The Long Tail of Threadless

I recently finished reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. To quote the back cover:

…Chris Anderson shows that the future of business does not lie in hits – the high volume end of the traditional demand curve – but in what used to be regarded as misses – the endlessly long tail of that same curve.

Whilst reading the book I immediately thought about the business model of Threadless.

Threadless is a community-centered online t-shirt store run by skinnyCorp of Chicago, Illinois since 2000.

This is my rough understanding of how Threadless works:

  • People submit ideas/designs for a t-shirt
  • Others then score these designs*
  • Some of the higher scored designs get made into t-shirts.** The designer gets US$2000 cash and some other cool stuff.
  • An initial limited batch (about 1500) of a t-shirt is made and is published as for sale
  • People buy t-shirts until they sell out. Real time stock levels are shown on the site.
  • People can vote for reprints of a particular sold out design.
  • Some designs are reprinted (sometimes slightly differently such as a different colour fabric).

I buy a lot of shirts from Threadless. The reasons I do so are such:

  • The number of designs available is larger and more varied than traditional clothes retailers near me.
  • The variety of designs available is larger than if I buy a single particular brand of t-shirt (because of the numerous contributors/designers).
  • When I vote on a design and I see that it is printed I feel like my wish has been met and I buy it.
  • I don’t have to vote on designs to buy designs. My participation is optional.
  • I am much less likely to see other people with the same t-shirt on as me when I walk down the street (in Australia at least). To me they are niche.
  • Threadless is known to have $10 sales where every t-shirt is US$10. This is when I ‘order up’.
  • If I take a photo of myself wearing my Threadless shirt I get US$1.50 credit towards buying another shirt. I can do this again for the next shirt, and the next, and the next…

When reading my book, my intial reaction was that Threadless are the Long Tail of t-shirts. I have since started to do some research and found that there are some people who don’t think they are. The book ends with some rules for successful Long Tail aggregators. To determine whether Threadless is Long Tail or not, I thought I would see how Threadless rates:

  • Rule 1: Move inventory way in… or way out. I don’t know exactly how many shirts threadless have in store at one time but many t-shirts seem to sell out quickly. They apparently only do 1500 of one design. Also, t-shirts are not instantly re-printed, so inventory definitely is a factor. PASS
  • Rule 2: Let customers do the work. There really is no question about this one. Threadless uses crowdsourcing. PASS
  • Rule 3: One distribution method doesn’t fit all. Originally, Threadless only had one distribution method: online ordering and delivery. Things have changed recently though. Tradtional retailers can now apply to be a vendor (although there is no guarantee of success). Threadless itself is opening its first own retail store next month in Chicago. Threadless obviously are thinking that one distribution method doesn’t fit all, even though they may have thought this in the past.*** PASS
  • Rule 4: One price doesn’t fit all. Although a majority of t’s cost the same amount ($15 for mens), Threadless has recently been introducing different priced products (see Rule 5). For example, Threadless Select T’s use premium fabric and printing and cost US$25. And occasionally there are sales where all standard t’s are US$10, but stock seems to disappear really quickly as the price appeals to different people. One price certainly doesn’t fit all. PASS
  • Rule 5: One product doesn’t fit all. Threadless has many t-shirt designs for sale, and the range is continually changing. They have also recently introduced additional lines including long sleeve, hoodies, kids, ‘select’ and slogan t-shirts. PASS
  • Rule 6: Share Information. Information about the store is shared in numerous ways: blogs, RSS feeds, email newsletters, comments, recommendations, the Street Team…. PASS
  • Rule 7: Think “and” not “or”. This is where Threadless isn’t necessarily Long Tail. They do not allow every design ever submitted to be made into a t-shirt. They do limit the size of batches of shirts. They do not automatically re-print popular designs. There is no abundance. Some people even go as far as to say Threadless “cuts its own tail” to create “artificial scarcity”. FAIL
  • Rule 8: Trust the market to do your job. As designs are voted before they are printed, Threadless reduces the risk of printing a crap t-shirt, and doesn’t have to ‘guess’ what will sell. I think this rule could be renamed to ‘Trust the community to do your job’. PASS
  • Rule 9: Understand the power of free. I don’t think it is realistic for Threadless to give away T’s as Yahoo! gives away (advertisement sponsored) free email. None of the t-shirts have Threadless advertising on them.**** People often ask me where I get my T’s from because of this. Threadless instead have the Street Team where you can get US$1.50 credit for submitting a photo of yourself wearing a Threadless t-shirt and US$3 credit for referring a friend to buy a t. These credits soon add up to a free t-shirt. PASS

So that’s 8 Passes, and 1 Fail.

The single Fail is a significant point though. Threadless isn’t about abundance, but the Long Tail definitely is.

One way Threadless could adjust to meet this rule would be to have zero inventory and print any submitted design, on demand, on your choice of fabric. I very much doubt that Threadless would be what it is today if it did it this way.

Threadless VS

So I’m not any closer to answering my question of whether Threadless is Long Tail or not. But maybe it doesn’t matter. I ♥ the t’s, I ♥ the site and I ♥ the community. Maybe that is all that matters.

I heart Threadless

Further Information

* Some designs don’t make it through to scoring, mostly because they violate copyright, format rules etc.
** Not necessarily the highest scored
*** I love this quote, but maybe things have changed as now Threadless has ‘vendors’ and it’s now opening its own retail store next month.

“We turned down Urban Outfitters, because if we put our shirts there, then we’d just be one more cool shirt on a rack of other cool shirts. There would be no story and no community. Then our work becomes just cloth and ink, and that’s not why we did it.” – the guys from skinnyCorp – SXSW 2006

**** Except this one, but that doesn’t really count.

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