The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember the 1995 movie, “Clueless”?
In an opening scene, Alicia Silverstein’s character “Cher,” a spoiled 16-year-old who lives in her father’s Los Angeles mansion, is trying to figure out what to wear using a digital wardrobe software on a massive desktop. She clicks through tops, bottoms, and shoes until she finds her winning combination: a bright yellow and black checkered tartan skirt-suit number that became iconic. So did the desire to find something to wear in a few clicks.
Today, clothing and other fashion-related items accounts for nearly 23 percent of all online retail sales online. Lucrative fast fashion brands have largely dominated most of these sales, despite being unsustainable, unethical, and promoting a “throw away” lifestyle to keep up with fast-changing trends. In turn, the ever social-conscious Generation Z has fully embraced second-hand fashion, faster than any other age group, which is driving up the value of resale startups and keeping vintage stores alive.
But many, according to Annabelle Hutchinson, are finding themselves at a crossroads: shopping second-hand online “is time-intensive, inconvenient, and frustrating.” Second-hand products are spread across dozens of platforms — like eBay, Depop, Poshmark, and TheRealReal — and the typical text-based search does not work as well since most resellers label products inconsistently or mistakenly.
Hutchinson said it was the frustration of wanting to be sustainable, but unwilling to spend the time searching that birthed Sift, a free browser extension that helps find second-hand alternatives to clothes that consumers are interested in purchasing online. The company is based in Providence.
“We want people to know that they can find just about anything secondhand,” said Hutchinson, the startup’s chief operating officer.
Q: What is Sift, and how does it work?
Hutchinson: Using deep learning models, Sift categorizes, analyzes, and compares products from popular resale sites to recommend alternatives that users would have had a difficult and time-consuming experience trying to find manually.
We are building two web-based platforms to do this, which includes a browser extension that allows users to find secondhand options whenever they are shopping online. For example, a user might be on Patagonia’s website looking at a black down jacket: the shopper can simply click on the Sift extension to automatically pull up similar secondhand products, which they can then peruse and purchase on a secondhand site.
We are also building a website that enables easy image and text searches for products. For instance, a user could upload a picture of white Zara blazer and include the key words “women’s white blazer professional classy” to search for secondhand options.
How do you ensure that Sift is scanning for secondhand clothing only, and not fast fashion websites?
We have an aggregated database of products that includes all major secondhand marketplaces, including eBay, Grailed, and Poshmark. You can think of Sift like Expedia for secondhand: we aggregate products together to make it easy to search and compare from all over the internet.
How many Americans are not only willing to purchase secondhand clothing, but are actively seeking it out?
Consumers who like the idea of buying secondhand — either because it’s cheaper than buying new, or because it’s more sustainable — hate how inconvenient and time-intensive the searching process is. So, this is the chief problem that we at Sift set out to solve.
Secondhand products are inconsistently labeled or listed because they come from individual sellers, leading to poor search results. Plus, secondhand products are scattered across dozens of different marketplaces. In secondhand marketplaces, each product SKU has an inventory of exactly one, which makes it difficult to seamlessly search online.
How could the secondhand market grow?
This is one of the most exciting pieces of the puzzle for us. The market demand for secondhand is projected to nearly double and reach $350 million by 2027, and that demand is growing fastest for young consumers who are looking to shop sustainably without breaking the bank. We also think there is plenty of opportunity to capture older (Millennial+) users as well. But first, people need to know they can find just about anything secondhand.
Who is helping build this company?
The founding team: Sift CEO David Chu and our chief technology officer Jialiang Zhou. They both attend Brown University.
How many users do you have so far?
We launched the beta version of the Sift extension in May 2023, which is available for widespread download via the Chrome Web Store. We have more than 200 users across the extension and website, and we are keen to expand dramatically. We are actively seeking partners — including marketplaces, brands, and universities — and are developing an online marketing strategy that we hope to implement with adequate funding.
What are the pros and cons of Sift from a consumer’s perspective?
From a consumer’s perspective, we found the biggest roadblock to be the fact that web extensions require download on a PC, which is an added layer of friction over an app or website. This is one of the reasons we are also developing a website, which we hope will be a gateway for more extension downloads. A mobile app version of Sift will come in the future.
What challenges are you facing, and how are you addressing them?
Right now, our biggest challenge is user acquisition. We’re trying to raise money to fund a more active marketing strategy.
What’s the business model behind this app? Do you have investors?
Our main revenue stream is through affiliate channels, where we can earn from 2 to 20 percent on sales that we direct to the major resale platforms. However, not every platform has an open affiliate program, so we are also looking at other methods. For example, we are considering adding “freemium” features with a monthly subscription or including “sponsored” products through advertising.
What are your goals for the future?
In the next five years, we want to become the place to shop secondhand. We think that by making secondhand shopping easy, we will also make it more popular. Therefore, we are confident that our user growth can outpace the overall market if we are able to provide users with an excellent product.