This app will find you a sold-out handbag, a rare bottle of bourbon, or your dream wedding dress

Supermarché Chanel.
Supermarché Chanel.
Image: Reuters/Stephane Mahe
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Before the age of iPhone ubiquity, Michelle Goad, a Marc Jacobs merchandiser who supplied the designer’s US stores with handbags and accessories, noticed something interesting: The most successful store associates were always on their flip phones. They were text-messaging their clients, securing items from other locations, and alerting their best customers when the most-wanted pieces arrived. The system was clunky, but it worked.

A communication tool, not a catalog

Goad set out to streamline and expand the informal personal shopping process she observed. Today it’s PS Dept, an iPhone app that helps busy people (or those who simply hate to shop) find and buy exactly what they want. The interface—which relies on personal messaging with built-in transactions—is wholly modern, but don’t be fooled. The PS stands for “personal shopper,” and it refers to a human being who shops and advocates for clients the old-fashioned way.

“Our team has awkward conversations with stores, so you don’t have to,” says Goad: “‘Really? On $2,000 bag, you can’t do free shipping?'”

PS Dept uses personal text and photo messages—not algorithms or feeds—to communicate with users. Whereas shopping apps such as Spring, which launched earlier this month, aim to sell users items they didn’t know they wanted (ie: “discovery”), PS Dept is about providing demanding customers with exactly what they’re looking for, no matter how challenging that may be.

PS Dept personal shopping app
Image: Screenshots/PS Dept

When Goad and her co-founder Wolf Klinker, a former tech executive and management consultant, launched the app in 2012, it connected users with associates in stores such as Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman. Those department stores, like many fashion retailers, offer only a fraction of their inventories online.

Michael Kors denim culottes, PS Dept personal shopping app
Michael Kors denim culottes: one hot item on PS Dept’s clients’ autumn shopping lists.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew

In the app, a user seeking a singular item—I was looking for slim, dark jeans last spring, for example—can describe it (or upload a photo), check the stores they want to receive their message, and hit “send” to reach shop associates working on the floor.

The app worked, but only as hard as the shop associates, and if participating stores didn’t carry a specific product, customers were out of luck. Goad wasn’t satisfied.

“The merchandise is out there,” she says. “All you have to do is go one person further.”

“‘No’ is just a starting point”

Two months into the official launch, PS Dept had received thousands of messages, and Goad realized her store partners couldn’t fulfill all her customers’ needs.

So, with the help of an additional PS Dept stylist, she started shopping herself on behalf of clients—a premium service that will soon cost users 5% of an item’s purchase price. (Shopping with store associates in the app remains free.)

Some of the customers’ demands were hyper-specific. Spring 2014, for example, was the season of all-white Birkenstocks (leather, not synthetic Birko-flor, thank you very much), Mansur Gavriel bucket bags, and Chanel espadrilles—all items with notoriously long waiting lists. Goad and her growing team of stylists—four in total by this point��wrangled them for clients all over the world. When they discovered a shipment of the coveted Chanel espadrilles ($595 in leather, $525 in canvas) bound for a Neiman Marcus Dallas distribution center, PS Dept ordered and sold 100 pairs in a single day, before the shoes ever reached the stores.

Increasingly, PS requests fall outside the realm of everyday fashion. Over the last six months, PS Dept has shopped for more than 100 wedding gowns (as well as bridesmaids’ dresses and groomsmen’s tuxes), a rare bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, and a very special fly fishing rod. The app has become an iPhone-contained concierge for tracking down the finer things in life, in order to provide users with the ultimate luxury: more time to enjoy them.

Some requests rely on the professional shoppers’ judgement: A San Francisco client, at seven months pregnant, needed a gown for a black-tie event. PS Dept discovered that an expectant starlet had just passed on a Monique Lhullier gown for an awards ceremony in Los Angeles, so they tracked it down and had it overnighted. The client wore the dress—and then participated in the funding round PS Dept just closed. Another PS client led the investment.

Now hiring—Wall Street traders welcome

The funding—in an amount PS Dept would not disclose—came just in time, as Goad expands her team to field the average of 22,000 messages PS Dept and its store partners now receive each month. PS Dept doesn’t disclose sales figures, but Goad says those messages result in thousands of sales, with an average order value of $800.

So now Goad finds herself in the market for shoppers. And she knows exactly what she’s looking for.

“The kind of person who can find a reservation when they say ‘no tables’—that’s who we hire,” says Goad. Plus, employees must intuitively understand clients’ taste and shop accordingly.

The app’s star stylist, Virginia Sterling, is a longtime fashion-lover who worked as a financial trader, until she left to have her daughter. That innate personal style, combined with a trader’s tenacity and a mother’s empathy, make for a magic combination when it comes to shopping. (I speak from experience. She has patiently tracked down shoes for me that fall far below the app’s average price point.)

As a test run, Goad gives potential hires five real-life messages from the app’s users. If you think you may have what it takes, take a moment to consider how you’d fulfill these requests:

I’m looking for a cool pair of sneakers. I’m a mom and live in Tribeca.

I’m going to Hawaii on vacation and need colorful resort-wear.

I have to attend five weddings this summer. Can you give me dress options?

I’m looking for an everyday shoulder bag I can wear to work and fits a laptop—maximum $2K.