Coterie: The Anthropologie secret shopper program

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

It's the perk our community's dreams are made of. Imagine getting an email from Anthropologie something along the lines of: We're looking for a few Anthropologie lovers to help us out with a special program. To begin, please take this survey to help us get an idea of your shopping habits. Then another survey. And another. You begin to wonder where this is all leading.

And then, a special message: Anthropologie invites you take part in Coterie, a program designed for our team to get direct feedback from customers...

You read on. The program involves taking surveys about current and potential future products. Anthropologie will ask you to try on certain items, make outfits from those items and send the photos to their home office in Philadelphia. Every so often you'll be asked to meet with staff from the store or the home office. Sometimes that will mean traveling to Philadelphia. Or being put up in a local luxury hotel to meet with regional staff. And best of all, you'll get a store discount just for participating in the program.

Drooling yet? Pinch yourself if you need to but this is real! A few lucky ladies got just this opportunity last year. As part of its continuing makeover process, Anthropologie founded the Coterie secret shopper-style program to give a select group of customers direct access to Anthropologie's design team and executives. I spoke with one of Coterie's members to get the inside scoop on what the program was like and her impressions of where Anthropologie is headed.

The first thing to know about Coterie is that you can't apply to join. Members of the program were selected by either store staff or Anthropologie staffers in the home office. And much like Fight Club, asking your way in doesn't work either. No talking about it, no mentioning it, it doesn't exist if you're asked. In fact, most Anthropologie employees have no idea about Coterie by design. Anthro wanted to make sure that members of Coterie would be treated no differently than regular customers. So only a very few staff members know of the program and who the members are.

Coterie's members came from several different regions of the country. While some major urban areas like New York City were not represented, California had a healthy contingent from San Francisco, San Diego and Orange County. Las Vegas wasn't in the program but Seattle was. Atlanta too. With a few other areas picked by design or availability, 28 lucky ladies were the founding members of Coterie. These customers were spread across Anthro's demographics -- various ages, ethnicities, sizes, incomes and styles were represented. Some members preferred Anthropologie's home goods or accessories over their clothing, others couldn't imagine a world without Anthro in their closet.

There are many different facets to Coterie. Sometimes the assignments were solo tasks: members would go to their local store after hours and work with a personal shopper to pick out their favorite outfit from the store stock. Other times Anthropologie would select a certain item, say a pair of jeans, and ask Coterie ladies to construct 3 different outfits using that item. Photos of the outfits were sent back to the home office. Yet another workshop involved combing through old Anthropologie catalogues and picking some favorite items for the design team to use as inspiration. A survey would occasionally come, asking what Coterie members thought of some current shoe designs, asking about this boot or that one, or wondering what members' last three purchases were.

And then there were the group activities. Once a portion of the Coterie members gathered at a centrally-located luxury hotel overnight. While there they met Wendy Wurtzburger and Wendy McDevitt (then Co-Presidents of Anthropologie) to discuss their impressions of the store and give feedback on clothing, accessories, customer service and more. For example, one session of questioning involved the anthro program. Anthropologie asked what can we do to make the anthro program better? The Coterie contingent had some wonderful ideas that may sound familiar to anyone who's visited the store recently. What about free shipping for anthro members, they suggested. Birthday perk for everyone! they implored. And what of Black Friday-style programs? Anthropologie asked if it would cheapen the brand to offer promotional discounts or perks around Black Friday. The response from our wise representatives? Even luxury stores have discounts around Black Friday you silly gooses. You guys need to get with the program.

Lots of questions revolved around the catalogue. Coterie members, like the community, were taken aback by the extremely young models used in one of the 2011 catalogues. Others wondered why diversity of size, of age, of backgrond, was lacking. And like our community they lamented the way the clothing was pushed into the background in some months. After that the lucky ladies were taken to a room where store displays were set up -- bedding and home goods, accessories like shoes and jewelry, and full outfits. The ladies gave their feedback on what items they liked and why. For items they didn't like they were asked if certain changes would garner a better response. Many of the items the ladies liked ended up in stores or online. Many of the items they didn't like disappeared into the reject pile.

Perhaps one of the coolest program perks came in June of 2011, when the entire Coterie membership was flown to Philadelphia to visit Anthropologie's Navy Yard home office. While there they met with the design team and many of the corporate leaders. They got a full tour of the headquarters. They learned about Anthropologie's design philosophies and points of inspiration. Buyers talked about their trips around the world. Designers talked about the books they read and the art they drew colors from. The website team talked about everything from product naming to outfit sets to wishlists. The home team talked about their sourcing and production process. Leifsdottir's head designer Johanna Uurasjarvi (who is now Anthropologie's Executive Creator of Product Design) presented design samples and Coterie members gave feedback on the line. Another session was about flats...lots and lots of flats to supplement Anthro's heels and boots. And wouldn't you know it, late 2011 and 2012 have seen a dramatic increase in flats for sale.

Our little blue birdie said that Anthropologie made it clear that they don't want to be The Gap. They know that their customer base appreciates the under-the-radar aspects of Anthropologie's clothing, and how the customers don't want to dress like everyone else. (Do they remember this? That's another question.) In terms of store expansion Anthropologie mentioned potential expansion to Japan, seemingly sidelined by last year's tsunami, as well as Australia. Our birdie also said that she never felt over-marketed to or like the Anthro staff was trying to dictate how she should feel. They really wanted our feedback, the birdie told me. They were very open to our critiques and genuinely seemed to want to improve customer experience and the designs. They knew things were a little off and wanted to get back on the right track.

In December 2011, Anthropologie thanked our 28 known Coterie members for their participation and ended the program. During their time in Coterie the ladies had received some fabulous perks, like a 20% discount card, a Charm necklace, and various pieces of clothing they'd styled. But for our little blue birdie the perks were not so important as the chance to let Anthropologie know what is working and what is not at the store. Though we on the outside didn't know it Coterie members helped select some of 2012's top sellers, and helped reel in the design team from diving too far off the cliff. Though our birdie agrees that Anthro still has a lot of work to do she's encouraged by how open they were to feedback and feels like their design philosophy is in line with the customer base. The team just hasn't nailed the execution yet.

As far as I know the Coterie program no longer exists. It makes me a little sad because this type of program is exactly what Anthropologie needs to right the ship! I'm so glad they created this program and hope that it comes back in the near future. (Unless it still exists with new members, which would be awesome and OMG I totally want in.) Many stores have this type of program. In college a close friend of mine participated in a similar program for Nordstrom and it sounded equally amazing to Anthropologie's. Kudos to Anthro for putting Coterie in place.

If you were a member of Coterie, what would you tell Anthropologie?

Thanks to my little blue birdie for the scoop on this program.