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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.


Why not incentivise consumers to provide the fit information that the fashion industry needs?  Imagine a credit account whose currency is information; a consumer will pay into this account by adding her data.

E-commerce fashion fit and the data credit card

In the era of e-commerce fashion we are suffering from an epidemic of poor fit.  Consumers do not know which, out of the sizes being offered, are the correct ones to choose, and sometimes this results in their decision not to buy anything at all; the issue of so-called 'abandoned baskets'. 

When they do decide to take the plunge, too often confused consumers fail to select the size that would fit them best, and the process ends up as an apparel return.  Worse, this return often leads to a disgruntled customer deciding never to try this brand again.



In addition, many apparel companies create product that simply does not fit the figures of their clients.  The problem, all too often, is about body shape (otherwise known as 'grading'). 

Fit is as much about shape as it is about size, but the fashion industry largely exists in a state of ignorance as to the body shapes in the population. 

Ultimately, this can lead to an inventory that offers no 'right size' for a consumer: nothing fits, because the shape is wrong.  Shockingly, this unsuitable new stock can end up in landfill.

To solve this problem information is needed.  Firstly, the body shapes of the customer base need to be gathered and studied so as to create an improved inventory, comprised of the correctly sized and shaped garments.  Then individual clients' body shapes need to be ascertained, at point of sale, so that the appropriate sizes are picked from that selection and sent out to them when they buy. 

Information is the name of the game – and it is incredibly valuable, yet it isn't easy to get.  Going out into the population to find meaningful data is a huge task, fraught with problems.  Firstly, there has to be a big enough sample (which needs to be substantial and widespread: there is no inhabited continent where we can afford to make assumptions as to body shape and size).  This study has to be on-going (body shapes change over time: for example, right now the waistlines of our population are growing and, simultaneously, certain demographics are changing – such as average age, which is rising).   

Then, the sample has to be accurate and representative.  When testing the cohort, those groups who are happy to donate their time to undertake testing for, for example, financial rewards, may have distinct features (they may be a younger sub-group for instance).  And other considerations also come into play.  In the plus-size sector, many women who have 'non-standard' body shapes (ironically, body shapes such as 'Pear' and 'Apple' shape are far more common than the figure that is assumed to be the 'norm', but which is actually rather rare, the 'Perfectly proportioned' shape) are super-sensitive about having their bodies analysed.  Many people contaminate their data by miss-reporting it, so the manner of gathering has to be bullet-proof.

Then there is the small matter of obtaining metrics from individual customers at point of sale.  It all sounds perfectly easy: how much of a problem can it be to ask women about their weight and body measurements?  (I'm being sarcastic, in case that's not obvious: to many women, there can hardly be anything more fraught with complication and sensitivity than asking for these details.)

All this data is valuable; so who deserves to benefit from that value?  Money flows back and forward in the fashion industry.  It enters via the consumer when a sale is made, then some of that flows down the plug-hole of customer returns, wasted stock and lost trade.  Would it be possible to divert some of that money away from these expensive (and ecologically damaging) causes, and send it back towards the provider of the data?

Imagine, if you will, a credit account whose currency is information.  A consumer will 'pay into' this account by adding her data. 

She might input her weight, height, bra size – or any of a significant number of metrics.  This gives her a credit.  With just these inputs, it may be enough to qualify her for free delivery with participating retailers.  At the point of sale, she is reminded that if she would like to also earn free returns, she might wish to 'top-up' her information with extra inputs.  She could, for example, opt to visit a body scanner in her nearby sports or shopping centre in order to make a major deposit of information.  If she is able to visit and be re-scanned regularly, she would be able to enjoy all free postage – and she would also be eligible for entry into prize draws, get early notice of sales events and discounts: a whole cornucopia of rewards could be opened up to her if she were to provide enough data.

And the method of payment could be endlessly flexible.  Each time she returns items, if she were to run through a thorough survey as to why the garment does not fit – then this will also earn her credits.  If she would like to link her social media account photographs to the system, this will pay into her account as well.  Each picture uploaded into the process represents a credit.  If she chooses to allow her anonymised information to be sold on to product developers who are analysing cohort data, this would raise some more credit for her.

