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.


Many plus-size women have no real idea what size they are – for the excellent reason that they do not conform to any standard size

Plus-sizing tech: a fatal glitch

'Be careful what you wish for' is a cliché, but (ironically, as is often said), all good clichés exist for a reason, and this one is particularly relevant to those developing new retail tech.

The advances in technology for e-commerce (particularly for plus-size) womenswear are a good example. It seems that the prevailing intention is to provide the 'in-shop experience' for consumers (of all sizes), synthesised in their own homes – or wherever they do their shopping.  That is to say, the industry is now in the process of developing systems which ultimately will be capable of 'scanning' a consumer using her device (her phone or tablet say), thus creating a realistic three-dimensional avatar of her body, complete with all her measurements. This avatar will then be able to virtually 'try on' garments in a naturalistic way (showing the fit, the drape of the fabric – even believably reproducing movement), allowing her to make an informed choice as to her fashion purchase, without ever having to set foot inside a changing room.



So far so excellent: there can be no doubt it is preferable to enjoy what is best about the in-store shopping experience, while offering the benefits of a massive (and almost magically always-available) inventory to all: that's seemingly a huge improvement to anything bricks-and-mortar can offer.

So, where's the rub?  I was struck very heavily with a problem when I was discussing the concept with an entrepreneur, busily engaged in developing this very concept.  He told me, enthusiastically, that when his new tech is developed, the consumer would be able to 'treat her own bedroom as changing room, with her own device as a mirror'.  In the context of the plus-size female consumer, I felt instinctive horror at this thought.  In my long experience of styling larger women, I discovered that the very last thing they require is to be left alone and isolated.

Plus-size women, famously (or rather, infamously), suffer from horrendous fit problems.  Their diverse body shapes do not slip easily into any range of standard sizes, and many women have no real idea what size they are – for the excellent reason that they do not conform to any standard size at all.  Many plus brands have differing grading, created to offer more diversity of fit.  This, although a necessary step, has only added to the general confusion around plus-sizing.

On the face of it, all of this would appear to add weight to the need for the kind of sizing tech now being created: the consumer will click on her chosen piece of apparel, and the avatar will graphically show her whether it will fit or not – helping her to choose a good match for her body if one were available; warning her off if nothing suitable can be found.  This should at least prevent the customer adding to the mountain of returned stock that is afflicting the industry – the very expensive problem that is driving the development of e-commerce fit technology in the first place.

However, this system is likely to create a train of unintended consequences, which can all be traced back to those pesky fit issues.

Let's say a plus-size woman is shopping on a website that sells a brand that is not graded to fit her body shape: whilst browsing, she is likely to experience an irritating Groundhog Day.  She clicks on a blouse: "Computer says no" is the result.  She clicks her next choice, a pair of trousers "It says no".  Finally, she looks at a dress: "No".

And this problem is not just going to afflict the 'one brand' website.  It will also affect the multi-brand retailer.  The customer (even when she has the opportunity of picking from a spread of brands) will as likely as not will still be reliving a repetitive experience.   Why?  Because the reason why she chose the first item is the same one that's behind her subsequent choices: her taste.  She is unlikely to use a scattergun approach, choosing one item from each brand.   Rather, she will be attracted to the aesthetics of one design story, and the lion's share of her choices will come from that.  If she is lucky enough that this is a brand that suits her body shape (and, with the diversity of these shapes, statistically speaking, this is unlikely), then she'll be fine.  Otherwise, it's going to be a miserable experience.

This is a system that relies, firstly, on the retailer stocking a range of differing grading – carefully selected to suit the six main body shapes.  And secondly, it needs the customer to happen to want to shop the brands that suit her.  You might say that what we are expecting to happen is what occurs every day with the very best plus-size retailers (who succeed in providing the correct spread of stock), but with one fatal exception: at home, the customer has no guide.  There is no helpful stylist by her side: she is expected to do this all alone.

