Stitch Fix, the online styling startup, rides the line between fashion and technology. Recent changes at the company may have put it further into the latter category. The company’s stylists claim they are being pushed out in favor of algorithms that choose outfits based on users’ shopping history.
Changes at the company began before founder Katrina Lake stepped down as CEO in April. Elizabeth Spaulding, a longtime Bain & Company employee who ran the company’s global digital practice, took over in Lake’s place and continued implementing the algorithm-focused business model.
Stylists have started to revolt as the changes were imposed. Those included laying off 1,400 stylists in California last year, and the adoption of a new, more restrictive work schedule this summer that prompted hundreds more to quit. Those who refused to conform to the new schedule were offered a $1,000 bonus to quit, in exchange for signing a non-disclosure agreement and a promise not to sue the company.
We spoke to two stylists, one from Texas and the other from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, via email about why they left, what’s going on with employee morale, and why they think the culture is “toxic.” (The stylists’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity.)
The Business of Business: How did you find out about the changes and the $1,000 offer to leave?
Sarah: I found out about the changes in a post on our intranet titled “Styling Expectations: Availability and Scheduling Changes” that was uploaded on August 2nd. I had no idea it was coming, as my manager had told us just days before to start thinking of which “tier” we were going to sign up for (the tiers were removed in this update). I did not take the offer to leave, as they said it would be capped if more than they anticipated resigned, and they did not tell us what they would cap it at. I figured if I was scheduled for the full 20 hours each week (we had been assigned FAR fewer hours all summer) it would only take 3 weeks of staying to be sure I got that $1,000 in my paycheck.
Christine: I found out about the changes and $1,000 offer to leave in an unexpected and rather abrupt company-wide email on my way to work (my full-time job) on a Monday morning. The email was riddled with toxic positivity about the exciting new changes ahead for the company and completely ignored and was dismissive about the way that the company was about to dispose of many of their staff members due to this change.
Did you take the offer to leave?
Christine: I did take the offer to leave. I felt like I had no choice in the matter. Stitch Fix was my second, part-time job that I needed in addition to my teaching job in order to pay off my student loans and pay rent for a single-bedroom apartment in a safe community. The scheduling changes they were demanding of us would have been physically impossible for me to complete around a full-time teaching job.
What has changed at Stitch Fix?
Sarah: A lot has changed at Stitch Fix. Honestly, about every three months there seems to be some huge overhaul, so I’m not sure how long this change will even stick. But for sure, morale has decreased. In the time I’ve been there some changes that have occurred include: removing the ability of stylists to communicate with each other in a forum on the intranet (it just vanished one day with no warning), removing the ability to comment on any posts on the intranet (they did allow us to comment on one in the southwest region when they didn’t have the policies ready for us and I don’t know if they anticipated just how fired up the comment section would be), higher rate of styling Fixes each hour, then doing away with that metric and changing to a points system that equates to us styling approximately double per hour than we were before, changing to a newer styling platform that doesn’t allow us to view all available inventory in the warehouse - only what the algorithm has decided will be “client right,” Fix Preview (by humans), allowing the algorithm to style step one of the preview, shortening the profile section for new clients so that we now know NOTHING about them, working in tiers, getting rid of tiers, being able to flex up our hours, loss of flexible clock in/out times. You know what hasn’t changed? The inventory.
“I'm not sure the company will survive without the human touch and creativity of its stylists.”
Christine: Since I was hired, a lot has changed. The first large change was when they suddenly let go of all their California staff members in June of 2020. Then as leadership changed, we saw a lot of changes around our schedule and compensation throughout the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021.
For example, during the early months of Covid when business was slow, Stitch Fix did everything they could to keep us employed and working as close to the 15 hours that we were expected to work under normal circumstances by giving us educational training to complete when there weren't Fixes to style. Later that year, we were told that if business was slow, we were expected to clock out and cut our hours, sometimes by 5-10 hours a week. They did this right before the holidays and I remember having to return certain Christmas gifts I had bought friends and family in order to pay my bills that month. Ever since then, we have been told never to count on being given a certain amount of hours in a given week, but to make a commitment to the company as to how many hours we would make ourselves available for the company in order to work. We would be given about 3-4 days notice if our hours were being cut for the following week. It was really difficult to budget and plan my finances not knowing how many hours I would be paid to work week-to-week. It could literally be 20 hours one week and 5 hours or less the next.
It felt as if the company thought we were all trophy wives living at home and styling Fixes as a side hobby instead of what we actually were: thousands of men and women, often working several jobs (including this one) just to make ends meet. It was insulting to us as employees and very disrespectful of our time in our own personal lives. Now, the newest changes of having to work between the hours of 8am-8pm, committing to specific times of day two weeks in advance, and making ourselves available for a minimum of 20 hours were just completely different expectations than the job that we signed up for and were hired to do.
Do you feel you’re given enough time to style each customer’s fix?
Sarah: I’m definitely not given enough time. Some clients have a lot of history to look through, or Pinterest boards, or notes from customer service if they’ve called in a lot to complain. It takes a bit of time to figure out what someone likes (but isn’t too close to what they’ve been sent before) and then find anything resembling that in inventory. Most of the time there’s glitches with the software that are supposed to help us identify things that have already been sent, or allow inventory to populate, or just run at a not-snail pace. When we say we don’t have enough time we are usually told to “lean into” the algorithm and choose what it is suggesting (winter coats for people in Florida might be what it suggests though). I usually choose items within 5 minutes and spend 5 writing my note. It’s not enough time, but we are scored on our efficiency at getting Fixes completed.