She can also build up a good 'fit credit rating' by having a minimal returns footprint.  A woman found to use a returns service sparingly in comparison to how much she has purchased, may indeed end up being offered free returns as a reward.  Information has a sell-by date, so any data that she inputs will become stale and will need to be renewed, and she will be informed about this as it happens.  Regular upkeep will earn her rewards.
So who would want to give this data?  Wouldn't it be risky to be giving away all this personal information?  Not at all.

The data information credit service would work very much like a credit card.  Every piece of consumer data would be confidential and held 'in quarantine'.  Just like payment with a credit card, the information would be applied as and when it was needed only through very carefully controlled channels.  All the retailer would get to retain about the consumer is what is agreed with that individual.

The argument in favour of this system is a strong one.  For a start it's system that pays for itself: there would be no rewards offered that are not covered by the savings obtained, and it enables brands to make a significant dent in the ecological damage that is being done by the fashion industry.  It puts the consumer in control of the data – and, if anyone is to make money out of her information, it is only fair it is the owner – and provider – of that material.  It incentivises the customer to give the kind of data that is so desperately needed (and which is not as yet forthcoming in sufficient quantity and quality).  And it also encourages individuals in the population to take responsibility for their own carbon footprint, by making them aware of their history of returns.

Information is valuable and it belongs to the consumer.  Accurate, up-to-date data is desperately needed by the fashion industry.  A system where the customer is paid fairly for their participation is equitable and beneficial to all.


Free postage – the big, bad idea dogging fashion e-commerce?

Free postage – fashion's big, bad idea

This is a copy of an article written for WhichPLM.

In today's guest post Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and founder of At Last, shines a light into the hole we seem to have created for ourselves with free postage. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.



On the face of it, the offer of free postage (and particularly of free returns) on e-commerce fashion has got to be a win-win service.  Consumers are given the freedom to purchase their choice of apparel without too much worry about what they are getting themselves into, meaning that the retailer benefits from a quick and easy sale. This is particularly helpful for online retail, as it relies on the customer buying items based on trust.

Yet arguably, for customers, 'free' postage has led to increased costs, disappointing fit, frustration, time wastage, and harm to the environment.  And for the retailer damaged margins, havoc caused to the inventory, and stunted innovation.  Free postage has become a trap from which many brands cannot break free without risking market share.  It is right up there with the 'free plastic carrier bag' as one of retail's big, bad ideas.

Free postage is allowing consumers to buy product that is likely to be returned, with no apparent financial penalty, contributing to a situation where retailers are battling a huge and ever-growing returns problem.  Statista, for instance, estimates that in the US alone, returns costs will amount to $550 billion by 2020 – that's 75.2% more than in 2018.  If we allow this to happen that would be a lot of money draining out of any industry – and, of course, it all has to come from somewhere.  Once a brand has cut its margins down to the bone, the slack is taken up by the consumer.  So much for it being free!

One well-acknowledged downside of free postage – and a favourite journalistic obsession – is returns caused by customers abusing the system, either by buying items always doomed to be returned (caused by chronic dithering or 'buyers' remorse'), or worse, wearing and returning apparel: so-called 'wardrobing'.  Some people may indeed be overly click-happy, and it's also clear that there is a problem with individuals who use their retailer's website as if it were their personal wardrobe, wearing and then returning stock – all for free.  Retailers are beginning to grasp the nettle to deter this expensive behaviour; ASOS, for example, has recently caused a ripple in the news cycle by sending out an email to its customers warning: "If we notice an unusual pattern of returns activity: e.g. we suspect someone is actually wearing their purchases and then returning them or ordering and returning loads... then we might have to deactivate the account."

And ASOS is not alone: research from Barclaycard has revealed that 20% of retailers said they had made their returns policies more stringent in the past 12 months, with a further 19% of retailers saying they plan to do so in the next year.

That free deliveries encourage this kind of detrimental customer behaviour (which, by the way, pre-dates the internet, when bricks and mortar stores were not immune from what is – and always has been – an irritating minority activity) is undeniable, but whether punishing it actually makes a statistically significant impact on the overall level of returns is a moot point.  One would have to be convinced that it is rife.  Most likely, the real cause of most failed sales is not widespread and overwhelming consumer culpability, negligence or ineptitude; it's more likely to be an endemic industry problem: about 70% of all returns are actually reported as an issue with fit, and such a high statistic speaks for itself.

