Melissa Austria is Building the Retail Store of the Future

The feisty owner of Toronto menswear retailer Gotstyle is mixing and matching old-school service and digital technologies in a bid to survive — and thrive — in an increasingly tough industry.

Riva Richmond By Riva Richmond

Melissa Austria may have a small menswear business, but she has big plans.

The founder of Gotstyle aims to create “the retail store of the future” by marrying the old-school high-touch “experience” she has cultivated at her two Toronto stores with the newfangled personalization and convenience that digital technologies offer. That combination, she believes, will put Gotstyle on a surer footing in a retail industry that’s under duress and, ultimately, help it grow much larger.

Gotstyle’s stores are designed to provide the modern gentleman with everything he needs to look good — clothes, shoes, even a haircut — from a Monday board meeting to Saturday night out, Austria says. But these days, in addition to designing displays and selecting clothing cuts and colors, she’s is picking out hot new technologies to make shopping even quicker and more enjoyable for men who may not care to shop but want to dress well.

“It really boils down to, not technology for the sake of technology, but technology based on making men’s lives easier,” she says.

When it Pays to be Small

To get there, Austria is negotiating with an array of tech companies that are eager to test and showcase their inventions on sales floors — and she’s happy to test the right products, if that means she gets in on the ground floor at rock-bottom prices.

Austria’s bold can-do attitude seems to reflect the same energy, competitiveness and precision that once made this “best dressed” daughter of Filipino immigrants a member of a nationally decorated Canadian cheerleading squad. Singularly focused, driven and, of course, stylishly dressed, Austria regularly walks her shop floors tweaking the smallest details, from the folds of dress socks to cufflink displays to perfect rows of collared shirts.

She asserts that small, nimble players like Gotstyle, which launched in 2005 and today has 20 employees and about $5.5M Canadian in annual sales, have an important advantage when it comes to modernizing retail because they’re willing to experiment and pivot quickly.

“Other companies might have more money, might be bigger. That actually is a hindrance, because they can’t implement change fast enough in their stores,” she says, explaining that big chains’ slow bureaucracies are loath to undertake the large capital investments needed to remake hundreds of stores.

“For us, when somebody says ‘we want to come in and build you a new mobile app,’ we say: ‘Sure, let’s go.’”

In fact, Gotstyle rolled out a mobile app developed by Lucova a year and a half ago, which has been downloaded by more than 2,000 customers, that lets them pay wirelessly via Bluetooth (akin to Apple Pay) and collect loyalty points automatically. It will track purchases and use these data to build customer profiles including details like clothing sizes and product preferences. (Today, customers can tap images of outfits they like to help Gotstyle build that profile.)

In that spirit, Gotstyle plans to let customers who shop on its website select items and then make an appointment to try them on at a store, where they will be ready and waiting in a fitting room. It is also testing 2-hour deliveries of online purchases to local customers. “It’s the Uber-ization of shopping,” Austria says.

More futuristic, Austria plans to use data she collects from dedicated customers to help them decide what to wear each day. “If you’re a busy executive, you don’t have time to worry about putting your wardrobe together in the morning,” she says. “We know what you have in your closet based on what you’ve bought. We can put outfits together for you and send it to you every day… based on what your appointment schedule is like.”

Going Digital to Survive and Thrive

Embracing technology is serious business for Austria. It is about “surviving,” she says, “because if we don’t change we’re going to be dead in 10 years.” She points out that many major retailers posted especially disappointing earnings reports recently, as they struggle to adapt to two seismic trends now rattling the industry: online shopping and “fast fashion.” She says traditional retailers are burdened with too much inventory — which they have to buy 6 months in advance based on guesses of what will sell — and that many are closing stores.

In this difficult environment, “the ones that are going to do well are the ones who are going to be able to adapt,” she says.  

That means harnessing technologies and customer data for more effective merchandising, sales and marketing. Austria is beginning to use data to make better and quicker decisions about what products to carry and how to display them. And she empowers salespeople to serve customers better, for instance, by enabling them to greet by name customers who use the Gotstyle app when they walk in the store. (In the future, salespeople will get cheatsheets with his sizes and preferences based on past purchases.)

Austria is already using data analytics from Turnstyle to guide targeted email campaigns. Gotstyle recently sent personalized messages to customers who had spent at least $2,000 in the past, but had not bought anything in 6 months, to woo them back with a discount offer. Around 30 guys came in over two weeks and spent $30,000, she says.

To realize her grander vision, Austria is developing an initial version of a future-store concept that Gotstyle can pilot in planned new stores — a concept that includes “smart mirrors,” digital signage and price tags, and new technologies and data applications yet to emerge.  Once she has a strong working template, she aims to expand to other Canadian and U.S. cities, likely via a franchise model.

She’s looking for investors now to help her breathe life into that big plan: to create stores with “the best of online and the best of offline together in one experience.”

Posted: June 1, 2016

Riva RichmondMelissa Austria is Building the Retail Store of the Future