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A powerful technology can have many applications.
That’s true of the innovation at the heart of EnviroKlenz. In the late 1990s, the company’s team began developing a process that employed high surface area Earth minerals to break down toxic chemicals that might be encountered by a warfighter or first responder.
As they proved the technology’s effectiveness, leaders found that there was potential to bring this technology home, as well.
“If you’re able to attack and break down some of the most dangerous and deadly things that first responders or military folks might encounter, you can bring that to the consumer market in different applications, as well,” Kyle Knappenberger, director of application support and quality assurance at EnviroKlenz, told The Current in a recent interview.
Now, EnviroKlenz is helping to extend the life of clothing. The company recently launched a new Laundry Enhancer that is designed to eliminate odors created by mildew, pets, smoke and more. The fragrance-free, hypoallergenic liquid can be used alongside laundry detergent, providing a boost that is designed to break down the odors at the chemical level. Available through Amazon and direct channels, the product offers a snapshot of how EnviroKlenz is factoring where commerce is heading into its own processes.
Just add water
As leaders listened to consumers, EnviroKlenz had long identified laundry as an area where its technology could enter the mix. For the company, addressing odors on clothing brought its product into every day use. It could also be incorporated into household chores. As it turned out, the washer proved to be an effective venue for the technology to do its work.
“The best way to attack odors and chemicals on clothing was to do it in the wash,” Knappenberger said. “You have a mechanism of dispersal – being the water – you have the agitation and you have the ability to put the two into contact with each other.”
While the product could help to treat odors on clothes that are particularly tough to get out, the market went beyond the weekly load of laundry.
Rise of resale
Getting odors out can also have a role in the growing resale market, as online platforms like thredUP and Poshmark gain more attention. The clothes that are sold through these channels are often heavily washed or fragranced. By removing odors, it can help to restore the item to a like-new state. In turn, this also extends the life of the garment for its new owner.
The secondhand market is likely to be in need of new solutions as it scales. After growth with the uptick of ecommerce adoption in the pandemic, it is projected to double by 2026, reaching $82 billion, according to a report from thredUP and retail analytics firm GlobalData. Within this segment, the secondhand apparel market is expected to grow three times as fast. This accounts not only for consumer preferences that tend toward seeking deals and reawakening the styles of generations past, but also the environmental imperative that many see to build sustainability into the systems at the heart of everyday life.
EnviroKlenz goes to the wash. (Image via EnviroKlenz)
The consumer’s eco-minded orientation fits with the approach of EnviroKlenz, which is working to reduce waste through its goods on multiple levels. On the product level, extending the life of the garment itself can help to keep clothing from heading to a landfill, and reduce the demand for new products that in turn takes carbon-causing emissions to create.
It’s not just about how the product is used by customers. The company also considered sustainability in its own operations. The Laundry Enhancer comes in a bag and-box package. The box is made with corrugated cardboard, which is biodegradable, while the bag can be easily removed. It’s all designed to promote recycling.
For EnviroKlenz, putting all of this together required a change. For other laundry products, it previously used plastic bottles. The bag and box uses 70% less plastic on a load-for-load basis. The packaging also brings efficiency in the supply chain. Shipping 4,000 units previously required 20 pallets. Now, it only requires two pallets to ship both the bags and boxes.
The company set out to center sustainability in its product and operations. The result is packaging that EnviroKlenz said produces 86% less plastic waste than the typical laundry bottle.
“As a manufacturer of this product, we thought, how can we help? Let’s use packaging that uses a lot less plastic, and packaging that is going to be much more compact and easily shippable,” Knappenberger said. “Those are things that are being driven by customers, and trying to do the right thing for the environment.”
Owning the supply chain
At a time when many of a consumer goods company’s processes can be outsourced, the sustainability-minded packaging shows a more direct approach. It is one of a number of ways that EnviroKlenz has control over its own operations at all levels. The company does its own R&D. It makes the key ingredients in its facilities, underscoring the fact that they are made in the USA. It does the testing and evaluation of its products, including sending them to industry leaders and influencers to ensure quality.
“Planning and making sure you talk to the right people in the right industries is important,” Knappenberger said.
Then, it packages the products, and gets them out to the right channels. Through facilities such as the production and fulfillment center where Knappenberger spoke to us from in Topeka, Kansas, it also has a sizable measure of control over the processes that move the products to customers. While it does work with some outside vendors, the overall goal is to be close to the processes, which helps the company move faster.
A shift in mindset before the pandemic’s supply chain chaos brought this about. Now it is being put into practice.
“We wanted to control as much of the process as we could so that we could deliver our products and grow the business the way that we wanted to,” Knappenberger said.
With the launch of the new Laundry Enhancer, there are opportunities for the product to go viral, and the peak holiday shopping season could bring additional interest. These all require a supply chain that is ready to respond quickly. With a focus on listening to customers and many capabilities to respond to them in-house, EnviroKlenz is ready.
Trending in Operations
"Fashion ecommerce is one of the most cumbersome customer experiences that exists," said Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman.
The rise of generative AI is bringing with it a groundswell of interest and concern about how the capability to automatically synthesize information and create something new will change how we work.
Given that AI will sit within the architecture of our digital lives, it’s also worth considering how the technology will introduce new tools for other aspects of life, as well.
