Monday, May 29, 2023

How Amazon Style is on its way to picking out everything you wear


A previous version of this article did not include a response from Amazon Style about claims that customer reviews on its site have been manipulated. A response has been added. In addition, a previous version incorrectly said that Amazon Storefront surpassed its competitors as the predominant affiliate link program in relation to its reach with influencers. It became a must-join affiliate link program among influencers. The article has been corrected.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — What if the world looked like all those sponsored ads you see all the time? Thumbs-up, Shop now, or I’m not interested in this ad?

Too late, we’re already here, on a drizzly Friday morning in a sleek, shopping mall dressing room accented with touch screens. Along with the outfits I’ve picked out for myself at the Amazon Style store in Columbus — the brand’s second in-person clothing store in the country — an algorithm had selected a few items of clothing it thought I might like, all placed in the room by unseen hands via a double-sided closet. Sponsored content (“sponcon,” if you will) has taken over the physical realm.

It knew my size, what I was looking for (some cute summer dresses) and a little bit about my style (classic, minimalist, not boho). Inside the dressing room, a touch screen bearing my name offered a carousel of other choices that could be sent to the room. It felt a little like swiping through Cher Horowitz’s famous “Clueless” closet.

What the algorithm did not know was that I look absolutely wretched in medium-beige, the color of one dress it had selected just for me. Another pick, a red floral dress, looked like the kind of thing a TikTok influencer would wear — but on closer inspection it was cheaply made, with plasticky fabric and poorly constructed seams. Data cannot substitute for quality or replace taste.

That makes Amazon Style an IRL microcosm of the online Amazon shopping experience: Equal parts convenient and incoherent, full of hits and misses, with a wide-ranging selection driven by computer science and profit, sometimes to the detriment of style itself. The store displays a curated selection of higher-end brands, Amazon brands and those third-party sellers with unpronounceable alphabet soup names, like BTFBM and Floerns, all of which would come up in your search results if you went to the site to find a dress. In person, as with the app, you may or may not be satisfied by the quality of the results.

Amazon clothes have never been more popular. In 2021, it became the No. 1 clothing retailer in America by market share, surpassing competitors Target and Walmart, as well as department stores like Macy’s, MarketWatch reported. If you are a woman, the algorithm has probably populated your feed with countless posts extolling the “100 best under-$100 spring fashion finds from Amazon” (InStyle Magazine), or the “33 best Amazon clothes and fashion finds” (Teen Vogue), or the “20 fashion pieces with great reviews on Amazon” (USA Today). And then there are the influencers who might pop up in your For You page on TikTok, or your suggested Instagram reels: “Amazon swimsuits $35 and under.” “Amazon going-out tops try-on haul.” “When you find the perfect corset on Amazon.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but Amazon did not influence the content of this story. No free going-out tops here.)

So many finds, and yet we still seek. What is happening with Amazon Style — the store, and also the concept? Some interesting, wearisome, surprising things. Some influential, influencer things. Come with us, on a search for dresses and answers.

It all may have started with the Amazon Coat. In 2018, New York Magazine’s The Strategist reported on a puffer coat that fashionable Upper East Side women were buying in droves — the kind of women who ordinarily buy Balenciaga. A nondescript brand called Orolay, which also makes folding chairs and storage cabinets, had a viral fast-fashion hit.

Suddenly, it was acceptable — and maybe kinda cool — to buy clothes in the same virtual shopping cart as a dog bed and a multi-pack of toothpaste.

But it’s a shopping experience with as many pros as there are cons. Benefits include the fast Prime shipping, the generous return policy, the “Try Before You Buy” program (where shoppers are shipped their selections without charge, and given seven days to decide what to keep) and the endless choices. For drawbacks, there’s the variable quality of third party sellers, the inscrutable brand names of unknown origins, the company’s social and environmental impact, the manipulated customer reviews and, again, the endless choices. (“We have zero tolerance for fake reviews,” an Amazon spokeswoman says.)