Let's say that the pieces of clothing she clicked on will physically go on her (which is often impossible), but simply will not suit her body shape: they will cling in all the wrong places, and flap loose in other areas: all in all, it would all look horrible.  The avatar is there to show her the truth: the 'realistic' look of the apparel.  Will the avatar sugar-coat the pill, and make the clothing look acceptable?  It should not, because that would risk encouraging her to buy something that is not going to be suitable.  Will it give her a 'warts and all' image?  If it does, it's likely that the repeated experience of ugly clothing (again and again and again) is going to make her feel depressed.   When clothing does not fit plus-size women, it shows up their bodies in a poor light: she is likely to feel depressed, not just about the clothes, but about herself.

It is extreme cruelty to leave a plus-size woman all alone while she is trying to find something that fits her: I would hope that this fact alone is enough to give developers pause.  If it does not, then it may be worth mentioning that this glitch may well lead to the overall failure of their fit tool.

Sizing tech and curated content go hand-in-hand with the plus-size womenswear customer.  Each time a woman is told that something she has selected is not going to fit her, she needs to be shown something that will.  It's not a problem that should be underestimated – depending on her size, it's likely that most clothing will not fit her adequately.

A consumer will need to be triaged at the earliest point of the interaction, and a story that will fit her should be collated.   A lot of effort should be given over to being able to gather a selection of apparel that suits her body shape, and every clue that she gives off should be used to discover stock that makes sense to her aesthetically, and is practical, relevant and useful to her.  Many larger retailers will be in a position to provide what is required to fit all these needs, but for smaller retailers, it would be better for them to buddy-up and pass on their consumers to partner companies with whom they share a platform.

The real issue is not whether it's feasible to recreate a realistic facsimile of an authentic in-store experience using cutting-edge tech.  Unfortunately, it's all too possible to accurately synthesise the miserable encounters that legions of plus-size women have had in mediocre, failing stores over many decades.

The true issue at hand is how to provide a system based on excellence.  This should be what we focus on, and what we wish for.

The size-16 2019 woman is confronted by a bewildering array of sizing, grading, labeling and other confusing solutions

Plus fashion sizing – help or hinderance?

In 1960, the average US woman weighed 140 lbs, so in the mid-twentieth century, most US women took a dress size between a 6 and a 14: anything larger than that was often dubbed 'Outsize'.  A size-16 woman at that time was considered rather a large person, and with the particular pressure to conform that existed in that era (which was even more severe than it is today, hard as this is to imagine), she may have felt freakish, embarrassed or even ashamed to admit to not fitting into a 'regular' size.  If she was guilty about her own body, she had low expectations as to what clothing she would be able to purchase, which was just as well, because the choice was dire.

By 2010, the average US woman's weight had grown to 166.2 lbs, and has been on an upward trajectory ever since.  Roll forwards to 2019: if a woman were a size-16, she would probably not feel embarrassment, and almost certainly not shame.  But then again, today's size-16 woman may not believe this is her size: actually, she might not have any idea what size she really is.  As the population has grown heavier, the standard sizes being retailed have stretched their seams and become more generous, and some brands have gone even further and adopted so-called 'vanity sizing', whereby they have been sneakily moving their sizes upward, in tune with the waistlines of their customers.  They have capitalised on the fact that virtually all people would prefer to think they are a smaller size rather than a larger one, and that a size label can be used as a subtle tool of flattery.  Indeed, some women will not even think of trying on a garment if it is labelled as larger than the size they relate to.  So, for some brands, what would have been a size-14 in 1960 has unceasingly crept upwards and would fit (an already stretched) size-16 today.



This explains why a 2019 standard size-16 woman (who is already larger than a size-16 lady of the 1960s), often wears a 14.  Such a person, when she takes a selfie in a crowded place, notices that she looks like everyone else in the background: she certainly doesn't appear to be 'plus size', if that's supposed to be larger than everyone else.  She looks 'average', she feels 'normal', and she relates to being a size-14 – why shouldn't she be wearing a 'mainstream' size?  Her expectations for fashion are not as low as her grandmother's, and she's wondering why she – an average person (an 'everywoman?') – is having such difficultly finding something to fit her properly.