For two ecommerce innovators in the apparel space, it’s a time to explore how it will transform shopping. Rent the Runway is set to roll out new AI-powered search capabilities, while Stitch Fix is drawing on a long history with data science and machine learning to personalize the inventory buying process.
Here’s a look at the initiatives underway at each company, and their visions for the future:
Rent the Runway: From search to concierge
Rent the Runway is putting a focus on the customer experience this year as it seeks to retain more subscribers and continue a yearslong push toward profitability.
This is resulting in the introduction of a variety of new initiatives, from the addition of an extra item to all orders to speeding up page load times. Yet as CEO Jennifer Hyman zooms out, she sees change being necessary on an industry-wide level in fashion. Beyond adding new features, AI can play a transformational role.
“I think that fashion ecommerce is one of the most cumbersome customer experiences that exists. You are searching through pages and pages and pages of content to find the items that you like and no one likes doing this,” Hyman told analysts on the company’s earnings call this week. “As an industry that still is selling physical products, AI is going to be -- fashion is going to be a major beneficiary as an industry.”
As a rental service, Rent the Runway has a distinct niche in fashion that lends itself to AI’s advantages, Hyman said. As opposed to a retailer that a consumer may visit a couple of times a year, RTR is used frequently by customers. So Hyman said there are opportunities to turn Rent the Runway into a “utility” by creating a more seamless experience.
This frequent use also provides a “highly unique” dataset, Hyman said. They know what a customer is planning to do based on what they rented. They know whether she liked or disliked an item, and many customers are reviewing 10 items per month. They know her size and how an item fits. This can be put to work in tools that allow customers to ask questions, and find answers.
The first application that combines AI and these advantages will appear in the coming weeks, when Rent the Runway plans to launch a beta of AI-driven search. The tool will allow customers to search for common terms or use cases for an item. So a person will be able to write “Miami vibe,” “‘clambake in Nantucket,” or “tropical motifs,” and receive results about what to wear for such an occasion.
The goal is to help customers sift through the endless aisle, and instantly finds what's right for them.
“I think that across all fashion sites, all over the world, the way that people are searching for product is fairly vanilla, it's fairly functional, right?" Hyman said. "You can go to a site and search for a T-shirt, you can go to a site and search for a black-tie gown. The fact that we're going to be able to enable our customers to search how they actually want to use this closet in the cloud, to search for items to wear to my beach bonfire this weekend, that is a completely different way to search, and I think that it really brings out the value proposition of what a closet in the cloud is all about."
Hyman sees this as a first step in the company using AI models to improve the product experience, and expects more tools to appear in the coming months. RTR is also introducing an SMS concierge experience for onboarding that allows customers to text with a member of the customer service team. The company is already exploring ways that AI can be incorporated into that tool, as well.
In the longer term, Hyman said the company has a vision that will leverage AI to allow customers to communicate with Rent the Runway asynchronously across different modalities, and have a stylist that is constantly available to recommend items, pick out new inventory and answer questions.
“If we are utilizing AI appropriately over the next few years, I see no reason why someone even has to come to our website,” Hyman said.
Stitch Fix: Inventory buying and beyond
Stitch Fix has long married AI with human curation to provide outfits on a subscription basis.
“For years, we have utilized capabilities in generative AI, injecting scores and language into our personalization engines and, more recently, automatically generated product descriptions,” CEO Katrina Lake told analysts. “We have also developed and implemented more advanced proprietary tools such as outfit generation and personalized style recommendations that create a unique and exciting experience we believe is unmatched in the market.”
A new area where the company is applying AI is inventory buying.
“We have historically utilized a number of tools to make data-informed decisions with our inventory purchases,” Lake said. “Now, directly leveraging our personalization algorithms, we have developed a new tool that creates an exciting paradigm shift, which will utilize math scores at the client level to drive company-level buying actions. We expect the clarity of demand signals at the individual client level to drive more proactive and efficient inventory decisions as a company. And because of this, we expect to see higher success rates on fixes and drive increases in keep rates and [average order value] over time.”
Early results are promising. When compared with existing buying tools, testing showed a 10% lift in keep rate and AOV. By the end of this quarter, Stitch Fix expects 20% of all purchase orders to be algorithmically informed.
With experience using AI and a team in place to build, Stitch Fix is investing in the technology. Like Rent the Runway, it also has a unique dataset that offers an immediate advantage.
Here are Lake’s thoughts about how Stitch Fix’s AI strategy:
One of the things that I love about our experience is that we have generative AI that's really in more of a visual format. And so, the outfits that we have in our app, those are actually taking into account your preferences, what we know about you, and then in combination with what we know that you own in your closet. And to be able to kind of continue to push that technology and to be able to continue to give people more value in their experience with Stitch Fix, that's a really good example of, I think, a capability that is, firstly, really aligned with our capabilities around data and personalization and really unique to us.
And then I think it's also really compelling because I really think that pushes us as we think about what that addressable market is. I think if we can push outfits to be something that can be an asset to everybody, I think that is a universal thing that people would love to be able to have, is to have access to advice on a daily basis around what to wear and how to wear it.
While these are distinct companies, their plans lead us to a common conclusion: While the talk around generative AI might be new, many technology-forward companies already have assets sitting inside them that can be leveraged to build new tools. Uncover what’s already there, learn about the AI’s capabilities and develop a solution that's right for your organization. Then, talk to customers to determine how to improve it. It might mean commerce looks different, but that’s okay. The point is to create a better experience.