Christine: I feel like we were given enough time to style a Fix as long as inventory was reasonable, which more than often it was not. There were many times I would log on in the middle of July to style a Fix in the evening for a client in Florida and all I would see in the inventory were sweaters and boots. We were never given more time when inventory was less than ideal, even though those issues were a direct result of poor choices and leadership in the higher offices of Stitch Fix when it came to stocking the warehouses and something completely out of our control. We were told to use our #StitchFixGrit and "get creative" or to be "motivated by challenge" — all phrases the company hid behind to fail to address their failure to stock their warehouses with enough quality, appropriate inventory for the demands of their customers.
Has the company and its policies changed drastically since Katrina Lake stepped down as CEO?
Sarah: So many of these changes happened while Katrina was CEO, I don’t think it can all be explained away as part of her transition.
Christine: The newest changes happened on the same day that Katrina Lake stepped down as CEO of Stitch Fix and Elizabeth Spaulding took over. Elizabeth has zero experience working in retail at all, by the way. I think she's an awful choice for a CEO. Why would you put someone who knows nothing about the field you're selling in to be in charge of a multi-million dollar company? It was obvious from day 1 that her priority was corporate greed.
If you’re willing to disclose — how much did you make as a stylist at Stitch Fix?
Sarah: I make a little over $15 per hour.
Christine: Each stylist made a different wage depending on their zip code. I made just over $18 per hour living in the Pittsburgh region.
Are human stylists being phased out in favor of the algorithm? And if so, how can you tell?
Sarah: Human stylists are absolutely being phased out. There were several weeks where I was only getting Step 2 of Previews, with the computer having done the first step on all of them. I know they think that it is helping us to work faster, but when we have to start all over again and are given less time, it’s not (if I style a Fix completely myself, I get 13 minutes, if the client ignored the preview, as many do, I get 10.5, and this includes note writing). We are already working so fast. We need to be able to work with quality too. That includes giving us time, and giving us inventory that clients want.
Christine: I'm not sure the company will survive without the human touch and creativity of its stylists, but it was hard not to feel like we were training a computer to do our job for us at times. It's a joke that this company thinks their algorithm is even close to replacing their stylists or even taking the lead on their styling services. When the algorithm would put together the initial assortment for a Fix Preview this summer right before I left, it would look something like this: four sweaters, two tops that are the same exact top in a different color, a purse even though the client requested no purses in their bio, pants with the wrong inseam, sandals the client would never wear, and a dress completely out of the client's price range. It was seriously a mess and oftentimes I was so embarrassed when a client thought that I had put together an assortment that the algorithm actually came up with. Stylists were taking the blame for the awful assortments the computers were coming up with.
What’s your personal opinion about Live Styling [a new initiative requiring stylists to style outfits via live video]?
Sarah: Live Styling is not the job I applied to, or was hired for, nor am I interested in doing it. I can see that some clients might love this opportunity, but a ton of them sign up because they don’t want to spend the time even online shopping for themselves, and they can’t take 5 minutes to leave us a request or view their preview, so it just seems a little off-brand of what our client base wants. And I would hate to have them see our inventory (right now we have no pants in women’s….at all. And with everyone returning to the office it’s kind of a problem).
Christine: I don't think Live Styling is a service our clients particularly need or want. People who use Stitch Fix are in it for the convenience and surprise of not having to lift a finger while shopping. Live Styling takes effort and time out of their day that many of our clients say they don't have in the first place--hence why they use Stitch Fix. I also think it's asking way too much of stylists to become unofficial customer service representatives on top of the other obligations of the job. They should be given a raise if expected to interact with clients in real-time like this. I think Live Styling is going to be a lot less successful than they're anticipating.
How has the morale at Stitch Fix changed in the last 4-5 months? What has been good? What has been bad? Has anything been totally strange?
Sarah: I spoke a little about morale before, but I guess the difference is a lot of us don’t even know how others are feeling. I don’t know who I can confide in. After a lot of people expressed their opinions on the post about the changes and $1,000 offer to resign, we were told to basically get on board or there would be disciplinary action if we remained negative. So, I think most people are still feeling negative but too scared to say anything. I’m just playing the part right now, and I think a lot of others are too. In regard to anything strange, one of the stylists who was quite vocal about the unfairness of the situation (flexible hours are crucial for anyone working a second job, parents of young kids, people with disabilities/the neurodivergent. Also if the system goes down, we don’t get paid, which is probably illegal but they won’t address it) sent out a mass email to almost all the stylists about how she was treated when she spoke up, and how she was quitting and encouraged people to keep pushing back against the company. That was out of the ordinary.
Christine: When I first worked at Stitch Fix, especially in the dawn of the pandemic, I really felt like this company cared about my emotional wellbeing and financial well being. Through the many changes in the year and a half I was there, I have felt blind-sighted, silenced, and undervalued by the changes. The company doesn't want to hear what their employees have to say. They're only concerned about profit and pleasing their investors/shareholders. When I first started working for Stitch Fix, I thought I had really found a company that cared about its employees and was not concerned with corporate greed, but I learned the hard way that I was wrong. Since leaving Stitch Fix, I have enjoyed my freedom and sanity. I am still struggling to make ends meet without the additional income. I have always enjoyed the act of styling my clients and the interactions I had with my regular clients over the years. My relationships with my regular clients are what I will miss the most.