Zulily: creating America’s fastest fashion content

How America’s mom-friendly eCommerce outlet zulily powered up their high scale photography process even further to get thousands of products online a day by using StyleShoots Vertical and Horizontal machines

Zulily is one of the fastest growing eCommerce websites in America, made famous due to its members-only flash sale business model aimed at tech-savvy mothers looking to purchase great brands at even better discounts.

A multi-billion dollar company – having recently been acquired by QVC for $2.4 billion USD – zulily has built its reputation on quality, affordable brands, publishing an enormous amount of content. Like clockwork, almost 9,000 new products get put up onto its front page each and every day for their 700,000+ daily visitors.

This means that a huge amount of products must pass through their warehouse each and every day – a challenge for even the most efficient of photography studios.

In order to get anywhere close to the level of photographic content required for their daily flash sale model, efficiency in their shooting process is of the most fundamental areas of their business to focus on.

It also happens to be one of the hardest challenges for zulily to overcome, so when they came to us for ideas on how to make their already high-speed, high-scale process even better, StyleShoots’ all-in-one product photography machines were a natural fit.

Through incorporating the StyleShoots system, zulily have not only given themselves the tools to get images of their products in front of shoppers quickly – but they’ve also empowered themselves with the control and efficiency to scale up their daily offerings even more.

Now, according to their studio manager, zulily has saved time that was never before thought possible – leaving themselves more freedom to focus on shooting with style.

Read on or view the video above to see how – by using the StyleShoots system – zulily amped up their fashion content workflow to become one of the fastest and most productive photo content studios in the United States.

“The interesting thing about zulily is that it’s a brand new website every single morning – which is unique to almost every other vendor you have probably ever heard of”

Erin Cuvreau, Product Studio Manager — zulily

A publishing powerhouse

Matching the needs of an eCommerce site that reinvents itself every day

Zulily isn’t your run-of-the-mill fashion eCommerce retailer. They operate almost like a newspaper akin to Pinterest, publishing incredible amounts of content every day – both on their front page and in millions of emails sent showing the latest flash sales to their deal-hungry customers.

From its inception in 2009, zulily has taken a strong stance on keeping all of its product photography in-house. This is down to their aim to keep a stunning level of catalog-like cohesiveness across all of their customer-facing material combined with a strong technological vision from founder Darrell Cavens.

“We are producing about 9,000 new products per day, we need innovation and technology that allows us to move fast while maintaining our quality standards”

Jason Gruenig, VP of Studio – zulily

Such a stance also allows them to cut down on any time spent transporting their products to-and-from other studios. Not only does it allow them to maintain a higher level of control over their photography, it allows their products to spend more time on their website to view, buy and be shared with others on social media.

Jason Gruenig, VP of Studio said “We are a large online retailer, a place to shop where mum has a free minute or two” so it’s imperative that these images are presented in a way that touches on the huge success Pinterest has found in marketing itself to tech-savvy women.

But of course, Pinterest has a bubbling user base to create this content. zulily does not. Instead, it has a team of 12 photographers and 20 stylists working over 15 photography sets covering its five story labyrinthian Seattle HQ.

Such an intensive setup creates a true test of balancing efficiency with consistency – and speed with creativity. Luckily, it just so happens that StyleShoots machines were made for this exact purpose.

“We saw StyleShoots and immediately thought that [it] was a solution to our daily production needs” added Gruenig.

These needs? Enabling their stylists and photographers to produce inspiring, beautiful photographic content that breathes zulily’s brand values in the simplest, quickest way possible.

In the words of founder Darrell Cavens: “One of the things is I want to make it feel like we’re a retailer, and not just [a way of] seeing other people’s products.” [1] A retailer aims to inspire loyal customers with its brand authenticity, and that’s exactly where zulily has found its success.

The speed at which the StyleShoots system shoots articles makes balancing processing huge quantities of content with a cohesive brand style possible. Now, through using Vertical and Horizontal machines in their rigorous publishing process, any stylist can recreate zulily’s look without the need for any technical photography knowledge.

The machine simply lets a stylist get on with doing what they do best, faster than ever before.

[1] The Billion-Dollar E-Commerce Company You Know Nothing About, Fastcompany, 2015

A combination of both StyleShoots Horizontal and Vertical machines allows zulily’s large production team to create anything from aesthetic flat lay collages to clean, shapely shots of their clothes – giving them the flexibility to produce inspiring content at the touch of a button.

As the only machine in the world with an iPad showing the shot in real time, it’s easier than ever before, too.

Amplifying zulily’s photography process

Zulily’s process was already fast. We turned the dial to 11.

1. Intake

First, zulily’s vendors ship the product samples to their five story Seattle warehouse and production centre. They are then scanned and catalogued into their bespoke system.

2. Preparation

As the vast quantities of product samples are cleverly processed through the system, a stylist irons, steams and makes the articles look perfect in advance of shooting – usually a day before.

