Big fashion has an abysmal ecological record, being one of the world’s largest polluters

The impact of AI on small, independent businesses

In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, shares her thoughts on potential use of fit technology when it comes to small, independent retailers.

Big fashion has an abysmal ecological record, being one of the world's largest polluters, second only to the oil industry. There are a diverse mix of problems, including environmental pollution, use of resources, waste and carbon release that need to be addressed if fashion's sustainability is to be achieved. One action that's likely to make a significant improvement across a wide range of these issues would be to diminish the number of product returns from the bourgeoning e-commerce sector.



Long before the pandemic, there was already exponential growth in e-commerce fashion, but Covid-19 has turbocharged this trend and, in the subsequent half-decade, sales figures in this sector are likely to continue to swell significantly. According to Statista, the global online fashion market was worth $533 billion in 2018 and is predicted to grow to $872 billion by 2023. And this expansion has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in product returns: McKinsey Returns Management Survey, conducted just prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, noted a 25% return rate for apparel on e-commerce channels.  With as much as an estimated 10% of fashion returns ending up in landfill, garments being sent back are a huge source of unsustainability.

One of the most common reasons cited by customers for a failed sale is a 'fit problem': items are either an incorrect size or the wrong shape for the disappointed purchaser.  Arguably, this situation is hardly surprising when it occurs with apparel purchased 'sight unseen' – without consumers having the opportunity to try for fit first, and, commonly, little online assistance with sizing decisions offered by the brands to consumers.  Legacy methods, such as sizing tables on websites (grids of statistics to explain to users the measurements of clothing sizes), have widely been found woefully insufficient, and the race is now on to provide an AI solution for remotely fitting a customer for apparel.

Much of the intelligent technology presently being developed is based on the idea of 'scanning' in some form or another, although the leading methods are likely to involve apps that allow the consumer's own smartphone to analyse photographs (taken at various angles), to give an estimation of their size and body shape (so not body scanning as such). Technology capable of matching a consumer with clothing sized with a high degree of accuracy, presented to them with realistic 3D imaging (a 'virtual fitting room'), is in train to be an industry-wide norm some time within the next decade.

These fit tools are often being developed with 'big fashion' in mind, due to the conditions that prevail at the beginning of most new major technological advances.  It is the large companies that have the resources to fund significant developments, and it is those corporations that are targeted as the most lucrative clients for tech start-ups selling their services in this space.  They also have greater reach into the population and will be influential in setting the norms of future consumer behaviour.  However, there is no doubt that effective fit technology will prove a real deal-changer to the entire fashion industry, to companies, large, medium and small. As the saying nearly goes, 'a rising tide lifts all shops'.

An altogether different group of retailers – independent fashion companies – is likely to be the significant beneficiary of sizing technology

So an altogether different group of retailers – independent fashion companies – is likely to be the significant beneficiary of sizing technology, once it has been rolled out to the general marketplace in an accessible form.  Many independent fashion companies employ a small staff who run either a single premise or a modest chain of shops, and rely on a loyal (often local) customer base who regularly visit their bricks-and-mortar boutiques. Arguably, this sector of fashion is disproportionately important: here (as with small online-only start-ups) we see the cutting-edge fashion that rises from the street or from new designers that provide the fresh ideas that filter up through the whole industry. Some small firms plough their modest furrow, little changing for a lifetime, enjoying their own unique take on apparel design (which, in itself, provides much-appreciated diversity to the sector), but others are start-ups that are, in fact, the embryonic stage of much larger concerns. These will go further and may provide the innovative, creative, individual and supple concepts that are the first to identify the zeitgeist and show stylistic and business innovation. They can be the rootstock from which new big corporations spring, and their CEOs may well be the entrepreneurs that will one day re-think the shape of fashion.

Businesses such as these are often clustered with likeminded others in a locale recognised for its independent retailer offer, where customers choose to visit in-person to indulge in the unique shopping experiences that can only be gained from 'up close and personal' interaction with their fashion product of choice. This is shopping as an 'experience'; a leisure pursuit, and a source of 'retail therapy'.  It is not the type of retail that is seen to be in need of fit technology at present: consumers are able to accurately ascertain the fit of a garment for themselves, prior to purchase. The relationship between the collection of apparel, the consumer and the fitting room can be an enjoyable and productive one in this environment, with the retailer guiding the client through the store's fashion offer, providing the service of stylist and image consultant.

However, these are challenging times and few can afford, in the post-Covid era, to ignore any potential conduit for trade, such as e-commerce (which, during lockdown, many small store owners have had more than enough time and incentive to familiarise themselves with). A significant number of these businesses, therefore, now involve an online offer, often relying on platforms such as Shopify and Etsy, with many also building their own online shops.

However, the rules of e-commerce do not offer a level playing field between 'big fashion' and tiny independents. If the returns problem is a huge, profit-draining nuisance for corporations, it can be an existential threat for their smaller cousins.

The difficulties associated with incorrect sales are particularly onerous for a 'one-man (or woman)' operation. Take the financial arena, for example. The fees to process sales and refunds are disproportionately greater for a small company which cannot obtain the financial deals that corporations enjoy. Each sale (and refund) will make up a higher percentage of the overall takings for the week in which they are performed, and complications involving sales tax can add to administrative costs. When a large quantity of stock is returned at the same time (say, the post-Christmas period), the finances of the company itself might be affected in an unpredictable way.
The typical independent boutique does not carry a huge inventory, nor does it always have the opportunity for instant replenishment

Then there is the issue of stock holding. The typical independent boutique does not carry a huge inventory, nor does it always have the opportunity for instant replenishment. When an online sale is performed, the garment is then made unavailable to any other customer (often at a prime selling time in the season), while it is sent out to what is effectively a remote changing room, situated in another consumer's residence!  Later, were the garment to be returned, it will need to be inspected and processed before it is replaced into stock – the consumers who would have bought it during its period of absence being long gone. In a worse-case scenario, the apparel is damaged, or even lost in transit, and each individual piece makes up a greater fraction of the overall inventory. Claims, insurance, handling, preparing and rectifying minor issues with clothing caused by the transit processes all take up valuable time in a staff of far fewer people. This is not even to address the disproportionate expense of packaging and carriage charges, which, again without the economies of scale, are far more onerous for a micro company.

