Birchbox Soho uses machine learning to bring the popular subscription service to its first brick-and-mortar location in SoHo.
While e-commerce has become a staple of the modern retail experience, for many shoppers it can’t replace the tactile experience of testing products before a purchase. New York-based Internet startup Birchbox aimed to change this in 2010 by creating a strategy for tapping into the persistently offline beauty market, selling customized subscription boxes filled with full-sized product samples, which subscribers can then buy from their online store. Birchbox is now bringing their concept directly to customers with Birchbox Soho, its first brick-and-mortar store.
With 4,500 square feet and an assortment of beauty and lifestyle products from over 250 brands, the location boasts several features, each of which corresponds to a facet of its online experience. Similar to the survey that new Birchbox subscribers take to determine which samples they will receive in the mail, the SoHo store contains iPads and a large touchscreen that patrons use to answer questions about themselves and receive customized product recommendations. Machine learning and artificial intelligence powers these recommendations to create a personalized retail experience for each shopper.
Visitors can also create their own subscription box like the one subscribers receive in the mail at the B.Y.O.B., or “Build Your Own Birchbox” area. The brand’s beauty editors offer even more sampling at the Try Bar, a curated counter furnished with testers of trendy new products. A basement-level salon books hair and makeup appointments, as well as stocking a full selection of men’s grooming products from brands featured in the men’s subscription box. Birchbox Soho will also offer cosmetology classes that will be free for subscribers.
It is no wonder that Birchbox has grown so quickly with such a consumer-focused business model. Started by Harvard Business School graduates Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna around the idea that department store cosmetics counters can be impersonal and intimidating for some people, its subscriber base has doubled from 400,000 in 2013 to 800,000 this year. Their current store is the culmination of several successful pop-up store events in the New York City area, including one at STORY, (formerly A Startup Store,) in Chelsea.
Birchbox Soho hints at a possible future of retail where targeted marketing moves from the domain of online services such as Amazon and Google Adsense into traditional storefronts. The question of whether consumers will embrace this concept remains unanswered, but for now Birchbox is a unique experiment.