But then again, is she really a size-16?  If we examined this particular woman, she is revealed to be a size-14/16 bust, a size-14 waist and a size-18 hip (a 'pear' shape).  Her sizing mismatch is entirely normal: very few women have what is called the 'perfectly proportioned' body shape (one size all over), and that matters a lot more for larger women than it does for smaller ones. This is because as female bodies put on weight, the extra mass is not usually evenly distributed.  Each woman possesses a particular body shape, meaning that, for example, if a woman is destined to wear her extra flesh on her bottom (a typical pear shape), by the time she has grown to a larger size, her derriere will have increased far more than anywhere else on her body.  This is in contrast to her friend who stores her weight on her bust, giving her an extra cup-size or two as she gets bigger, although her bottom stays relatively svelte.  By the time these different body shapes reach the top-end of the sizing scale, their bodies have radically diverged, meaning that they need to wear differently sized apparel on different parts of the body, and – crucially – although they are the same height and weight, they cannot wear the same size clothing as each other.  The busty woman, for example, may end up wearing size-24 tops, whilst still slipping into size-18 or 20 trousers, the exact inverse of her pear-shaped friend. 

It is often mentioned that our population has changed size: the critical fact that it has largely changed shape is rarely referenced; yet this has had the greatest affect on the fit and size requirements of this generation of shoppers.

Some plus-size brands have reacted to this diversity of shape by developing grading to fit a particular version of woman, their 'muse'.  When consumers find a brand that tailors to their own body shape, this will usually become a firm favourite, while those for whom the fit doesn't work will often learn the hard way never to order from this range again.

This is not to say that the plus-size sector has made concerted attempts to find out the body shapes of their consumers and match them with a proportionally correct array of diverse gradings.  In fact, it is extremely difficult to gather body data from this cohort (who dislike being analysed and sized) – and it has not yet been achieved anywhere near satisfactorily.  In any case, until the correct fit technology has been developed, targeting a very diverse inventory to the correct sections of the customer base at the point of sale would be impractical.  Many of the brands that have adopted a grading based on a 'non average' body shape have just opted for the 'hourglass' figure: probably one of the rarest of all the variants, and hardly a breakthrough for fitting 'everywoman': it simply replaces one impossible ideal (ultra-slimness) with another (perfect hourglass).  Doubtless this body shape has been singled out because the fashion has embraced the myth of the 'curvy' woman: a sexy uberwoman, who exudes an exaggerated femininity and makes 'body positivity' more palatable for an industry that finds the sight of extra female flesh very difficult to stomach – if it is in the wrong place, such as, for instance, the stomach.

But the variations in cut in larger apparel are not always deliberate.  Occasionally, the plus-size sector suffers with the same trouble that afflicts each sector of fashion: instances of random variability.  Sometimes there are technical problems in the production of garments, meaning that items are cut too small, too large, or a strange shape.  This is exacerbated by the sheer difficulty in correctly grading larger garments. 

When the pattern cutters struggle with those plus-size issues (which is surprisingly common), this also muddies the water with some consumers' understanding of their size.  The person trying on a garment may believe that the size is too small when a pair of trousers is not long enough in the rise, for example, or, if there is no bust darts in a particular blouse, she may conclude that all that loose fabric is evidence that the garment is too large.  She may choose a different size the next time in the mistaken belief that she has learned something about her size.

Retailers have also had to grapple with a greater – internalised – level of plus-sized customers' own 'size acceptance' issues.  The problem of garments being rejected because they are labeled with sizes that consumers find unacceptable or depressing has driven some in the sector to alter their whole system to make it less obvious.  Some have sized their garments S (16–18), M (20–22), L (24–26), and so on; others, L (18), XL (20), XXL (22), XXXL (24), etc. – actually, the permutations of these are mind-boggling and the antithesis of standardization: the actual object being to make the sizing more opaque and anonymous.