3. Organization

The rail is organised for maximum efficiency. A photographer and stylist also put together sets of looks – avoiding the models changing too often to save time during live model photography.

4. Model photography

A model, a stylist and a photographer work to shoot the looks and convey a specific style that appeals to zulily’s audience in any of their 15 photography sets. Stylists work fast and have autonomy over their sets.

5. StyleShoots

The article then goes to StyleShoots machines – operated by one of their 20 stylists focusing on making the clothes look amazing on pure white backgrounds via flat lay (Horizontal) or using an invisible/ghost mannequin (Vertical) in a matter of minutes

6. Post-production / publication

StyleShoots automatically uploads images with background automatically removed into a shared drive. This is accessible by the post-production team who focus on adjusting minor quality issues before publishing using their bespoke ZuStudio CMS.

“We might have been shooting between 80-90 shots a day on our traditional kids garment set and with StyleShoots, we’ve been able to style upwards of 150 [shots]..so it’s been incredible in terms of production”

Sam Hunt, Lead Photographer – zulily

To handle the daunting task of getting over 9,000 products a day in front of their 700,000 daily visitors, zulily has an industrialized photography process over its five story HQ that includes 15 photography sets, 12 photographers and 20 stylists.

Shooting is usually done about two – three days in advance of publication and zulily’s customized machinery paints quite the impressive image of a factory production pipeline as the products move seamlessly through their highly optimized workflow.

StyleShoots machines now replace many of zulily’s previous product shot sets, allowing them to significantly reduce the time taken to get professional quality, consistently styled images over to post-production – with very little extra retouching to do.

“It would take us about five to seven minutes per product type to do our retoutching, it’s now virtually zero when it comes to StyleShoots…five to seven minutes adds up pretty fast!” said Gruenig.

He adds: “Previously to StyleShoots we had come as close as we possibly could to a high production set, but that kinda’ pales in comparison to the StyleShoots machine.”

Looking at the whole picture, zulily – with the help of StyleShoots’ technology – have been able to create one of the fastest, most efficient content production centres in the United States.

Now, they will be able to scale up the amount of products they put on their website with ease – while keeping that same zulily brand style that shoppers have come to know and love.

“Previously to StyleShoots we had come as close as we possibly could to a high production set, but that kinda’ pales in comparison to the StyleShoots machine”

Jason Gruenig, VP of Studio – zulily

How many articles a single one of zulily’s 15 photography sets can shoot in a day using a traditional studio set up compared to using StyleShoots machines.

This data is aggregated from an example given by Lead Photographer Sam Hunt in a single childs’ garment photography set.

The time zulily spent re-touching product images in post-production after they are shot using a traditional studio setup with tripods, wires and lights compared to StyleShoots all-in-one photography machine.

With the background already removed using StyleShoots’ auto-alpha image processing algorithm – combined with the stylist’s ability to preview their shot and control all elements of the system from an iPad interface – there is usually miniscule amounts of retouching to do – if any.

Empowering the role of the stylist

Making their job more fun, creative and powerful

Stylists use a variety of techniques to present their products online. Here a stylist works styling some kids garments using flat lay photography – a common method for such kinds of products

Not only is zulily’s process faster than they thought possible, but it also makes their 20-strong team of stylists’ jobs easier, more fulfilling and more creative at the same time as VP of Studio, Jason Gruenig describes:

“Our stylists really enjoy the autonomy and greater control of image quality”

“They now have access to changing the lighting and owning the entire image.”

“Being able to direct the lighting on the iPad and being able to see it in real time on the screen is really great” adds Lead Photographer, Sam Hunt.

“Previously to StyleShoots we had come as close as we possibly could to a high production set, but that kinda’ pales in comparison to the StyleShoots machine”

Jason Gruenig, VP of Studio – zulily

A stylist’s primary goal is to make the clothes look in a way that not only looks appealing to shoppers, but matches the given brand style.

This means a number of elements in the photography setup must be considered to achieve a look that matches the desired outcome every time. Lighting and shadows must be cast consistently, exposure and colour of the garment must be accurate.

Most importantly, the style of the article must be perfect. And because StyleShoots now gives zulily’s stylists full autonomy over their shoot, it allows them to not have to worry about things like changing camera settings or wasting any precious time.

In turn, leaving more time than ever for getting the perfect style – every time.

Here a stylist controls global light balance by swiping up, down, left and right over the iPad interface. This changes the output of the included award-winning Rotolight LEDs. Once everything feels right, one single button press is all that’s needed to remove the background and export to StyleShoots very own network drive

“It’s almost as if StyleShoots knew about our unique challenges and created a custom built machine for our needs”

Jason Gruenig, VP of Studio – zulily

Zulily’s stylists can focus on creativity while StyleShoots handles all the technical complexity of photography