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A display of Le Tote boxes with clothes and accessories Le Tote

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The Subscription Box That Knows More About You Than You Do

The San Francisco-based Le Tote is betting big on data.

You can get a monthly subscription box for anything: Beauty products, dog toys, tampons, books, beer and wine, dinner ingredients, socks — the list goes on and on and on. One of the most popular categories, though, is clothing. Gwynnie Bee is a subscription service for plus size women, Fabletics is for activewear, and Five Four Club is for men.

Less specific are Stitch Fix and Le Tote. The companies are very similar: They revolve around the concept of a curated box of clothes delivered straight to your door. But one of the biggest differentiating factors is that Le Tote requires a monthly subscription, whereas Stitch Fix does not. It’s a subscription service in the truest sense of the word, like your weekly New Yorker and monthly cable bill.

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A woman wearing a leather jacket standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge
A look from Le Tote’s fall lookbook.

Signing up for Le Tote includes filling out a customer profile. From there, you select items you’d want to wear (clicking on the heart button adds them to your "closet.") After you’ve created your first tote, you’ll be prompted to customize it, which is where you can sub out any of the pieces you don’t like before it’s shipped.

Le Tote operates on a monthly fee: $39 gets you two clothing items and one accessory per box; $59 gets you three clothing items and two accessories, or four items of clothing and no accessories. The idea is that, for a relatively low cost and lift, you can rotate new items into your wardrobe without actually buying anything. (Though if you want to, you can.)

Le Tote’s brands are similar to the stuff you’d find at Bloomingdale’s — Rebecca Minkoff, Splendid, Free People, Vince Camuto. The silk blouses you can wear under a blazer, pencil skirts and dresses you can wear to work, sweaters and flannels for the weekend.

Though Le Tote offers several types of "style personalities," it does have a pretty distinctive look. Ruth Hartman, Le Tote's chief merchandising officer, tells me they’ve been looking into "adding more boho and denim" and are trying to find the right brands for "the very clean, understated silhouette" à la Frank + Oak and COS.

When Le Tote was founded in 2012, buying stuff wasn’t part of the business model. The company sees itself as a service that allows customers to experiment with new trends, try things they’re unsure about, and add options to their day-to-day. And if they do end up wanting to own something, that’s fine too, but it’s certainly not the primary goal.

"When we started the company and were talking to prospective customers, what kept coming up was how social media is putting so much more pressure on them to turn over their closet," says Le Tote co-founder Brett Northart. "You used to go out and only the friends that you were out with would see that outfit. Now, you post on Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook, and every random person you ever met sees you in that top."

Focusing on variety rather than consumption is what makes Le Tote a full-fledged member of the sharing economy. "After the recession, we saw a big shift in the way that people perceive ownership and were thinking about access," says Norhart. He compares a service like Le Tote to Uber. You don’t need to own a car to get around, and you also don’t need to own a club dress to go to a bachelorette, or a caftan to go to the beach.

Like Uber, Le Tote depends on feedback. The data that the company collects from its customers is largely based on their reviews of what was inside their totes. But unlike Uber, reviewing what you receive from Le Tote is optional, though everyone at the company tells me that the response rate is surprisingly high (Northart puts it at 75 percent).

Northart adds that by the time you get your first box, Le Tote has already collected "about a hundred different points of data" based on the information you give them when you fill out your profile and begin putting items in your closet. The reviews are what seals the deal.

A woman opening a Le Tote box filled with accessories and clothes Photo: Le Tote

And given the high response rate, Le Tote customers seem to understand that providing feedback works in their favor. It’s a give-to-receive format: The more feedback you give, the more accurate Le Tote gets in terms of suggesting items you might like, in terms of both style and fit.

"Once they've gone through a few look cycles, we can then give them a much better recommendation pool," says Hartman.

And it doesn’t stop there. "We're not just looking at what you've told us you liked and that feedback," says Hartman. "We can also look at geography and what's popular in your city and your region. We can account for your local weather forecast. Your shipping zip code is used to help recommend products, so we can look at what your weather is going to be like for the next ten to 12 days," she adds.

That kind of attention to detail is rare, and practically non-existent outside of the subscription box and direct-to-consumer business models. Major retailers can’t course-correct in real time if something isn’t selling. Independent boutiques can’t change their buys if there’s an unexpected heatwave. Le Tote can, because there’s just so much stuff to rotate in and out.

"If we buy a hundred units of something, we can get a thousand or two thousand ratings on that style. From a data collection standpoint, that becomes really significant," says Hartman. Like any good retailer, that data is then given over to the buyers (hence, I guess, the need for more boho).

The data and feedback Le Tote collects directly influences what’s placed in your tote, but also what’s recommended for your size and body shape. "If something doesn't fit them, we ask them where it doesn't fit. If it's too tight in the bust, if it's too loose, if it would be fine if they had another four extra inches — all these different attributes," says Hartman. From there, "best fits" are suggested in each tote. "What we try to do is take the guesswork out of the sizing component," she adds.

A woman using the Le Tote app
Photo: Le Tote

That also extends to maternity, which was a natural progression for a site that is trying to offer you some variety without the need to own. Hartman explains that customers began to drop off as they got pregnant, so, they began offering maternity.

As a subscriber, you can transition into maternity slowly or all at once, depending on how your body changes. "Best fits" will still be recommended and tweaked based off feedback. "Because of that trend algorithm, we’re really able to help the customers through those different stages of her life," explains Hartman.

Roughly 40 percent of Le Tote’s customers have children, and Lauren Miller, the vice president of marketing at Le Tote, says the maternity clothes subscription has grown significantly since it launched a little over a year ago.

Plus is the one category so obviously missing. Currently Le Tote offers up to a size 16, but it's looking to push even further in the future. Ruth says, "We’re looking into the plus (or rather, curvy) size business for the future. We've done enough research to know that grading and fit is of the utmost importance in choosing brand partners. We want to offer her clothes that really fit her body shape across all dimensions regardless of her 'size.'"

It’s a move that makes sense, considering that the average woman’s clothing size in America is a size 16. Retailers are finally — finally! — getting smarter about offering both straight and plus sizes in the same place, so it makes sense for Le Tote to follow suit. "One of the highest priority category extensions is to add larger sizes for the curvy customer," says Hartman. And of course, she adds, "we understand the demand for this from our data and customer feedback."

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