Yet the chances for a return due to fit problems may actually be greater for a small firm that has a niche sizing or grading system, or, unlike a large corporation, a mixed collection of diversely tailored items from different suppliers, the fit of which is unknown to the average person doing their online shopping.  For these boutiques, the 'e-commerce return problem' gets real extremely quickly, and it is likely this is a sector that will see a huge jump in opportunities when it is offered truly effective fit solutions. This in itself may be enough to cause a significant power-shift in the fashion industry.

But it is not just the avoidance of disadvantage that correctly understanding the fit of customers will facilitate for independent bricks-and-mortar operators.  A thoroughgoing knowledge of the size and shape of those interested in shopping with them can prove invaluable to a retailer – both concerning general statistical information (vital from an inventory purchasing point of view), and from an individually targeted customer service viewpoint, were a detailed fit profile of a person to be available for reference during in-store interaction.

Regardless of whether the innovative small retailer is operating online or in-store, it is likely that they will wish to play to their strengths, such as customer service, specialised product knowledge, individuality and innovation, whilst using new technology to gain commercial advantage – the difference between the online and bricks-and-mortar shopping experiences thus becoming blurred. Daniel Macaulay, co-founder of start-up FoamLife, says "bricks-and-mortar stores [are] using more technology, such as payment apps to try to replicate the ease of buying online, and online stores using technology such as shop bots to try to replicate the personal, more tailored selling experience."

Offering a ‘more tailored selling experience’ is not an add-on luxury for specialist stores – it is their USP

Offering a 'more tailored selling experience' is not an add-on luxury for these specialist stores.  For many boutiques it is their USP and they are very good at it.  Without doubt, almost as soon as an independent fashion stylist or consultant has enhanced knowledge of their customer's physique, fit preferences and stylistic tastes, it is likely that he or she will run with it, offering a hugely enhanced service to their fashion tribe.  They will make full use of any and all customer data permitted to be collected through AI, not just fit information.

As soon as this technology moves out across the different selling media, it will begin to evolve, and the face of fashion will likely change in ways that we have yet to guess.  Curated fashion, individual or group customisation, bespoke sizing or design, spaces where gaming, social media and fashion fuse.

Finding the correct fit for online consumers may well be just the beginning.  And it's likely that the independent sector will be at the forefront of imagining an altogether new type of fashion retail.

The psychology of potential users should be as important as the grading of garments for fit technology developers

Hiding in plain sight

In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, shares her expertise on customer denial when it comes to apparel fit – in particular in plus-size womenswear.  She argues that developers of fit technology should be studying the psychology of potential users as closely as they are looking at the grading of garments.

To what degree does customer sizing denial effect eCommerce fashion returns?  Throughout history, across cultures, women's figures have been compared to the ideal body shape prevailing at any given time. Women have often taken this very seriously, and been known to resort to body modification, such as dieting, exercise, corseting – even cosmetic surgery – to conform to this standard. Those whose bodies diverged, learned to disguise their 'faults', or risked being forced to accept their lowered status as imperfect specimens.



Arguably, this situation became even more extreme with the advent of the internet, where a mob mentality about women's body shape has emerged. The celebrity, Lady Gaga, for example (a woman with a near perfect figure), when performing at the 2017 Super Bowl, was attacked by an army of online 'haters', who accused her of having a 'pooch', because her stomach was not perceived to be perfectly toned. The superstar resorted to an Instagram defence: "I'm proud of my body and you should be proud of yours too."

Fashion consumers are particularly sensitive to celebrity culture and absorb countless such negative messages whilst browsing.

Added to this media pressure, a woman's romantic partner, her doctor, or even members of her own family may critique her physique, resulting in a lack of self-esteem. Thus, many women are in denial about their size, hide the parts of their bodies that might cause offence, and some cannot even look at their own 'faults' in the mirror in private without shame.

With a woman's size and shape engendering such fraught emotions, it is little wonder that the fashion industry is wrestling with fit issues.

Consumers' attitudes towards their own bodies have created pressures that have skewed sizing since the introduction of manufactured garments back in the 1950s. Theoretically, the achievement of a good fit should not have caused any problems at a time when most apparel could be tried on in the fitting-room of a bricks-and-mortar store. Yet, even then, the negative emotions surrounding sizing caused problems, with a significant percentage of women rejecting apparel with a number on its label that they didn't relate to. The subsequent loss of sales resulted in the phenomenon of 'vanity sizing' (in which certain manufacturers re-designated garments with increased measurements and decreased sizing numbers). And this was not an insignificant problem: the degree of apparel sizing inflation that occurred during the period from the 1950s onwards meant that a size 16 in 1958 would have been the equivalent of a size 8 in 2011.

These sizing and grading adaptations have been piecemeal, generating a non-standardisation of size throughout brands. Indeed, the sizing muddle that exists in the fashion industry today is arguably an expression of how consumers' body shapes and measurements can never be seen solely in objective terms. There is always going to be an element of psychology involved with womenswear sizing.

Whereas the fashion industry has a history of apathy towards accurate measurements, this casual approach towards fit is something that doesn't suit the eCommerce era. The opaque sizing legacy we see today is a significant component of the retail return problem which is ruinously expensive to companies (both financially and in terms of customer loyalty), and to the planet (globally, they are a source of huge ecological damage).

If garment return was a crime scene, the smoking gun would be sizing: the issue of apparel fit must now be taken extremely seriously.

AI (artificial intelligence) is being developed to provide a solution, once and for all, to accurately fitting eCommerce consumers at the point of sale. Some of the online 'fit tools' come in the form of a questionnaire, where fashion customers are asked to input various measurements, but the direction presently being taken by leading tech developers will rely heavily on digital scanning or similar innovations. This might mean using dedicated devices (say, in-store, at shopping centres or even gyms), or, more accessibly, with apps on a consumer's own phone or other device. The object would be to make a 3D representation of her physique, either from a selection of photographs, or a direct scan of her body. Many assume that this process will always be met with complete cooperation and accuracy by the participant. However, as the history of apparel sizing will attest, this issue is not likely to be as simple as it first appears.

