For New York-based startup Bib + Tuck, taking a brand to the next level may mean losing a customer or two in the process. And that’s okay.

By Lorraine Sanders (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

Being all things to all people may be an excellent strategy for Amazon, but it’s fast becoming popular consensus that any retailer hoping to grow using a strictly traditional ecommerce model is, more or less, doomed to fail. Instead, startups with their sights set on growth are becoming increasingly comfortable diving deep into niche territory, a place where brand identity and customer loyalty have the potential to be stronger.

“We might, as a brand, alienate some people in the process of building a brand with a point of view,” says Sari Azout, who co-founded Bib + Tuck with her childhood friend Sari Bibliowicz last fall (yes, they share first names, as well as a company).

Thus far, that point of view has mixed a respect for the fashion establishment and a thirst for designer brands with downtown edge and the kind of plucky attitude you’d expect to find in a 20-something shopper seeking to define her own style with a combination of brand names, vintage pieces, thrift store finds and roommates’ cast-offs. It’s an attitude that’s reflected in the site’s business model, which operates like something of a virtual, cash-free clothing swap. Members accrue points called bucks as apparel and accessories they’ve added to the marketplace, or “bibbed,” are acquired, or “tucked,” by other members. Items on the site can only be purchased using bucks, so members have to divest themselves of items in order to earn points to acquire new ones. The company earns money by taking a cut of the shipping fee charged to members when they tuck items.

“We’re still very much focused on the high-low girl,” says Azout.

With the addition of a $600K seed round, announced last week, from a roster of investors that includes entrepreneur and C Wonder Founder (as well as high-profile Tory Burch ex) Chris Burch, Azout and Bibliowicz aim to grow their fledgling company from its current community of about 12,000 members into a lifestyle brand that eventually sells its own line.

To get there, the founders are aiming to expand, in large part, by narrowing their focus and avoiding moves that could dilute the brand voice they’ve cultivated thus far. That will mean becoming more selective about what can be posted and traded on the site. Soon, certain inexpensive labels will be banned, including Target, Walmart, Forever 21 and Old Navy. At the same time, the marketplace will not become a destination focused solely on luxury merchandise or designer names, Azout says. Inexpensive items that meet the company’s standards for style will still figure into the product offerings.

Along with implementing brand restrictions, Bib + Tuck plans to shore up its merchandising efforts with new hires, enable customers to chat online with company stylists, put some of its new funds into developing stronger search technology and open up its membership to the public instead of operating on an invite-only basis.

“It’s very hard to build a brand that relies on user generated content when you open it up right away,” Azout says of the company’s decision to launch as a closed community, one that has attracted more than a few high-profile members, including designers Kimberly Ovitz and Yigal Azrouel, bloggers and well-known stylists.

Azout and Bibliowicz are betting that their niche point of view will work in their favor.

Says Azout:

“Online, you can be very profitable with a smaller market because you can go much deeper.”

Women 2.0 readers: Do you agree that ecommerce companies generally need to go niche to succeed?

About the blogger: Lorraine Sanders is a San Francisco-based journalist, long-time blogger, media consultant and author of the San Francisco Chronicle Style Bytes column. She writes regularly about fashion, technology, retail ecommerce and innovative startups for the newspaper, and others. She is founder of the blogs Digital Style Digest and SF Indie Fashion and an inhabitant of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Connect with her on Twitter @digitalstyledig or @lorrainesanders.