A traditional industry response to this 'size resistance' conundrum has nothing to do with sizing or grading, but nevertheless brings a little more confusion into the scene.  For generations, many specialist plus-size designers have resorted to force majeure, and used fabric tech or design to bear on the problem.  Fabrics with extreme stretchy qualities are used to create 'easy fit' ('fits size 16–22') apparel, or drapy, baggy, or wrap-around styles ('one size fits all') creations to offer amorphous sizing.  Women who wear these garments can live in a twilight zone of perpetual 'size denial', sometimes losing all track of what size they really are, which can be a problem when they need to buy something else (say, formal workwear for an interview), where their latest sizing requirements come as a source of dissonance. 

So our size-16 2019 woman is confronted by a bewildering array of sizing, grading, labeling and other confusing solutions or missteps.  There may have been logical reasons as to why these diverse systems evolved, but there is none in trying to understand and navigate them: those that are not deliberately opaque are simply too complicated, random or impractical to be helpful – the long forgotten reason why a sizing system was developed in the first place.

Look as hard as he can, my little dog is never going to find the ball if he is seeking it in the wrong place

The key to solving the fit problem that 'dogs' e-commerce fashion

Dogs do all sorts of things that humans are far too intelligent to do.  For example, I have a little dog that loves to chase after a ball that I throw, running to fetch it back to me, most of the time.  However, if the ball accidentally lands in a prickly bush, he just stares at it soulfully for a couple of seconds, then sets off cheerfully to search for it elsewhere.  He clearly sees where the ball has ended up, but because it's somewhere that he doesn't want to go, his decision about where to look is governed, not by common sense, but by wishful thinking.  That's not something a human would ever do, surely? 

How does this shaggy dog story help to illustrate one of fashion's biggest problems?  E-commerce fashion companies want to send out garments that are correctly sized so as to avoid the main reason for customers to sent them back: poor fit.  The problem is a huge one; returns rates range from some twenty per cent in 'mainstream' sized fashion, up to an eye-watering seventy per cent in the more problematic plus-size sector.  Clearly, this rate is unsustainable.  There are millions – possibly billions – of dollars ultimately to be saved (and made) in dealing with the issue of finding a reliable way to make sure apparel fits e-commerce customers.



One way of preventing all these returns is with fit tools.  Some e-tailers rely on the time-honoured system of offering customers a 'size chart' of clothing measurements with which, should he or she have access to a measuring tape, a customer can compare his or her body metrics.  Clearly, this method, which actually employs nineteenth Century technology (and which bristles with all sorts of problems), does not do the job very effectively.  Elsewhere, e-commerce has adopted more up-to-date tech of varying degrees of sophistication (but none with perfect success), and all eyes are now on the IT industry to see if they can come up with a solution that will carry all before it.

There is a varied field of fit innovations jostling for dominance.  Some rely on scanning or clever mobile phone camera developments, whilst others are still based on consumers being asked to input various body measurements or sizes.  The tech business appears to be doing its best to find the remedy for badly fitting apparel – by looking in the places that it wants to look.  As befits the activity of very clever technically minded people, the emphasis is being laid firmly on developing a lot of very clever technology.  Thus IT will – if it continues to develop at the rate it is going – be extremely effective in establishing a good fit between the spec for a piece of apparel on the one hand, and body data from the customer on the other.

Hereby lies the nub of the problem: data.  At present, some, but not yet all, manufacturers supply the comprehensive level of garment information necessary for these fit tools to feed on.  Some businesses feel that they don't really need to go to the bother of providing the spec, and worse, some act as if their garments' measurements, grading, construction and fabric details should be some kind of industrial secret.  However, these out-dated attitudes will soon be swept away.  In a very short time brands that expect their apparel to be sold online will automatically produce data packs that will enable their product to do just that.   The tech developers will then swoop down on this kind of information, as it tends to be clean, accurate and clear.