My speciality happens to be plus size female customers: an ever-growing cohort of women who suffer from the greatest number of fit problems and who thus generate the largest percentage of returns per dollar spent. Due to their diverse body shapes and widely extended range of sizes, these women offer a particular challenge to retailers. But the problem does not begin and end with their bodies; their minds also offer considerable obstacles to obtaining the correct fit.

In view of the micro-scrutiny, and (as Lady Gaga might put it), 'hate' being projected towards physical imperfections, it is little wonder that some women develop secretive behaviours surrounding their bodies, and this is particularly exaggerated in the larger sized cohort. We live in a society that particularly abominates obesity, so, from bad experiences, many larger people resent being analysed and observed. Knowing that the very shape of their body can give offence, some plus size women habitually resort to camouflage or concealment, even from themselves.

Much imaging tech requires the subject to wear tight-fitting apparel: something which can trigger negative emotions

When developing technology, it's natural to make logic-based deductions about the attitudes and behaviour of those who will use it. It might be thought sensible, for instance, to assume that the public will fully cooperate with a process that will benefit them with clothing that fits properly, just as it's easy for fashion professionals to suppose that everyone possesses a weighing machine and/or tape measure. On the face of it, it appears logical that consumers would accurately report the resulting personal data. Similarly, customers will surely be happy to have their body scanned, or, at the very least, supply sufficiently revelatory photographs, if for a good enough reason? And once the correct size has been calculated, would she not be very happy to follow that advice? But one could look at each of these assumptions and dismantle them all.

Consumers are faced with a plethora of clothing options, and they may not feel any urgency in obtaining the correct fit for any one garment. Indeed, if the purchase process appears too onerous (or makes them feel uncomfortable), they will decide to shop elsewhere. Some people (if they dislike revealing their own measurements) may not even possess the equipment to obtain them. Some may input inaccurate figures due to feelings of negativity or denial.

Scanning interacts with consumers differently, triggering a unique set of issues, but encountering negativity from the same source. For example, for the shape of the body to be obtained, much imaging tech requires the subject to wear tight-fitting apparel: something which can trigger negative emotions, especially in plus size women. Many people who have body insecurities will feel as uncomfortable about the existence of an image of them in tight-fitting underwear, as the average person might feel about pictures of themselves in the nude. When presented with the resulting 3D avatar, some subjects can feel embarrassment and alienation. Not emotions that enhance a shopping experience.

Whatever tool has been used to establish a sizing recommendation, the retailer will then be faced with the same problem that has bedevilled the fit issue for the best part of a century: will the customer accept her size?

Fit technology (although, arguably still in the early stages of being developed), is already effective at preventing many sizing-related returns and is rapidly improving. But as yet, it has only been adopted by a self-selected cohort of consumers who have shown a particular willingness to embrace it. For these tools to be reach optimum effectiveness, a high level of participation will be necessary, so it will also have to be acceptable to a wide range of people, some of them far more sensitive than others. Negative emotion about size and shape is not an issue that will necessarily diminish as the public get more accustomed to a new purchasing regime, any more than the pressures that caused vanity sizing went away over a period of some seventy years.

Whilst evolving any interactive consumer technology, developers should be studying the psychology of users as closely as they are looking at the grading of the garments. It should always be remembered that this is elective technology: customers can choose to avoid it if they wish. In an ideal world, the source of physical insecurity, body shaming, would be eliminated, and human beings would relate to the fit of their apparel in purely functional terms.

However, as this is unlikely to happen any time soon, new fit technology will benefit enormously from developing an interface with the consumer that allows her to feel less judged and more secure in her privacy and comfort. The issue of what (and how much) is fed back to users is a vital one. The retail experience will enjoy greater participation from the public if it presents an easy-going, pleasant, entertaining, deliberately ambiguous, and non-quantitative feedback to its users.

This is likely to involve giving the consumer a place to hide, even from herself.

Without preference there would be no such thing as fashion: there would only be clothing

Fashion’s primacy of preference

In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, shares the issues our industry has with accepting consumer preference, and how technology can help going forward.

Fashion is preference.  Were it not for preference, everyone would wear exactly the same clothes, in the same way, all the time, and no one would care very much about how clothes fitted, how fashionable they were, or how stylish.  The subject of apparel preference is of huge breadth, including, as it does, consumers' partialities concerning style, fit, and even ecological concerns: arguably, everything that comes under the umbrella term of 'taste'.  Without preference there would be no such thing as 'fashion': there would only be clothing.



Taste in apparel is something that is affected by countless aspects, such as body type, culture and age, and there will always be a mysterious (even subconscious) element to it.  Preference amongst consumers is the engine that drives the world of fashion forward season by season: a kind of alchemy that makes the typical consumer's fashion palate shift on a regular basis.  Some time ago, for example, the fashion-forward customer couldn't get enough of full-length, super-skinny jeans.  Now, wider, shorter-length denim is a 'thing', and soon the prevailing look might be something else altogether.  Preference evolves like this, continuously churning throughout the population.

I have a professional interest in womenswear garment fit, which encompasses the issue of fit preference.  Putting aside other fashion inclinations, fit preference concerns how a woman expects her clothes to hang, drape, cling, tailor – or otherwise interact with the shape of her body.  An individual's fit preference is fairly stable over her lifetime and is one element in a matrix of concerns that is presently costing the e-commerce fashion industry billions of dollars a year worldwide in garment returns.  

Here's a thought experiment, illustrating to what the term 'fit preference' refers.  For a given period, a woman (the 'wearer') is to be dressed in clothes selected by another female, the 'shopper' (who is the same age, height, body shape and weight as she is).  The fashion taste and colouring of the two women are perfectly aligned.  The shopper is tasked with choosing items that fit her own body exactly the way she likes, and there is no interaction between the wearer and the shopper.

