Stitch Fix, a personal shopping service which relies on both stylists and computers to pick out clothing for customers, is suddenly making do with a lot fewer humans in the selection process. After laying off some 1,400 stylists in California last year, the San Francisco-based company imposed a new, more restrictive work schedule this summer — prompting hundreds more to quit.

For a business that calls stylists its “heartbeat,” it does appear to be giving them a cold shoulder, and the issue isn't only the loss of flexible hours. In recent posts on Reddit and Facebook, stylists suggested they are being pushed out in favor of the company’s algorithm.

“It appears they’ve been relying more and more on the algorithm as opposed to a true personal styling service, which is why (customers) get boots and sweaters in August and feel like their notes aren’t being read,” one stylist lamented recently on Reddit.

Customers of Stitch Fix receive boxes of clothing items that are intended to be swiftly personalized, narrowed down by what a computer selects, and then finalized by a human stylist. If you want a pink denim jacket, for instance, you can request it until you’re blue in the face, but if the algorithm doesn’t make it available, you won’t get it.

In online forums, some stylists said they were seeing more inappropriate clothes for the season pushed onto them by the algorithm, and in some cases noticed what looked like attempts to get rid of inventory rather than pick the right items for each client.

On Facebook, other Stitch Fix stylists said they weren’t given enough time to put together looks, and were allocated just four and 13 minutes to style a “fix,” the company’s term for a box of clothes. “You don’t have time to look at the feedback/past requests etc. or have the time to search and filter through things,” one stylist complained.

They may have a point. I am a Stitch Fix client, myself, and love getting my fixes. My most recent one, however, was filled with items of clothes my account preferences indicate should never be sent to me: high rise denim shorts, floral patterns, the color yellow, spaghetti straps, and the color coral. It seems unlikely the fix was curated by a human who was looking carefully at my profile. 

Stylists started quitting in droves around July, after the company instituted a new work schedule, and banished an old regime that allowed them to work at their convenience. Previously, the stylists working for Stitch Fix were allowed to set their own hours, making it an ideal gig for people with full time jobs and for people with young children. If they needed to fill 10 “fixes” on their shift, it didn’t matter if they did that on Thursday morning at 6am or Sunday at 9pm – they just had to get it done. That isn’t the case anymore. Stylists must work between 8am and 8pm, making life more complicated if they have kids or other jobs.

Maximum hours for stylists were also cut, although they were told they must commit to at least 20 hours per week. Stylists who couldn’t conform to the new rules were offered a $1,000 bonus to quit, in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement in which they also promised not to sue the company.

"We may cap the number of voluntary exit payments available if the number of employees taking the exit payment option seems to be resulting in more resignations than the company can absorb,” Stitch Fix warned in a statement. The company had a total of 6,200 stylists as of June, according to a regulatory filing.

“It’s not a choice to quit or reduce hours,” one stylist said in a Facebook post. “The main issue is that they are setting limits on the hours that stylists can work between, which previously did not exist, and this and this affects many people who had another job during the day and needed to work at night, or people who worked after their kids went to bed.”

Last June, the company cut substantially all of its styling positions in California, with a plan to hire more in less-expensive markets. The move came just two months before stylists filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging violations of state wage and hour laws. Stitch Fix said in its recent regulatory filing that it settled the case, but did not disclose the amount.

Improving the algorithm clearly continues to be an ongoing interest for the company, with it continuing to increase its hiring in both software engineering and data science positions, according to Thinknum data.

The increase in data science positions showed a similar upward movement. 

The company’s job postings in general have been on a steep upward climb since last year. No new listings tracked by Thinknum,  however, appeared to contain “stylist” in the description.

The pandemic has been a tumultuous time in other ways for Stitch Fix. Founded in 2011 by then-Harvard MBA student Katrina Lake, the company rapidly grew into a powerhouse even as many traditional clothing retailers declined. Under the concept she developed, the price for personal styling could be as little as $20 per box, on top of the cost of the clothing items. The company generated more than $1 billion in sales in 2018 and has turned a profit every year since 2015. The company went public in 2017.

As COVID set in during 2020, the company suffered tens of millions of dollars in losses -- although it continued to add new customers at a surprising clip. 

Surprising investors, Lake stepped down as CEO of the company in April, and was replaced by Elizabeth Spaulding, a former partner at consulting firm Bain & Company. Work schedule changes for stylists were implemented just weeks later.

The company is also planning to require remaining stylists to engage in live sessions with clients, where the stylist and client choose the items for their fix through a video chat, according to Retail Dive. This has been met with pushback from stylists on online forums, some of whom said they can’t guarantee a quiet space in the background of a video call while others protested that they didn’t have appropriate experience or training. 

Amid all the upheaval, the company’s stock price has taken a beating. It now sits at around $41 per share, less than half of its high of $96.92 in January.

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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