Retail start-ups you should know: Wearit

  • News
  • March 30, 2017
  • Sarah Dunn
Retail start-ups you should know: Wearit

Millennials are a source of great anxiety to retailers. They’re shopping for different items than what their parents want, and they want to buy them in different ways. They have higher expectations around sustainability and social responsibility, and they prize experiences over material goods; but when they do want goods, they want to buy them immediately, on their channel of choice, and they want them delivered as soon as possible. Liam Houlahan of Wearit has the inside scoop on Millennial shoppers.

What is it? Wearit is a customer-facing app-based programme which helps young men improve their personal presentation by connecting them with women who sign up as ‘stylists’. The stylists recommend specific items of clothing from Kiwi retailers and give feedback on male users’ outfits.

Why is it relevant to retailers? It’s full of insights into the shopping habits of young male Millennials – a difficult demographic to reach – and it has major potential for commercial integration. Mainstream social networks like Instagram have already pivoted to make it easy for users to engage with brands directly – Wearit has been specifically designed with shopping in mind.   

Wearit is run by 26-year-old Liam Houlahan, who came up with Wearit after leaving an early career in developing software for insurance companies at the end of 2012. While supporting himself with contracting work, Houlahan spent a year and a half brainstorming and tinkering as he sought the perfect start-up.

His chosen idea had to be a) fun, and b) globally scalable. WearIt takes a lot of inspiration from apps which are commonly used by young people. Chat-based apps are more popular than social networks, says Houlahan, so messaging and social interaction is at the core of WearIt.

“We try to make sure we’ve got something unique, but at the same time, we’re creating a product that demographic is used to, that makes sense to them.”

Houlahan likes to think of Wearit as a platform for influencer marketing in a similar way to Instagram, speaking of how the stylists use it to build their own markets. Currently, any woman can apply to be a stylist, but Houlahan says this is unlikely to remain true as the app scales up. As Wearit’s focus on personalisation grows, he’s been looking more closely at using technology to reduce the time it takes for each stylist to work their magic.

With one-to-one interaction at the heart of Wearit’s structure, the app is well across the personalisation trend: “It doesn’t get much more personal than that.”

Houlahan launched Wearit’s first prototype in mid-2015.

“Within the first couple of weeks, we had a couple of thousand people sign up and so I thought, ‘There must be something in this.’”

The original incarnation of Wearit was a website called Wear It Her Way. Houlahan says he soon realised it needed to be an app, however, and withdrew it to further develop the concept over an additional five months. This investment into Wearit’s future has served Houlahan well, with the product’s second launch in 2016 making a much more significant splash than the first.

The app now features an integrated shopping cart, and processes transactions from customers on behalf of the retailers it’s partnered with while taking a small percentage of each transaction to fund the platform. As of February 2017, these are Asos, The Iconic, Hallenstein Brothers and Cotton On.

“It’s all about removing the barriers to buy,” Houlahan says. “The less steps for the customer, the better, right?”

The Wearit team now consists of three full-time staff including Houlahan, and four part-timers. They work out of a coworking space on Auckland’s Queen St. Growth is not yet the key focus for Wearit, says Houlahan, who wants to concentrate on providing a quality service while he refines the app further.

“The best way to do that is to have something out there. Having something in [the] market, you just learn so much faster.”

Wearit’s gendered model is one of many aspects of the product which may change as it evolves – after all, women need styling advice too, and many men have strong opinions about fashion. Houlahan says the angle came out of his own needs, describing his pre-Wearit self as not being confident with fashion.

“If I went into a shop, I didn’t really understand fit, colour combinations or what suits me. I just didn’t have a clue.”

He noticed that those of his male friends who had girlfriends enjoyed significant support in this area. Typically, the girlfriend would either accompany her partner to the shops and approve his choices, or take over his clothes shopping completely. Houlahan saw a business opportunity in their willingness to become personal stylists.

As with the boyfriend scenario, stylists on Wearit aren’t compensated for their work. Houlahan says this isn’t sustainable, and realises that some kind of reward system will be needed to make sure they’re doing a good job. However, he says that currently, the stylists regard their work on Wearit as something of a game: “They just enjoy doing it. When I interview them, they compare it to how they might go on Instagram and kill time.”

Now that Wearit is up and running, Houlahan is confident about the scope for greater expansion within even menswear: “There’s a bigger market out there.”

However, he says the core peer-review concept of Wearit could easily be applied to womenswear, or even taken beyond fashion.

“When we get the menswear working really well, all we’ll end up doing is just replicating that system into womenswear.”

During 2017, Houlahan is interested in developing more formal relationships with the retail brands already featured by users on Wearit. He hasn’t officially approached any brands about integration yet, but this is in the pipeline – he has a lot of ideas.

As for the kind of brands he’s interested in dealing with, that’ll be judged on a case by case basis: “It depends where they’re at, and what they want – do we align with that?”

“The key is that we get the initial interaction with people right.”

Houlahan says it’s critical for brands targeting young consumers to maintain an accurate understanding of that demographic and their drivers.

“You need to really understand what they’re up to. How are they connecting? How do they talk to their friends?”

Houlahan doesn’t rely on his own intuitive understanding of what it is to be a young person when steering WearIt, but supplements it with a lot of research. He favours in-person interviews, asking interviewees about what apps they use and who they follow on Instagram, as well as direct questions covering their experiences with WearIt.

Asked if there was anything he feels he could have done better in developing Wearit, Houlahan says that early on, he hugely underestimated the role of branding in WearIt’s success. Being a “software guy”, he focused on the technical side of building the platform.

“For a lot of tech companies, the brand really starts with an awesome tech product.”

Now that he’s beginning to engage with retailers, the importance of branding is being driven home to Houlahan. He admires the care and craft which goes into creating and maintaining a retail brand.

“Anyone can make clothes, but where these retailers’ equity is in their brand. They’re so protective of it.”

Houlahan says he understands that businesses like Wearit are a new concept to established companies, and with him “coming in green”, he says businesses have been cautious. However, he says Wearit is a serious player now, and it isn’t going anywhere.

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 748 February / March 2017

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