Initially, hearing about this situation, some would suggest: "If the two women are the same size and body shape as each other, the shopper's choice of clothes will automatically fit the wearer perfectly."  Or, perhaps, they would say: "I can't even guess what this experiment is about: there's literally nothing of note here".

During the course of the hypothetical study, it turns out that the clothes don't fit the wearer in the way to which she is accustomed.  The waistlines, for example, feel looser than she normally wears, which is because they are expected to 'settle' low on to her hip, rather than snugly on the waist.  The necklines appear quite low, meaning that the wearer feels that they are somewhat more 'revealing' of cleavage than she would prefer. Generally, the shopper's choice of clothing is different from the wearer's 'normal' fit: everything feeling 'slouchier' than the wearer would have selected for herself.  The woman reports that she "feels different from normal" and "uncomfortable" when she is dressed this way.

Fashion professionals who work face to face with consumers will not be surprised by evidence of fit variance between individuals

Analysing the result of the trial, is it surprising that this could happen between two such physically similar people? Could the wearer be expected to find dressing this way acceptable once she has had the opportunity to get used to it?  Or would it be logical to surmise that the wearer would not willingly tolerate this type of fit for long?  Fashion professionals who work face to face with consumers will not be surprised by evidence of fit variance between individuals. 

Indeed, one of the most useful methods employed by the canny stylist happens prior to selecting any apparel to show her client: it is to observe the customer's fit preference, as judged by what she is already wearing. Detecting a consumer's established fit pattern saves considerable time, but does not make any impact on which items are ultimately purchased.  The consumer, when physically present, will soon make her preferences clear, when she tries the items on.  E-commerce fashion does not have this luxury: everything is bought without testing the fit first, and inappropriate garments are usually returned for a refund: an expensive and wasteful process.

This is far from a theoretical situation.  Outlandish as it sounds, the idea of the fit of a garment being automatically settled upon by an entity other than the wearer is fast becoming a possibility: soon, consumers may have the fit of their apparel selected, not by another person, but by a 'bot'.

The fashion industry is facing a major problem with e-commerce garment returns.  Worldwide, the National Retail Federation says e-commerce returns overall average between 20% and 30%, which, in a 1.5 trillion-dollar industry, of which 47% of sales were made online in 2020, equals a hugely expensive problem.  A large proportion of these returns are reported as being due to fit problems.  Unsurprisingly, the race is on to find a solution for assessing the perfect garment fit for consumers who are buying 'sight unseen'.

Arguably, the 'physical' aspects of web retail fashion fit are in the process of being solved.  Women's bodies, for all their diversity, are visible and assessable from the outside. This is not to underestimate the difficulties inherent in designing the tech necessary to body-scan a consumer to record the size and shape of her figure, for example. Complications abound with this technology, but, arguably, these can be resolved with practical solutions.  However, the issue of preference is more subtle and mysterious, involving, as it does, the content of the consumer's head. 

When two women have the same type of physique, their body scan will look similar, but this does not mean that they have the same taste in fit.

When two women have the same type of physique, their body scan will look similar, but this does not mean that they have the same taste in fit

The difficulties in establishing the fit preference of a consumer are legion.  A woman's inclination includes how she approaches dressing different parts of her body, and her figure as a whole.  It encompasses differing choices in both alternative items of apparel and in varying activities whilst wearing those items. To establish a comprehensive 'fit preference bodymap' of a given consumer, a considerable degree of observation and research into that individual would be required over enough time to understand the various types of apparel that she wears.  It's one thing (albeit not so easy in itself) to ask a consumer to undergo a body scan at the point of sale. It's quite another to build up a detailed picture of her fit preference, starting from scratch each time she is making a purchase!  

The fit preference of a given consumer is therefore something that will take time, subtlety, and considerable expertise to establish.  And once completed, this valuable information will, by necessity, be passed on to other fashion retailers, through confidential and secure information-sharing technology. Consumers, the fashion industry, and legislators, will have to be prepared to make the difficult decisions necessary to facilitate this.

There is no escaping fit preference.  As it is spectrum, with the 'least fussy' consumers at one extreme (people who would wear just about any fit that doesn't offend public decency), to 'hyper-controlling' individuals (those who will not, under any circumstances, consider buying a garment unless its degree of ease is exactly to their taste) at the other, everyone has a place on this scale.  These variations become markedly exaggerated in the plus size female cohort.  Many in the fashion industry appear to believe that when technology decides on a median fit, eventually consumers will 'get used' to it, and the issue of fit preference will simply go away over time.  

However, those who understand what it is like to wear an occupational uniform (where the fit is usually a generic one, taking into account only the size and height of the wearer) may question this theory. All the evidence (albeit anecdotal) from this experience is clear: people can wear apparel for a considerable period (years, or, indeed, decades) without ever having got used to a fit that they have had imposed on them from outside.  An individual's fit preference often proves to be extremely resilient: few people enjoy having their own choice of fit overridden, and for some, it is a miserable experience. There will be many consumers that will not agree to actually pay for it.  

It may be somewhat ill-advised, therefore, that there currently appears to be little interest in consumer preference amongst those developing body-scanning technology.  Few retailers would expect to get away with imposing their taste in fashion styles on a consumer, so why should they think they can successfully do so with fit?  The theory appears to be that, even where the consumer is not entirely satisfied with a generic fit, she will not be unhappy enough to return the garment.  At best, this notion could be said to be lacking in ambition; at worst, it shows wishful thinking, used to excuse a disregard for customer service – a gamble that leaves the retailer vulnerable to commercial disadvantage.

Fit preference has been part of the human make up for hundreds (likely thousands) of years.  It is one of the aspects that enables a person to express individuality through their look: it offers emotional support for bodily insecurities and bolsters feelings of attractiveness.  It underlines the morals of the wearer or, conversely, reveals a sense of freedom from societal values.  There is no evidence that distinct taste in fit will go away anytime soon.  Or, indeed, that it would be a good thing if it did.