Among them are well-established brands such as Levi’s, Gap and Sam Edelman — usually a safe bet — as well as Amazon’s house brands, which can be a mixed bag, but have devoted fans. You can buy a $20,000 Elie Saab gown on Amazon, or a $5 tank top. In the course of browsing, you will encounter some of the most hideous garments you have ever seen.

Even if you find something nice, it will be functional, not aspirational. Amazon is for buying clothes that are just good enough, or close enough to looking like some other, fancier brand, or shipped quickly enough to get here before your cousin’s engagement party this weekend.

“They’re just appealing to the average American that wants to get a good enough quality of clothing that doesn’t really care about name brands,” says Diana Smith, associate director of retail and e-commerce for the market research firm Mintel.

But there is a way to weed through it all: a multitude of stylish helpers who have seemingly sorted through the tens of thousands of summer dresses on the site, from ANRABESS to Zattcas, with all the Huhots and Yathons in between. Amazon has considerably upped its influencer game. Even the most famous influencers, the ones who get deals with luxury brands, all seem to be shilling for the platform lately.

Like Lindsay Silberman. She’s a luxury lifestyle blogger with approximately 200,000 Instagram followers and a scented candle brand. She has posted shopping trips to Fendi and Prada, and sponsored content featuring high-end hotels and Dior makeup. And also, Amazon.

Anything that is just like, classic, simple, and when you look at it, you would never guess that it was from Amazon — those are things that perform best for me,” she says. “I know that’s where a lot of my followers shop.”

Silberman, 36, curates an Amazon Influencer Storefront — a page on Amazon that collects all of her recommendations and breaks them into categories to make it easy for her fans to shop her picks. Pretty much every influencer has one.

“Basically, Amazon is becoming a social media platform,” says Federico Mangio, an Italian researcher who has studied affiliate marketing programs. “You can post stories, you can have your storefront, you can advertise products.”

“I really handle my Amazon storefront as a boutique. You can really customize it,” says Niecy Vaughan, 31, an influencer who specializes in Amazon finds. She has nearly 1,500 suggested products on hers, most of which she models herself in photos and live try-on videos. “I try and take that stigma out of Amazon being some[where] that, you know, everything can be bad quality,” she says.

Sarah Allmon and Leah Brzyski, the 29-year-old twin-sister influencers who post as Two Scoops of Style, “really do love finding those pieces on Amazon,” says Allmon. “We kind of make it our mission to find those really good quality pieces that are going to last you more than just a couple wears.”

Of course, these influencers aren’t weeding through Amazon for cool outfit ideas out of the goodness of their hearts. Most consumers know that influencers earn commission through affiliate links, often through sites such as LTK (formerly Like to Know It). But sometime in the past few years, Amazon Storefront became a must-join affiliate link program, thanks to its ambitious recruitment of influencers and a sweeter commission deal than many other sites. So many TikTokers are sending people to their Amazon Storefront that the phrase has become an cliched punchline on social media.

“Influencers are their best advertisers” — for both the merchandise and the program itself, says Alison Gary, 48, who started her blog Wardrobe Oxygen in 2005 and is an Amazon Influencer. “If we’re promoting it all the time, other influencers are like, ‘This must be something good.’ And they have a higher acceptance than a lot of other affiliate programs.” (An Amazon spokeswoman declined to share details about the program’s acceptance rate.)

Instagram is a mall, and this actual, physical mall in Ohio — Easton Town Center — is, instead, a “premier shopping, dining, and entertainment destination,” which means there’s a Hot Topic store within walking distance of a Gucci store, just as a $10,000 dress is a click away from a $6 one. Most influencers haven’t set foot in a physical Amazon Style store, but with one look around at the claw clips and beaded bucket handbags and strappy square-toed sandals, their presence can be deeply felt.

It’s time to break down how this all works, and what it is doing to fashion.