But how do we provide the other half of the equation: the information from consumers?
  Will this be clean, accurate and clear?  Every fit tech system relies on accurate customer metrics, be they measurements, scans, and/or stated or unconscious preferences (and repeatedly re-obtaining them, as measurements change on a regular basis during a customer's lifetime, whilst preferences can change over the course of a trend).   Surely, it is therefore to be expected that, first and foremost, all the tools being developed are focused on obtaining customer cooperation, motivating their actions and gaining their trust, as well as the biggest issue of all: reflecting their will. 

Customers (also known as human beings) can be difficult, apparently illogical, contrary, seemingly unpredictable, variable, and wilful.  They have every right to be any or all of these things, and there is no evidence to suggest that they are going to change just because they wish to buy a shirt, regardless of how well fitting it is (or how lovely the print). 

Obtaining their data in a predictable form promises to be a rather prickly undertaking. Many of those who are presently tasked with developing the tech to serve these people (because the ultimate client will not be the retailer, but the consumer), are relying on some somewhat shaky assumptions.

Take, for example, those who in the UK and US make up about half of all womenswear consumers: plus size women.  It is often taken for granted that this cohort, due to their severe fit problem, will be only too happy to provide all sorts of information.  The majority of fit tools ask for height, weight, bust (or bra size), waist and hip measurements, among other metrics.  But there is no evidence that this cohort finds it anywhere near as easy to provide these figures as those who design fit tools assume.

Many larger people, living, as they do, in a judgemental society that sees 'overweight' almost as the worst sin, are extremely sensitive about their bodies. They are often unwilling to go through the process of measuring themselves, do not possess the equipment to do so (many bigger people do not own a weighing machine, for example), dislike knowing their metrics (and avoid doing so at all costs), hate reporting them, get disheartened when they change 'detrimentally', and are very worried about having their measurements accidentally revealed in some way. 

So it is likely that the majority of larger people will avoid situations where their measurements can be taken, and, when they have do have access to their data, will immediately contaminate it.  The idea that every plus-size woman will happily go through a thorough physical revelatory experience (even in the privacy of her own home) in order to obtain better fitting apparel is an exercise in wishful thinking – and one not based on any study I have seen.

With the billions of people on the planet, it is all too easy to undertake an online survey of plus-size women and find many who are happy to supply their measurements.  Some of these will be perfectly accurate – and will be supplied by an assiduously self-selected group of un-selfconscious women.  Other measurements gained the same way will be inaccurate due to the contamination process outlined above: however, in the midst of the Internet, it is very difficult to understand which data is correct, and which is corrupted.

Nor can it be automatically assumed that the scanning tech as it exists today will fare any better: such devices can trigger all the sensitivity to self-revelation that exists with a measuring tape – occasionally more.  Another assumption – that the consumer's emotions will change to adapt to this new system – has got a lot more going for it.  Based on past evidence, consumer behaviour alters all the time, and each generation has its own attitudes.  However, predicting that the next generation will grow-up devoid of sensitivity about their bodies (and, even less likely, predicting that those who are already in the customer cohort will suddenly change) is quite a stretch, and based on no available evidence.

In order to understand each technology's exposure to the problem at hand, every fit tool should have self-monitoring element, carefully picking up data as to whether consumers are providing correct or incorrect information, if they are being deterred by questions as to their size, and the chances of whether they will accept the tool's findings or not.  And every tech specialist working in this field should be diligently concentrating on improving the vital subject that has such a profound effect on the efficacy of their tool: that of customer participation.

It is important not to spend time and resources developing tech that requires consistent data from a consumer who is simply not prepared to provide it with any degree of accuracy. The perfect fit tool, not only for the plus-size woman, but also for all fashion consumers, would be non-revelatory, unconscious continuous monitoring of body data.  The tech, working with the consumer's full knowledge and permission (but with only passive participation and minimal personal input with no revelatory feedback) needs to absorb the consumer's needs without intruding on his or her sensibility. 