Free postage doesn't have to be a damaging proposition; it could be a very powerful tool for good if deployed creatively

If (just for the sake of argument) free delivery were banned, and instead all consumers were openly billed for the real cost of any return (postage [both ways] as well as all other costs, like issues caused by the disruption of the inventory, credit costs, administration, picking and re-stocking, stock shrinkage and packaging – not to mention a 'green tax' for damage to the environment), the hefty charge would mean a great disincentive for customers to buy product unless they were really sure that it was suitable.

Of course, this situation could only happen if all brands adopted the same methods.  Many retailers simply would not be able to stand up to their competition if they had to go it alone.  It's why the industry has become 'addicted' to free postage.  The pressure against retailers being the 'first to blink' is immense, and many brands would not be able to afford to hand their rivals such a competitive advantage on a plate.  But, hypothetically, if this method were employed throughout the sector, there would be a huge downward pressure on returns: every brand, retailer, manufacturer, investor, politician, consumer, journalist, and anyone interested in protecting the environment, would put the subject under the microscope in a national debate.  And, inevitably, that microscope would focus in on the number one reason for apparel returns... fit.

Overnight, those brands that still don't use any technology to establish the fit of their consumer at point of sale or, worse, aren't even developing a fit strategy, would be placed under scrutiny.  Consumers will realise that they have the right to expect a much better system of fitting them effectively, as it is they who pay for any failures.

So far, so hypothetical.  Back in the real world, the high costs of deliveries and returns are spread equally around all consumers: those who do and those don't frequently return items, and the cost is concealed under the banner 'free'.  Few consumers really understand the downside of this expensive habit.  But, at last, things are changing.  The fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined [source] and the damage to fashion's carbon footprint by all this extra transport and other wastage is weighing heavily.  It's likely that in the future, pressure from a population that is becoming more informed about these issues will come to bear on the industry.

In order to tackle e-commerce's fit problems, it's vital to engage the consumers' co-operation.  It is their participation that is necessary to make any 'fit tech' work at point of sale, and it is their accurate data that is needed to develop the new sizing and grading strategies necessary to better suit their needs.  Yet with free postage there is very little leverage that can be brought to bear on consumers to use a fit tool at all.

My research with plus-size female subjects (the cohort that suffers worst with fit problems) shows that few of them engage sufficiently with the available fit technology.  We don't know how much more effective today's fit tools would be if they had the benefit of higher participation levels (it's likely to be 'very'); we don't know what, if anything, those who do use fit tools have in common (they are a self-selected group, and are likely to share certain characteristics); we simply 'do not know what we do not know'.  Without the penalty of paying for deliveries, consumers do not presently have enough incentive to bother interfacing properly with that tech, meaning that the efficacy of the tools is diminished, and some brands are not taking them seriously enough, or are kicking them into the future.

Radical as it sounds, there is a highly convincing argument that free postage, where it is offered at all, should be done so only on the condition that the consumer genuinely engages with fit tech provided by the retailer.

If this were to happen then it is likely that the technology would immediately take a giant leap forward.  Today's fit tools are effective, and some such solution should always be deployed, but the 'nudging' of all clients to use the fit technology offered to them as a matter of course (using genuine 'input' data) would be of tremendous benefit to a range of developers, giving them access to the information needed to exponentially advance tomorrow's fit solutions – starting at the point of sale – with benefits all the way through to a much improved sizing and grading offer.

So, contradictory as it seems, free postage doesn't have to be a damaging proposition; it could, in fact, be a very powerful tool for good if deployed creatively.  Indeed, it seems incredible that the fashion industry actually has at its fingertips such an effective way to persuade customers to use the fit tech each time they buy – and yet they are not using it for this purpose.  Far from the fashion industry coming together to use postage charges as a precious tool to effect change, it is being squandered in the cause of internal struggles over market share.

Free plastic carrier bags were dispensed with as a result of changing social attitudes, which ultimately resulted in legislation.  As things stand, it's only a matter of time before informed citizens turn their attention to free postage and see not a win-win service to the customer, but another one of fashion's big, bad ideas.



 

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