If someone buys a dress an influencer has recommended on their storefront, they earn a percentage of the revenue on that sale — anywhere between 1 to 10 percent, depending on the item. But what makes the Amazon Influencer program popular is that they also earn a commission on any other products the person buys — even if the person doesn’t even buy the dress that made them click through in the first place. “The halo effect can last up to 24 hours,” an Amazon spokeswoman confirmed.

Influencers can also see what people are buying in their commission reports.

“Nobody buys just a dress. They buy a dress, and they buy batteries, and they buy laundry detergent and they buy dog treats,” says Gary. She looked over one of her recent reports: “Somebody bought hearts of romaine. I clearly didn’t link to that. We can see that kind of stuff.”

Because of enormous quantity of products available on Amazon, influencers can make a lot of money this way. Vaughan, for example, is her family’s breadwinner: She says she makes 99 percent of her income through the Amazon Influencer program, and earns in the low six figures. Amazon declined to share how much the company pays influencers each year.

There are other benefits. Influencers spoke to The Post about special perks like free products, one-on-one business coaching from Amazon and gift cards for “buying things to then try out and share with our audience,” says Brzyski. Amazon also shares data on products that are performing well, and its influencers can earn bonuses through a program called Creator Commissions, which is “sponsored by brands that sell on Amazon” who want to launch a campaign to promote their products, says a spokeswoman. (“We have a variety of incentive and compensation structures, including gift cards,” an Amazon spokeswoman told The Post.)

“You’re constantly being motivated to sell more,” says Gary.

Previously, influencers considered the Nordstrom anniversary sale to be “the Super Bowl of swipe-ups,” says Stephanie McNeal, the author of “Swipe Up for More!: Inside the Unfiltered Lives of Influencers.” It was a huge moneymaker, but “a couple of influencers told me last year that that has completely flipped, where now their biggest day of the year is Prime Day,” Amazon’s once-a-year mega-sale.

Good influencers generally only recommend things they’ve set their eyes on — followers are fickle; trust is key to retaining them — but some people admit that they just put anything on their storefront. And it’s not just individuals doing it. Media organizations are using affiliate links and creating content that encourages people to click and buy. That’s why we all keep getting sucked into those BuzzFeed (or Teen Vogue, or PopSugar, or USA Today, etc.) lists of “finds.” Amazon declined to comment on its relationship with specific publishers.

It is a strategy that is paying off: In its 2022 third-quarter earnings conference call for shareholders, BuzzFeed cited affiliate link revenue from Amazon Prime Day as a source of growth. According to its 2022 fourth-quarter shareholder earnings release, the New York Times’s “revenues increased 12.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2022, primarily as a result of higher Wirecutter affiliate revenues.” (And hey, us too: The Post uses Amazon affiliate links in its Book World section, an arrangement that predates Bezos’s ownership of the paper.)

It exposes a bit of a double standard, says McNeal. “I feel like influencers still have a ton of stigma and there is this real bias against, like, ‘Look at them just like shilling random stuff on Amazon,’” she says. But then “the New York Times realized they can make a ton of money doing this and now are doing it, and that’s not considered, like, non-prestigious.

But back to those cheap dresses. Any retailer with that much market share has the ability to shape the way people think about clothing and fashion.

“You don’t think about Amazon as being a fashion icon. But that’s exactly what they’re trying to change,” says Smith. “The share would indicate that that’s working.”

And it’s working not just despite the fact that influencers are filling people’s feeds with cheaply-made fast fashion — it’s working because of it.

There are two reasons. One is because of the vast choices available on Amazon, many of which are copycats, or dupes, of more expensive name brands. Amazon “makes it easy to be brand agnostic,” says McNeal, offering an example from this winter: “It’s like, all of a sudden everyone on Instagram or TikTok is wearing a plaid shacket. And I think where Amazon really thrives in the situation is if all the influencers … instead of saying, ‘Hey, you need to go to Abercrombie and buy this specific jacket,’” just offer a variety of well-priced options that are good enough, she says. “On a personal level, I literally went to Amazon and searched and just found one that had good reviews and was cheap.”