It's much more likely that, when rolling out point-of-sale fit tools for online fashion, any experiment in imposing a generic fit on consumers will provide somewhat disappointing commercial outcomes.  No doubt, with any advance in sizing technology, there will be fewer returns than the present situation (where fashion e-commerce fit advice is scarce and of poor quality: causing the abysmal rate of returns that is currently occurring), but, in a world where it is important to avoid all unnecessary waste, it's highly likely that there will still be too many garments sent back due to fit issues.  A place for fit preference will therefore ultimately need to be found in the technology presently being developed, so that all consumers will get what they want: a look that they can feel comfortable with, and one which they feel respects and expresses their taste as an individual.  

And this is also the surest way for e-commerce fashion to get what it wants more than anything else: fewer garment returns.

With garments that are sold sight unseen, the fundamental feedback loop is a binary one... either a dress is kept, or it is sent back; either it fits or it does not

E-commerce fashion and the binary feedback loop

In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, delves further into the industry’s issue with fit, specifically with e-commerce. Emma hopes much more attention will be given to the reasons why apparel is being sent back as unsuitable in the near-future. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

The pandemic has turbocharged fashion e-commerce, with non-store like-for-like sales to the middle week of March 2021 up by 162.59% compared to the same week in 2020. This makes a stark contrast with in-store like-for-like sales,which fell 79.26% year-on-year that week. In an average season, these would be incredible figures. Clearly, this year of lockdown has been anything but an ordinary time, and many industry insiders are actually surprised that the numbers aren’t even more extreme. Yet these figures are merely an acceleration of a sharp trend towards online shopping that was already evident in the fashion industry: global e-commerce sales having grown from around one and a third billion dollars in 2014, to over four billion dollars in 2020. It’s highly likely that, post lockdown, rather than returning to a ‘baseline’, online fashion sales will shrink back somewhat (however, never falling back to the pre-Covid level), and continue to grow.



All this extra clothing being bought remotely is resulting in a mountain of product returns. In the UK, levels of e-commerce fashion sales that ended up being sent back reached £11.4bn in 2020. At least half of returns (and, in the growing plus size sector,possibly considerably more) are reported as being sent back due 'fit problems' (Bizrate Insights survey of 1,052 consumers in June 2019, for example, found 55% of consumers said size was the top reason why they returned an online purchase). So, looking to the future, it’s clear that e-commerce apparel size and fit is a huge, ongoing (and indeed, growing) problem.

With garments that are sold 'sight unseen', the fundamental feedback loop is a binary one. Either a dress is kept, or it is sent back. It fits or it does not. On or off. Unless the retailer puts some effort into obtaining a lot of extra information about either the consumer or the garment, very little is learned about fit each time a product is sent back. And even if the retailer does pursue feedback from their consumers, if it is not exhaustive enough, it’s all too possible to learn the wrong lesson altogether.

Back in the old 'analogue' days (when customers were fitted in bricks-and-mortar stores), it was easy to see with human eye the intricacy involved to fit for apparel the wide range of diverse female body shapes that are found in the population.

Take two women, both of whom have exactly the same height, waist,and hip measurements – although with differing body shapes...

Take two women, for example, both of whom have exactly the same height, waist,and hip measurements (although with differing body shapes), trying on identical dresses in the same size. Woman A says that the garment is too tight on the hip, yet B says that hers fits perfectly. How can this be, when both have exactly the same size hip? But A is pear shaped: she is very small on her top half. Larger parts of the body take more fabric to cover (not just widthways, but also lengthways), so this lady’s small top half has taken up less coverage, meaning that the narrowed waist of the dress has drooped down and is actually sitting on the wider part of her hip, causing it to be too tight in that area. If A were at home trying on this dress, she would send it back, and if she was asked, it’s fairly likely that she would tick the box indicating 'too small'. Actually, the dress is a little too large (on the top half). The data point about size gained from this transaction would be at best meaningless, and at worst counterproductive, if a simple 'tick-box' question was asked.

There is nothing 'wrong' with the size or cut of this dress: it is simply not the right shape for this consumer, which illustrates the inadequacy of relying on the measurement/size grids that are often the only resource that consumers are offered when deciding which size to order online. How would A be expected to choose which size of dress, when she is smaller on her top half? The best option for her would actually have been not to have bought this style at all, because it evidently does not fit a pear-shaped woman, but this information is too complex to be made clear. It is for this lack of clarity that many women who have diverse body shapes do not bother with the retailer’s sizing guides, choosing either to rely on brands that are familiar to them, styles that they have had previous success wearing, or customer reviews.

Here’s another instance: a lady returns a blouse and gives the reason for doing so as that it was 'too tight on the arms', which is bewildering, because it turns out the styling of the sleeves is extremely wide, meaning it would be almost impossible for them to be too tight on anybody’s arms. In fact, the raglan-style armhole is cut too deep, meaning that the sleeves are at an impractical angle to the body, restricting movement and making them feel tight. This is a manufacturing fault, but it is not being reported as such by the consumer, who, not surprisingly, doesn’t happen to be a pattern cutting expert. So again, the 'tick' ends up in the wrong box.

There are thousands of other examples of the complexity surrounding the issue of customer fit, which not only show how insufficient the crude on/off binary of 'keep-or-return' is, but also go on to illustrate how a cursory survey undertaken into the fit of returns is in itself likely to be insufficient,especially as the customer herself doesn’t always know what the problem is.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a binary system: provide enough little squares containing either a one or a zero, for example, and it’s famously possible to arrange them in such a way that they depict a fairly convincing black and white image of Marilyn Monroe. But the more complex and detailed the picture, the more data points it is necessary to obtain. And apparel fit is incredibly complex. Clothes are not like other consumer products: one cannot compare, for example, the return of a set of curtains (which happen to be too small) with that of a blouse, which could be said to be 'too small'. There can be no doubt that, using the blunt tools usual in the sector at the moment, it would be completely impractical to expect a customer to give the quality and quantity of information necessary to enable the retailer to reliably understand the reason for the return of the blouse, in the same way as they can, with confidence, simply explain why the curtains were sent back.

