Amazon Prime Wardrobe Bets Users Don’t Need Fashion—They Need Utility

Behemoth knows few clothing choices are based on personal style

Fashion is not the same as clothing. Unsplash/Igor Ovsyannykov

Amazon Family debuted at the same time I was adding to my family. Until 2010, I had been an intermittent-to-indifferent customer at Amazon. Then I got pregnant and another pregnant friend said, “You’ve got to try this Amazon Mom thing—you get crazy discounts on diapers and a year of free Amazon Prime.” A few months later, pinned under a (finally) sleeping infant and casting a frantic eye at the rapidly dwindling stack of newborn-sized diapers, I opened up Amazon on my smartphone’s web browser, signed in, and set up a standing diaper delivery. A few sleepless nights after that, I one-click bought a white noise lambie toy in desperation. A few sleepless nights after that, I one-click bought the paper and digital copies of Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.

Two months into parenting, I relied on Amazon Mom to blunt the bumps in my life’s new rhythms. And when Amazon billed me for Amazon Prime after my daughter’s first birthday, it was a no-brainer.

This is how Amazon got me: convenience and low prices on regularly-consumed items. Whoever thought up Amazon Parent (the name was changed five years after the program launched in the U.S.) is a genius. My household has been happily diaper-free for years, but we’re still leaning on subscribe and save for scheduled deliveries of routinely consumed goods. I’m still one-click buying—especially when Google calendar reminds me that my daughter has a birthday party to attend in four days and I don’t have time to head to the local stores to buy a gift.

Amazon Parent changed how my household shops.

When I read about the new Prime Wardrobe, I thought, “This is another way to get customers for life.” Prime Wardrobe is Amazon’s new monthly clothing box service: Amazon Prime customers can pick three or more items of clothing, shoes or accessories for delivery. The box shows up, and they can spend a week deciding whether to buy the items or return.

The competitive advantage that Stitch Fix, Gwynnie Bee, Wantable, Le Tote and MM LaFleur have over Prime Wardrobe is the promise of  a monthly selection curated by people dedicated to translating a very specific aesthetic to your wardrobe. With Prime Wardrobe, you have to search through the site’s offerings and set your own selections.

However, the you-can-pick approach will suck in people who will think, “Amazon carries the swimsuit I wear to swim laps. I go through three a year.” Or they’ll think, “My daughter goes through dance tights at an unbelievable clip and the nearest dance supply store is 45 minutes out of my way. Hello, regular delivery.” Or they’ll think, “I don’t know what my husband is doing to his socks, but this is the sixth multipack I’ve bought in a year. I bet they’re cheaper online.”

And they’ll start carefully scheduling regular purchases of frequently-replaced items, and throw in the occasional clothing impulse purchase if they’re short on regular deliveries one month. Not all clothing purchases are about personal style; some are about the workhorse items we replace regularly. You know, the stuff you’d pick up at Walmart or Target? That’s where Wardrobe Prime will make money.

So what? Much has been made of how Amazon has had misfires in the fashion world. But fashion is not the same as clothing, and selling clothing can make money.

Imagine what happens when Amazon nudges new parents toward Prime Wardrobe by pointing out they can arrange for deliveries of onesies and blanket sleepers as their baby grows? Other child-oriented retailers are already modeling this kind of no-friction, plan-ahead buying: BabyGap’s Outfit Box offers a subscription model where buyers get a new box of baby clothing with five mix-and-match pieces every three months, and each shipment automatically goes up a size from the previous one.

Who cares? Every other box-of-the-month club out there.

The advantage those boxes have is curation and the promise of delivering something unexpectedly delightful on a regular basis. While Wardrobe Prime is starting off with the customer driving the selections—indeed, working off the same model as Subscribe and Save—it’s a hop, skip and a jump away from shaking up the service with selections from their Interesting Finds stream and offering that as something like “new goods based on your previous buying history and likes.”

Another group that should be eying this nervously: mail-order retailers. A lot of them do not offer free returns, and the model for many shoppers is to order a coveted item in different sizes, keep that one that fits best and eat the $7.95 shipping on the returns. With Prime Wardrobe, people will be able to order multiple sizes and return what doesn’t work without paying at any step in the process.

Amazon Prime keeps finding ways to smooth the retail transaction. Effective retail, like rotisserie chicken, reaps results when you encourage consumers to set it and forget it.

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