And cheap is reason No. 2.

“The people who are swiping at one o’clock in the morning, they’ll buy that,” says Gary. “They’re not going to buy the $50 dress, the $100 dress, even if it’s like, higher quality, it’s sustainable, it gives back, it’s a woman-owned business, it’s locally-owned. You know, it could be all these wonderful things. Gets a thousand positive reviews, size inclusive. It’s the best thing in the world. And you’re like, ‘This is the best thing in the world.’ And the value is actually fantastic for the quality and the brand and everything. Crickets. But you’re like, ‘Here’s this piece of crap. It’s really super cute and it’s less than 20 bucks’. Hundreds of people will buy it. So it’s that impulse buy.”

This sets off what seems to be an endless feedback loop of purchases: An influencer promotes a product, which makes more people buy it, which makes more influencers feature it — some, with Amazon’s coaxing — which makes more people buy it. The cycle repeats itself with every micro-trend: Shackets, Skims-esque bodycon dresses, cargo pants, lug-sole loafers. It’s an ouroboros of commerce.

And: “It’s basically another way for Amazon to kind of collect data about what’s resonating with shoppers that they can in turn use to create more of their own private label brands,” says Smith.

Which brings us back to Amazon Style, the store, where the music was thumping and the racks were full of floral summer dresses. But only one of each, rather than the multiple sizes you’d find in most stores: If you want to try on an outfit, you’ll have to scan a QR code on the hanger, which will send your size to a dressing room. There are no price tags, either. The hanger displays a price range — given Amazon’s fluctuating prices, you won’t know exactly how much an item costs until you select it.

It takes about 10 minutes before the dressing room is stocked with your selections, which continue to arrive while you’re in there, via a double-sided door. And you’ll be surprised by other items, too: picks from Amazon’s algorithm, like my beige dress. Some of its other selections, like a black sweetheart neckline dress, were actually pretty spot-on. It’s a “retail activation,” to use the parlance of marketers — the kind of thing that justifies paying rent on a physical store, because it makes shopping a destination.

But seeing Amazon clothes in person before you buy them isn’t necessarily a good thing. To borrow another concept from “Clueless,” some of the Amazon outfits are “a full-on Monet,” as Cher Horowitz says: “From far away, it’s okay, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”

Amazon’s decision to feature some of these brands in its stores — one cheap-looking dress I saw had a tag that just said “Fashion” as its brand — might certainly spur the kind of impulse purchases Gary described. But in other cases, I recognized pieces that I had seen online that photographed well and looked good on influencers but which, in real life, had uneven seams, or were see-through because they lacked lining, or were made of itchy poly blends.

“Even though some of these items don’t appear to be very quality, maybe they’re selling” well online, says Smith of Mintel. “It just really looks like they’re using their stores to experiment.”

But it’s also that, lately, people don’t seem to care as much if their clothes are well-made, especially if they’re cheap and photograph well. Smith says Mintel has found that customers are largely satisfied with clothing they’ve bought on Amazon.

I bought two dresses. Not the ones the algorithm picked for me. But a navy slip dress, and a pink summer puff-sleeve with a tie-front and a midriff cutout, both from the Drop, the Amazon house brand I had been seeing on Instagram a lot. Oh, and some faux-pearl barrettes. The rest went back through the dressing room’s double-sided door.

Amazon declined to discuss its plans for opening other Amazon Style locations. If it is anything like its Amazon Go grocery stores, we can expect to see more of them. And that’s kind of how Gary thinks about the whole concept of Amazon fashion.

“It’s this quick fix. You think it’s going to somehow make you more … like the person who promoted the piece. And rarely does it deliver,” says Gary — acknowledging that, yes, she is the person who promotes the pieces.

“What really happens with this promotion of cheap Amazon fashion,” she continues, is “like going to the grocery store when you’re hungry. You end up buying way more than you need.”