It’s easy to conclude, then, that it is pointless trying to obtain any information from consumers about apparel returns, yet I would argue that there is a need to gain information in any and every way possible. It all goes back to the pixelated image of Marilyn: in order to create a detailed picture, it is necessary to obtain as many data points as possible, so it would be unwise to ignore this potential resource.

There can be no doubt that garment fit is something that should be tackled primarily at the 'business end' of the transaction between retailer and consumer: the point of sale, rather than when it is being returned, when it is apparently too late. Before anything is sent out, there should be a thoroughgoing investigation as to the shape of the human being towards whom the garment is being directed. I would argue that, in the future, much (if not all), of sizing and fit information, pre-purchase, will be obtained using some kind of technological imaging of the consumer. Such is the complexity of the human body; it would be unrealistic to expect to gain enough detail any other way. And this automatic analysis of people is not a one-off: in order to cope with the ever-changing body shapes and sizes of people as they move through their lifetimes, this will need to be a continuous process. But the detailed knowledge of the body shapes of consumers would be of limited usefulness if it is not matched, both with a perfect understanding of the measurements, fits and shape of the garments being retailed, but also with a much wider choice of sizing and grading of online brands to offer each consumer.

Before any clothing is sent out, there should be a thoroughgoing investigation as to the shape of the human being towards whom the garment is being directed

It would therefore be wasteful to ignore the stream of information that can be gained from the return of garments, particularly when developing an appropriate inventory. When approached with a subtle and thorough system to understand the reason why an item is being sent back, a return survey can be a useful tool to identify faulty pattern cutting or wrongly graded items in general, as well as suggesting body shapes that are being poorly served by the brand. Also, it is one 'extra level' of information about fitting the individual concerned.

Human beings are not just bodies: they are minds and personalities as well. Each subject has a set of 'fit preferences' that govern how they prefer to wear their apparel. Perhaps an individual likes to wear tight clothing all the time. Or only when they are exercising. Maybe this person prefers baggy attire when working out, but close-fitting outfits when they are socialising. These are highly personal preferences that make up a 'fit ID', which can be borne in mind when trading to them in the future.

Some retailers have the luxury of a huge number of sales, creating statistics from which general predictions and trends can be extrapolated. Perhaps certain preferences turn out to be universal, such as, for instance, a ubiquitous choice to prefer a certain style of dress in a smaller size in black and a larger one in white. Consumers should be heavily incentivised (with free postage, gift vouchers, points and special offers) to provide much more detailed information to help retailers understand if some fit choices work, and others don’t, across as wide a spread of the population as possible.

Arguably, the return information presently being obtained by fashion e-commerce is fairly half-hearted: considering the waste involved (both financially and ecologically), much more attention needs to be given to the reasons why apparel is being sent back as unsuitable. Motivating the co-operation of consumers, asking the subtle, incisive questions – and expertly analysing the answers – is a form of art (and should be a profession in its own right) that can offer a meaningful picture as to why some garment sales end up in our growing mountain of returns.

How do we learn to understand consumers’ sizing requirements so as to prevent fashion returns?

Getting down to size

Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, delves further into the industry’s issue with fit when it comes to plus size womenswear – and offers a promising way out. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was published in WhichPLM  on 23 February 2021.



How do we learn to understand consumers’ sizing requirements to prevent fashion returns?
In bricks-and-mortar fashion retail (and, indeed, in most face-to-face selling environments) salespeople sometimes have the mortifying experience of judging a customer by what they look like, only to discover later on, that they’ve made a complete misjudgement.  When a person walks into a classy boutique wearing a threadbare £50 coat, for example, it’s all too easy for the assistant to dismiss the idea that they will walk out with that £500 replacement.  Yet this can and does happen, frequently: people can surprise you.  This is why an experienced retailer will warn that, when directing a consumer towards a product, it is very dangerous to make judgements about that person’s needs, just by looking at what they have previously purchased.

With online fashion, even completing a sale is not everything.  Were the retailer to close a deal with a consumer for their dream product, perfectly suited to their personal style and pocketbook, the company’s relationship with that particular transaction is often far from over.  Indeed, with this industry, post-purchase, the problems are sometimes just about to begin, and that hard-won sale may morph into an expensive refund. Between 20% and 40% of all online fashion sales are returned, and for around 46% of these returns, the cause is reported as being due to fit problems.

My work is all about womenswear fit, and here we’ve seen that relying on the consumer to judge her own size has proved of questionable wisdom. Instore, it’s possible to witness the denial, insufficient knowledge and bewilderment about sizing that many customers exhibit, but any confusion rarely survives trying the garment on in a fitting room.  The shopper for apparel online, however, opens up a panoply of problems for the retailer.  Does she, for example, know her measurements day-to-day (or indeed, does she know how to measure herself, and have the equipment to do so)? Is she willing to throw aside delusion and confront the reality of her body? Does she have the time, knowledge and attention-span to navigate the sizing boxes that are often the only thing to go on with many fashion websites (even for a sizing expert, these simple-looking charts can disguise a labyrinth of complexity)?  Even where 'fit tools' are employed on a website, what efficacy can they achieve in what, by necessity, is such a brief encounter with the customer? And who, if anyone, can adequately understand the particular sizing and grading she is looking at, when there is such a lack of standardisation in the industry?

Is it wise to assume that anyone can be relied on to identify their correct size when shopping remotely?

Is it wise to assume that anyone can be relied on to identify their correct size when shopping remotely?  Judging by the prevailing number of returns, the answer is a resounding no.

Fit is about so much more than just accurate sizing and measurements.  Fashion itself is preference (and fit preference – the way someone prefers to wear their clothes – is a vital aspect with apparel).  A consumer is likely to return an item which, although a conventional 'good fit', does not interact with her body in the way that makes her feel comfortable. In this area, yet again, it’s all too easy to look at what is in front of you and mistakenly predict a consumer’s desires.  A person’s fit preference changes from one garment type to another, between differing fabrics, from time to time and – even more confusingly – from one part of her body to another.