It is rewarding to use expertise to chase down complicated and clever solutions; to produce feats of technical virtuosity.  However, it is always best to be realistic from the start, and, if ultimate success can only be hoped for by looking into more prickly, difficult, unsexy and unpredictable areas – to step well out of one's comfort zone – then this is the course of action that should be taken. The tech industry is going to have to pause, take time to look at what the consumer is prepared to do, and reverse-engineer all their technology to utilise what they will actually have to work with.  They may find they have to develop a different approach altogether.

Look as hard as he can, my little dog is never going to find the ball if he is seeking it in the wrong place: he's going to be disappointed, and no amount of wishful thinking is going to alter that.

Larger women are spending less than half as much as expected on their clothing

Plus-size fashion: the new Gold Rush?

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, explores the many issues around today's 'plus size' market, and what we can do to better this. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.



In the UK we are often told that the average woman is size-16 (a difficult fact to prove, lthough it's known that larger women make up around half the population), yet the percentage spend in the plus-size fashion sector lags at around 22%.  So it looks like larger women are spending less than half of what they might be expected to do.

There is no consensus as to what constitutes the size range for 'plus-size', but it's clear there is a dearth of choice of apparel offered from size-16 upwards.  In Britain, premium brands like Marina Rinaldi and fashion-forward Anna Scholz, stand among the few honourable exceptions to the rule that there is no top-end in plus-size fashion.  Mid-pocket fashion fares little better: European e-tailer, Navabi, is one of the few that can use the words 'quality' or 'design' about plus-size without hyperbole.   The vast majority of British apparel in this size range rests firmly in the non-designer, value sector.

The same applies in the US, where a few brave brands have created fashion-forward outposts in a largely underwhelming landscape.  Most American women are forced into the same, fairly narrow price-point as their UK counterparts, having to put up with a similar lack of design creativity.  In both markets the vast majority of plus-size apparel is made from stretchy, cheaper fabrics, modified for a non-specific fit. It's shocking to find that tracking down a classy, well-made and functional business suit that fits a size-24, for example, is a big ask for these women – regardless of the fact that there are businesswomen aplenty who are asking for just that.  Fashion's disappointing offering to one half of the female population means it would be easy to fit a list of all of the main plus-size players in this one article, yet would be difficult even to calculate the length of such a list of 'mainstream' sized brands.

The logic is clear: arguably 50% of the population is not being offered anything like a satisfactory breadth of choice on which to spend their money.  Admittedly, this market is projected to grow an extremely healthy 7.1% in the next few years, yet even at this rate it is unlikely ever to catch up.

The logic is clear: arguably 50% of the population is not being offered anything like a satisfactory breadth of choice

It doesn't take a long time browsing through 'size acceptance' social media to get the feeling that plus-size womenswear consumers are not happy.  On one hand, they've noticed that they are being offered nothing like the choice of the fashion-forward looks they aspire to, and, on the other, these women also make persistent complaints about ill-fitting clothing.   It does appear that this cohort is suffering from considerably worse grading problems than their 'mainstream' sized equivalents.

Thus resonates the persistent drumbeat of bad news about the fit-related returns that are plaguing this sector.  Brands can be very secretive about their failures, but there are dark places in plus-size e-commerce where returns rates of up to 70% (far worse than the already abysmal returns rate of 'mainstream' sizes) are whispered about, the lion's share of which is reported to be due to 'fit problems'.

All in all, something is very wrong in the state of plus-size.

Could fit be at the root of all plus-size fashion's woes?
The answer to this question is that it would appear so.  Women come in a range of bodyshapes.   To name a few: 'apple', 'pear' and 'busty' (men's physiques are less diverse).  Among slimmer women these various types are often evident, but it is in the plus-size cohort that they become really exaggerated.  Put simply, each female body stores its weight in a particular pattern (it's fairly rare to have it spread evenly all over), meaning that, as a woman puts on weight, whichever part of her physique was comparatively large to begin with, continues to grow, while other areas become proportionally smaller, exaggerating the shape.  Therefore, the larger a women becomes, the more likely she is not able to squeeze into apparel that is made for her size, but not her shape.

