Now Playing

The Metrics of Desire

Can yet another SF-based shopping platform be both fashionable and efficient? A former Google exec says forget algorithms and concentrate on the returns.

Sneakers by Greats and handbags by Graf Lantz, all available at new concierge shopping site the Lobby in January.

 

Like all great business ventures, it started with a simple need. This one being a winter coat. Bay Area-native Abigail Holtz, founder of the Dogpatch-based fashion startup the Lobby, is lamenting one of her more epic descents down an internet rabbit hole in search of outerwear. The hunt was not in vain—she’s now the proud owner of a statement-making MSGM Star coat that she wears when she “wants to get compliments”—but the time suck was quite significant and, sadly, all too tedious. “I’ll never get those 10 hours back.”

“I definitely started the Lobby from a place of want. If I want to spend money on a coat, why should it be so hard? I just want to find and buy cool things easily,” says Holtz, 32, a fashion-school dropout and, by way of an arguably more practical econ degree from Tufts University in Boston, a former product manager at the Google shopping sites, boutiques.com and Google Express. “I always understood statistics better than color theory,” she says.

The Lobby, which launched in November, is essentially a fashion courier service—in the same way, Holtz notes, that Rent the Runway could be considered the “world’s largest dry cleaner”—for busy tech millennials with flickering attention spans and money to burn. But Holtz has a different take: to feature merchandise from brands both emerging and do-good. SF-based Cuyana, for example, touts “fewer, better things,” compelling buyers to shop more mindfully; L.A.’s Kent lingerie is made from organic silk.

Here’s how it works: Each week, Holtz sends an email to the Lobby customers. “They can be read in 15 to 30 seconds,” she says. On Thursdays, Lobby couriers deliver requested objects to—surprise, surprise—the lobbies of their customers’ workplaces (including Airbnb, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Lyft and Pinterest) for an in-person test-drive, no trip to the store nor swipe of a credit card required. A week later, the couriers return to pick up anything that didn’t measure up, and the customers are charged only for what they want.

“We remove all the barriers that would otherwise prevent you from pulling the trigger on purchases,” says Holtz of the “mental overhead” alleviated by the Lobby. Though the Lobby’s technology hypes a personalized set of goods based on shopper preferences—one week you may request a leather travel set for a Baja trip at hand, but the next you may skip the Graf Lantz leaf-shaped trivet because, well, a folded kitchen towel under a hot pan works just fine, thanks—Holtz admits that such robotic style forecasting is flawed.

“Can an algorithm really predict an emotional response to aesthetics?” Holtz asks rhetorically. “Sometimes, the data is right, but sometimes, it is very wrong.” She speaks from her personal experience at boutiques.com, a long-defunct online-shopping service that endeavored to intuit style preferences based on shopper preferences, both implicit and explicit.

Business Insider deemed the platform “a train wreck.” And, yet, the pioneering SF-based online personal-styling service Stitch Fix has turned its unapologetically data-driven model into a multibillion-dollar business.

Holtz—whose personal-style history includes the 1950s phase of her youth (platinum-blond hair, vintage dresses) and the easy essentials (Cuyana black skinnies, Hobes pointed-toe slip-ons, glen plaid Zara blazer) that now befit her current role as a busy entrepreneur and mother of two—believes there is still a lot of opportunity between fashion and tech. Three months in, the Lobby’s take on an e-commerce win-win seems to be flourishing. In the coming weeks, the company hopes to finalize more partnerships that will bring its stable to over 25 style brands and 50-plus local companies. And this month, the Lobby will roll out its men’s program, featuring activewear from Rhone, which donates to cancer research, and handcrafted leather sneakers of the superfly variety from Brooklyn-based Greats, which supports a small community of shoe artisans in rural Italy.

“Good design doesn’t happen on demand, but searching or shopping for good design should,” says Holtz. “The Lobby combines the best of both worlds.”

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Follow us on Twitter at @sanfranmag