It’s likely, for example, that someone would like their party dress to fit in a different way to their gym attire, which may, again, need to fit differently to their work outfit (that’s to say, if 'workwear' still exists by the end of the pandemic). Very often, people have personal sensitivities and look for extra 'ease' of fabric on one particular part of their body (the “Does my bum look big in this?” syndrome).  Nor is it possible to extrapolate one person’s tastes from what has been observed in other people.  For example, one consumer might choose her workwear to be inexpensive, loose-fitting, practical and long-lasting, where with another it’s all about the 'corporate look': tailored to within a millimetre, comfort and economy be damned.

It’s simply not practical to expect a consumer to make all the subtle judgements and wide range of choices necessary to achieve the fit she needs when she purchases online.  That’s largely what’s happening at the moment, and we can see how this fails by the rate of returns.  Even were the industry able to offer a consumer the highly technical fit knowledge about each product (information that retailers – large and small – do not necessarily possess), she is unlikely to have the time, motivation or judgement necessary to do the complex calculations that result in a well-fitting garment.

Ultimately, if there is to be a solution for online fit-related returns (and there has to be), it will by necessity be provided by technology.

But this can't be achieved by solely judging people on what they have bought in the past. Some fit tools analyse a customer's needs by asking her to report the sizes and brands of previous purchases. Even if AI was capable of automatically looking at the history of every one of the sizes and types of apparel she had previously purchased online, at best, it would still only be able to offer crude advice on the issue of sizing and fit.  This is due to countless issues.  For example, a consumer may change size or shape through diet and exercise: may have altered her style, recently had a baby or gone through the menopause, modified her confidence level, been influenced by a new partner’s taste, be purchasing for someone else, or gained a new job that demanded different professional attire. She may, in short, be living a life.

If there is to be a solution for online fit-related returns (and there has to be), it will by necessity be provided by technology

Further, due to the lack of sizing standardisation, the person in question may simply have had to settle for different sizes to achieve an acceptable fit across divergent brands too countless to analyse.  Add this to the mysteries presented by her various personal fit preferences, her history would look quite complex and inexplicable.  So even if the technology miraculously had access to a mountain of information about the consumer’s buying, almost instantly, much of it would be out-of-date, irrelevant or misleading.

Ultimately, if there is going to be an exhaustive solution to the garment returns issue, it will be necessary for governments to licence secure, independent commercial agencies that – armed with thoroughgoing consumer authorisation and cooperation – will gather every piece of available information that can be known about the consumer’s physique and fit preferences and collate them in one space. Technology presently being developed in a number of start-ups will need to be brought into the scheme, which will utilise a diverse range of techniques.  It will keep a record of regular body scans (no doubt undertaken by an app on the consumer’s phone, backed up with occasional visits to 3D scanning pods): actual body measurements to go alongside purchase and returns history, weight, or any other metrics.  Most importantly, the consumer will voluntarily input further relevant personal information to fill in data points, such as fit preference.  Working along similar lines to credit card agencies, these entities will create a 'fit ID' of individuals, which the organisation will present securely at the point of sale, so that the participant can enjoy rewards of free postage and returns, discounts, special offers, priority shopping, enhanced ease of purchase, tax breaks and safeguards against the loss of data security.

There may even be, in the future, something along the lines of 'carbon vouchers', putting the enthusiastic participant into a 'carbon credit' situation.  Additionally, the member will retain the ability to delete or transfer the account at any time.  Every effort possible should go into making it a body that is worthwhile for members of the public to join voluntarily: the legal compulsion for participation being directed solely towards the companies concerned.  Initially, this may not suit every consumer’s taste, but such a system need only attract a percentage of the population to be highly effective.  And, in time, social pressure would encourage it to become the norm.

Globally, internet-based fashion retail is looking down the barrel of a trillion dollars of apparel returns annually

So does this scenario – this elaborate system adopted by governments – look like something that’s about to happen anytime soon?  Or does it appear to be nothing more than an idealistic pipedream? I believe that, actually, this kind of solution, although radical, is not unrealistic.  In the interests of preventing further damage to the planet, the public has started to become accustomed to technological advances that initially looked unlikely.  For example, had it been suggested ten years ago that by 2020 the UK would produce 20% of its electricity from wind farms, this would have seemed fanciful.  Yet it is now the case.  From solar panels to electric cars, human beings are seeing a cause for carbon-friendly solutions.

Fashion retail’s damaging returns problem is another example of an area ripe for change: Forbes reports that apparel returns contribute 4.7 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually: this is not an insignificant problem, any more than it than it is one that is likely to go away on its own.  And there is no shortage of finance for such a scheme: globally, internet-based fashion retail is presently looking down the barrel of a trillion dollars of apparel returns annually, so any system that effectively addresses this will not only be self-funding, it will prove to be extremely lucrative.

The fashion industry itself should be lobbying for this to happen.

Solutions to online fashion’s sizing and returns problem should be seen as essential eco-friendly technology; it cannot happen soon enough for consumers to recognise that these developments can prevent millions of tons of carbon being pumped annually into the Earth’s atmosphere.


Businesses are set to rewrite the rulebooks of employee empowerment, public engagement and community participation

2020: Not a good year for dinosaurs

Emma Hayes, Womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, delves further into the industry’s issue with fit when it comes to plus size womenswear – specifically, in light of the current global climate.  Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 27 August 2020.



Many corporations would prefer to avoid any involvement with the ‘P’ word: politics.  But after the events of the first half of 2020 – arguably – it is not an option.

A lot can happen in a year.  For example, it was in 2019 that an H&M advert was published depicting a small black boy wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words: “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’.  Not surprisingly, it was widely castigated.  “As a black British person” wrote journalist Edward Adoo, “I felt uncomfortable when I saw the advert.  The historic context of the word “monkey” has caused outrage and pain to my generation and many others who came before us.”

