something we're truly excited about tackling.

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