Picture this: You click on a new e-commerce site to shop for a shirt, a dress or a pair of shoes. A few days later, your purchases arrive and you try them on. And they fit! No trek to the post office for returns, no cursing the shipping fees. Just perfectly tailored, figure-flattering clothes.
Sceptical? You’ve got reason to be. Shopping online appears to be such a no-brainer these days that it seems everyone should be blithely buying and retailers should be reeling in profits instead of returns. But the huge snag for customers in buying apparel online is the question “Will it fit?” And that question is costing retailers potentially billions of dollars.
“Twenty-seven percent of consumers resist buying fashion online because they’re not convinced it will fit; another 17 percent have bought online but haven’t had a good experience,” says NPD Group fashion industry analyst Marshal Cohen. This may be changing as online retailers experiment with technology they hope will make you believe — and buy. Several fledgling companies have developed software solutions to help shoppers find their size without the dressing room. There’s a big-bucks incentive for that. For this year, Kantar Retail estimated that online clothing, accessories and footwear sales in the United States would total $34 billion (Dh125 billion). Moreover, Cohen says, there’s great potential for growth.
Berlin-based UPcload’s potential customers stand in front of a webcam holding a CD. With the disk as a reference, the company’s software can understand the size of other objects in the picture and compute the length of an arm, the width of a waist. UPcload’s first US presence will be on the North Face site in October.
The year-old New York-based Clothes Horse, which has partnered with men’s online clothiers Bonobos and Frank & Oak, asks customers to fill out a size and wardrobe data questionnaire, as does five-year-old Boston-based True Fit. With big-box retail websites Macys.com and Nordstrom.com testing its technology, True Fit is enjoying an edge. The company started with the concept that everyone knows what items in their closet fit them best and developed an algorithm to connect brand information (it has access to size specs for several hundred brands) with customer input. Using the free program requires customers to fill in an online profile with their age, height, weight, gender and body type and preferred labels, types of clothing (jeans, dresses, shirts) and sizes now in their closet. The algorithm overlays the data of the customer profile, sizes and brand preferences with the specs of the clothing under consideration and recommends the best size.
Like Pandora and Amazon, chief executive Bill Adler says, once it gets to know you, its recommendations get better. Along with size suggestions, True Fit gives customers sizing scores, ranging from 1 to 5; 1 is unwearable, 5 perfect. That score, Adler says, evaluates how well an item will fit you — snug, loose or just right across the bust, the waist and hips. True Fit offers a fairly straightforward approach to help consumers, Macys.com President Kent Anderson says. The company started testing women’s denim in April and is now testing men’s, too. Although the sample size is not huge, Anderson says the company has seen a decline in return rates and a rising percentage of prospective customers buying jeans.
Alton Lane, a men’s clothing shop in Washington that opened in October, sells custom-tailored suits, shirts and trousers. Combining old-world methods with new technology, founders and University of Virginia grads Colin Hunter and Peyton Jenkins, both 30, came up with the notion of using a body scanner to take a three-dimensional image of each customer to show body type, posture and shoulder slope. Following the scan, more measurements are taken by hand, which are sent off with the scan to Alton Lane’s tailors in Thailand, who make the garment and send it back to the customer within six weeks. After that initial fitting and satisfactory results, Alton Lane hopes for repeat business on its website.
Whether algorithms, webcams or body scanners are solving the fit problem depends on whom you ask. Guillaume Orain, 23, who works at a New York software start-up, has suffered several sizing mishaps while shopping online. On a friend’s suggestion, he tried Frank & Oak, which uses Clothes Horse technology. He liked that the site used his favourite J. Crew label for comparison and he ordered a $40 shirt. When the shirt arrived, “it was right”, he said. I registered with True Fit on Nordstrom.com this summer, filled out the questionnaire and ordered a size 4 Rachel Roy dress for $398 and a size small Tory Burch knit sheath for $345, based on the program’s size recommendation. Both also received a rating of 4, which means the fit should be excellent. The Rachel Roy was short-waisted, slightly big around the shoulders and longer than I expected. I returned it; the Tory is hanging in my closet. (There’s no fee for using any of these sizing technologies.)
Former White House assistant press secretary-turned-entrepreneur Josh Deckard, 31, ordered an Alton Lane shirt in February. He has since ordered three more. “They are fantastic. I wore one and literally every person I was with commented on it.” Booze Allen consultant Blair Winston, 24, prefers brick-and-mortar shopping. “I’ve bought unfamiliar brands online before because I thought I was getting a good deal, but often they fit strangely. I’m comfortable buying a Nanette Lepore suit on the web because the sizes are consistent. I won’t buy jeans, though. You have to try them on.” Madison Riley, managing director of retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon, is in a watch-and-wait mode. “If a retailer knows your sizes, it will do a lot to lock that consumer loyalty into a retail brand, but we’re not there yet,” Riley said. “Lots of people are interested in testing. We’ll see where they go.”
A good fit is a critical component of the online shopping experience, but it’s not the only one. No technology can determine how an item of clothing will look on you. It’s impossible — at least for now — to tell the texture of a fabric, or to determine if the shade on your computer screen matches what shows up at your door. Coming up with solutions to these online-buying dilemmas may make solving the fit problem seem as easy as putting on a pair of pants.