Going back to 2017, Kendall Jenner starred in an advertisement for Pepsi, which also scored an own goal.  In it, Jenner plays the part of a model (herself?) who is drawn into a street protest, later appearing to win over a member of the riot police by offering him a cola.  According to blogger Maison Piedfort: “Pepsi mistook social justice movements for opportunities to sell soda, which is pretty disrespectful to the people who have suffered and sacrificed for the sake of protest and change.”

Few people believed that these companies intended to cause offence, yet, nevertheless, they did.  Mistakes are a normal part of life, but some argue that these ones actually indicate much deeper failings, pointing out that, had a more diverse range of people been involved in the decision-making surrounding these commercials, they would never have been made.  In publishing them, the brands exhibited that they weren’t just naïve: they also lacked empathy and engagement with the wider community, including some of their own customers.

As a fit consultant, body shape diversity advocate and, indeed, as a plus-size woman myself, I cannot speak for other marginalised groups.  I have no need to: there is plenty of this kind of thing happening in my own field and it’s not limited to advertising.  Many times, I’ve looked at a range of plus-size clothes and instantly observed that, had larger women’s voices been heard at any stage of conception, design, production or supply, it would have been a very different story.

This is part of a long and ignoble history of sub-standard treatment being meted out to various undervalued groups in the population.

When I first worked as a buyer for plus-size apparel, back in the 1990s, I observed a huge difference between the offer for the ‘mainstream’ size woman, who was, at that time, between a size 8 to a size 14, and the ‘plus-size’ woman, considered to be a size 16 upward.  The ‘mainstream’ story would often consist of pretty, colourful, fashion-forward apparel, whereas the plus-size option (were there one at all), would be a minimal selection of middle-aged looking styles.  With each new generation of the population growing bigger, it was the younger girls who took a larger size: so why only offer them a range of older looks?  It looked judgemental: apparently larger women, of any age, cannot be fashionable.

On the surface, this situation has changed substantially, but even in 2020, a larger-sized woman is likely to be presented with only a tiny fraction of the choice of styles as are offered to her smaller-sized equivalent, despite a loud clamour for greater equality in social media.  Various companies are striving to become more inclusive generally, and this is certainly reflected in a greater number of plus-size or size-inclusive ranges.  Yet significant problems remain.

From an inventory point of view, an example of this is the ubiquitous lack of appropriate grading.  Most plus-size womenswear companies have ignored the highly diverse body shapes of this cohort, opting instead for a generic ‘average’ cut that fits only a limited proportion of their customers.  It is due to lack of engagement with the fit needs of larger women that more than half of all the apparel sold online in this sector is presently being returned, because, in the main, it does not suit customers’ bodies.  This has caused some brands to have their profitability perpetually dragged down by woefully high returns rates and others to actually go out of business.
But this isn’t all: still there is insufficient choice of plus-size product, inaccurate assumptions, under-representation and patronising imagery or insensitive terms continuing to be used in the plus-size sector.

During the first half of 2020, many have watched – and supported – the great movement of this generation, the Black Lives Matter campaign.  It is a game-changer that spans every important aspect of human life, from education, health, to the justice system, industry and economics: even the inner workings of the human brain.  The cause of racial equality has been hundreds of years in the making, and, arguably, along with climate change, is the biggest challenge of the time.  The issues addressed are so vast and heinous that it would be highly inappropriate to attempt to ‘tack on’ side interests, such as size acceptance.  However, students of past great political upheavals have observed that any headway towards achieving social justice in one field will probably lead to similar advances in others.  As the proverb goes, “a high tide raises all ships”.

It’s clear that this is no ‘surface’ movement: it’s highly likely that, ultimately, it will profoundly affect the apparel industry, with calls for greater social justice and demands for a more representative sample to populate the fashion corporations (or, at the very least, interact with them).  Also, there is already a strong groundswell towards the support of independent commerce that springs organically from consumers’ own communities.  These businesses are likely to rewrite the rulebook of employee empowerment, public engagement and community participation.  Looking through this new lens, certain practices common to fashion companies are already beginning to look outdated, if not thoroughly unacceptable.

Brands have to be more sensitive now than ever to changing consumer attitudes

Brands have to be more sensitive now than ever to changing attitudes in this volatile era, where consumers and the press are hyper-vigilant to stories of injustice and exploitation. A stern warning of how this can present itself is what has recently occurred at the fast-fashion monolith, Boohoo.  According to Dazed, “Boohoo, the online fashion retailer behind brands like Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal had more than £1 billion wiped off its value this Monday (July 6) after reports of “modern slavery” at a Leicester garment factory.” 

Suddenly, some brands find that they look like dinosaurs, and now the Covid-19 pandemic has smashed into the world economy, setting off a once-in-a-generation economic firestorm, this is not a particularly good time to be a dinosaur.

In response to the prevailing situation in 2020, consultants will each have their own brief, and those advising brands about employee rights are likely to be busy.  From my (very narrow) point of view as a fit specialist, the first concern, as always, should be with the product.  The number one priority should be for brands to genuinely become more size-inclusive, better reflecting the population and offering access to a greater number of people. Ideally, all brands should also act today to begin the process of understanding the body shapes of women, such as using scanning technology to survey as large a cross-section of their customer base as possible.  Sensitivity should be showed to the fit requirements of all ethnic groups equally (especially those who have hitherto been largely ignored).  Then brands will be better placed to develop more varied and fit-for-purpose, inclusive grading for women, offering those with diverse body shapes, for the first time, ‘fit equality’.

From a point of sale standpoint, brands should develop or utilise fit technology, such as (but not limited to) fit tools and hand-held scanning tech, so as to diminish the returns problem.  Companies should see returns not as an irritating ‘fact of life’, but as an urgent problem to be solved as an indication of their dedication to fairness towards all customers, not just the privileged few.

All sectors of commerce have to adapt to some new realities.  To see an example of how this tsunami has already permanently re-shaped the landscape, it is worth considering again the two advertisements mentioned at the beginning of this article: realising that no brand would be so ill-advised to have produced them after the events of this year.

To say that these commercials are now outdated is a gross understatement. They already look like the historical oddities of a hundred years ago.



 

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