The fashion industry has largely soldiered on trying to ignore this inconvenient fact.  Sending out apparel in standard grading and sizing to a market that is anything but standard is like throwing mud against a wall and hoping it will stick.  The resultant slurry of returns is clogging up the industry.

The chronic fit problem particularly plagues e-commerce, because it doesn't presently offer consumers the opportunity to try garments on prior to buying them.  This has meant the industry has been forced to ignore designer, tailored, fashion-forward and expensive clothing, or anything else that relies on a very specific fit, which would probably stand no more than a one-in-six chance of hitting the mark.  Faced with the tidal wave of returns, most of this sector has had to wriggle its way right down to the bottom of the price, variety and quality scale, so much of the offer comprises 'easy-fit', cheaper, predictable garments.

The result of the fit problem spreads out like an oil spill, polluting the whole scene: the plus-size fashion industry's margins are damaged, it's even more ecologically unsustainable than the rest of the fashion industry, lacking in maturity, lacklustre and suffering from galloping customer dissatisfaction.

The sizing system also needs a radical re-think

Yet those with imagination look at a stunted industry and see only a huge, exciting opportunity, with billions just waiting to be disgorged by digital disruption.  Apparel businesses are still using sizing systems that were developed for last century's technology. With present-day advancements, so-called online 'fit tools' will soon be capable of identifying a consumer's individual bodyshape and match it with the corresponding apparel.  It's like California just before the first prospector struck gold.

A radical re-think
The requisite garments are not yet in fashion's inventory: clothing will have to be graded specifically for an individual's body shape, dictated by a feedback loop of data gleaned from a large enough sample of consumers just like her, using those same fit tools.  Apparel will be manufactured in a series of differing, niche shapes (mass, rather than individual customisation) in shorter runs using advanced digital systems at every stage.

The sizing system also needs a radical re-think; it has to be far more comprehensive to take into account the wide range of consumers' diverse metrics.  The consumer will be largely unaware of her new clothing size, which will be applied to her automatically using AI technology working intuitively, immediately, confidentially and non-intrusively.  All she will know is that she is ordering a piece of clothing that will fit her.

If this sounds seductively easy, it shouldn't: is very complicated, and as with all such situations the trick will be to simplify it as much as possible from the start.  The industry will initially use judgement and subtle customer knowledge to cluster the metrics into meaningful groups.   There will be a trial and error period at the beginning where the data (which has never been so widely mined for this cohort, or any other) is gathered and analysed.  This process has the added complication that a woman's bodyshape dictates more than just the metrics of her apparel; working along with her own taste, it has fit and style preference implications, too.  However, understanding these aspects just represents yet another way of better serving the consumer.

And this is just the beginning.  The bodyshape data will ultimately be used to create better-fitting apparel for people in all sizes and shapes (the slimmer cohort will also end-up getting a better fit), and achieve a more equal, diverse clothing offer to everyone, whether they are minority groups, fitness junkies, disabled people or have otherwise outlier bodyshapes.  It will allow the development of curated apparel offers, enabling brands to benefit from increased sell-through, and individual customisation for specific purposes (say, bridal wear, occasional or, indeed, that smart work suiting). It will slash fashion's shameful carbon footprint and boost the bottom line.   It will market all aspects of the fashion industry (from top luxe at one end, to budget fast fashion at the other, and everything in between) to the neglected half of the female population.  This will open up billions of dollars in increased commerce.

The first step is the development of the fit tools and associated input technology (like handheld scanning, for example, as relying on customers' willingness and ability to input their own measurements will not be scalable).  It will not be an immediate process, and the fashion and tech industries have to come together to dig-in for a long haul, being prepared to invest time as well as resources. Researching, acquiring, partnering and developing these advances should be the number-one priority for those fashion brands that do not want to be left behind by the next great leap forward in digital technology.


 

Now there's a solution to buying fashion online... At Last!

Please contact me on emma@AtLastLimited.com or via social media...



Copyright © At Last Limited  |  Web design by Webmaker Limited  |   Privacy policy   |  All rights reserved