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Trapped inside their glass towers, the big fashion decision-makers indulge in a counsel of despair: apparently, returns (like death and taxes) are just a ‘fact of e-commerce life’.  Image courtesy of Josh Calabrese https:/unsplash.com/@joshcala

Apparel fit: big fashion and the glass wall

Large companies are not all the same. Take the big fashion retail brands, for example. It might be expected that there would be a high degree of industry-wide conformity, given that the overall activities of different companies are basically the same.  Large e-commerce apparel businesses all either buy or manufacture clothing, which they then market to the public – but nevertheless there are wide areas upon which they diverge. Fast/low price-point fashion contrasts widely with classic/luxury wear, for example, and there are an infinite number of other vivid combinations of apparel genres that combine to create a massively varied, vibrant and exciting industry.

All this ‘difference’ adds up to a sector with a great many players who revel in their diverse approaches – and not just about what they stock and how it is made.  Because the fashion industry’s very beauty lies in its originality and variation, some brands have created a culture which makes a fetish of singularity, that, when taken too far, can be detrimental to the bottom line. 



Take my specialist subject, fit, for example.  I'm not talking about the characteristic differences in grading between brands – I'm speaking about the process of fitting each brand's own customer base. This is something that should be of ubiquitous interest, due to the truly horrendous returns problem that is slicing away at margins throughout the fashion industry.  Product returns can run at between 20–40% for mainstream-sized womenswear, rising to a whopping 70% for plus-size female apparel.  Disappointed customers report that most of these returns are ‘fit-related’

The implications of the online fashion industry’s returns problem now are truly horrendous: the ripples of cost from a single garment return spread out like a toxic spill in every direction – from credit card charges, to picking, packaging, consignment, carriage, loss of customer loyalty, disruption to the inventory and tainted and/or wasted stock. It’s clear that this is an expensive, detrimental, ecologically damaging process that should be avoided if at all possible.  Yet, with the growth of the proportion of consumers who choose to buy online (and of those who are plus-size) it is growing year-on-year.

In the pre-internet era most ‘mail order’ fashion retail companies simply offered their consumers a size chart.  A customer was expected to take a measuring tape, expertly deploy it on a series of areas of the body, and then check their measurements against the chart, so as to judge for herself which size she should order.  This was the legacy system of the fashion industry at the beginning of the online shopping era.

I could write an entire piece on the failure of this method, beginning with the not unimportant fact that less than 10% of the population have measurements that can in any way be shoehorned into the proportions assumed by these charts.  However, as it is not the subject of this article, I shall make just this observation: this system does not work, it has never worked, and it will not work in the future.  Indeed, the proof is there for all to see: the continued use of this legacy 'method' (and the thinking behind it) is largely to blame for the high level of returns that we are seeing today.

I’ve worked with a number of companies (and looked at many others) that are developing the new generation of sophisticated fit tools, which generally perform two functions.  They identify the sizing and shape of individuals with better accuracy, and they use that information both to assist consumers to obtain the correctly fitting apparel, and to feed back large quantities of precious customer metric data to brands, allowing them to create stock better suited to demand.

All of the IT e-commerce fit tools that I have seen have offered a significant reduction in returns. They are extremely cost-effective, so with the plethora of IT fit solutions for fashion e-commerce now emerging, we should be seeing a stampede from the large retailers... each busily transforming their systems to stem the tide of unnecessary returns. We should also be witnessing the tech companies seeing their client lists growing exponentially. 

However, as with everything in fashion, the picture is mystifyingly varied, and there are a wide range of approaches in play.  Finding out how each apparel 'e-tailer' addresses the subject of fit is the easiest thing in the world.  Simply click on a given fashion website and see.  Extraordinarily, there is a significant proportion of websites that still employ technology whose principles haven’t changed substantially since the middle of the last century – having dragged those old size charts on to their websites. A few have high-end fit tools created by the best minds in the field, and some seem to have produced their own in-house systems.  Because the genius of the apparel industry tends to be in fashion, rather than IT, many, if not most of the latter, are lacklustre, crude and basic. So what is going on?

It’s easy to see why company officers have to screen those who have access to them.  If a director of a major retailer read every email trying to interest her in a new service, she would never have any time to do anything else.  If she allowed cold-callers from all those promising her profitable new innovations, she would be driven mad within a day.  And if she agreed to meet with everyone who was trying to talk her into an offer she couldn’t refuse, she would instantaneously fill her calendar with enough meetings for the remainder of her career.  Top company directors get remorselessly pestered, and they have to build a carapace around their world, so it’s easy to understand why they are not easily accessible to the men and women in shiny suits trying to sell sparkly new technological ideas to them. 

When I talk to companies who create IT fit tools, the most pressing subject on their mind is recruiting new clients – particularly among the bigger brands.  It seems that even the best of them are finding that they cannot break through the plate-glass windows that protect the big fashion decision-makers from unwanted contact. The chatter is that those businesses that don’t have fit tools have failed to get them because they don’t really know how effective they are.  Trapped inside their glass towers, they indulge in a counsel of despair: apparently returns (like death and taxes) are just a ‘fact of e-commerce life’, and nothing can be done to avoid them.  Put simply, there is disconnect between many big fashion brands and the IT industry.  Those trying to sell fit tools are having trouble getting a foot in the door.

This situation is a miserable one: on one hand we have fashion retail, where many large companies are suffering from a horrendous returns problem, and on the other we have a tech industry that has already achieved substantial advances, but which needs enough clients to make every further solution financially viable.  It’s a chicken and egg situation: the fit tools will ultimately prove to be the instigator of transformation in the fashion industry, yet they need to be taken-up in greater numbers in order to facilitate progress. The money people who are backing the IT start-ups in this field are getting impatient.

Where fashion companies are privately owned any reluctance of the board to bring in outside tech expertise could be argued to be no-one else’s business than their own.  However, for a publicly quoted fashion brand to neglect to equip its website with a cutting-edge fit tool that is going to substantially improve the bottom line, is a dereliction of duty. To see a major brand with a sizing box in their online store is frankly an embarrassment.

Shareholders could be forgiven if they look on out-dated sizing systems on websites as unacceptable, and evidence of managerial complacency: especially where they are mirrored with a profit-draining returns problem. 

Fashion industry best practice should dictate an informed, pro-active and responsible attitude to returns, centred on cutting-edge IT solutions.

Some readers will be impatient with my thesis, asking when all the other benefits from a better sizing system are going to be mentioned. It's true; we can see a slew of advantages for our diverse population – ranging from better social justice to improved levels of happiness. However, I have written about those rewards before, and will do so again. In this post I am focusing on one thing: money.

All fashion e-commerce decision-makers should be looking to acquire the very best fit tools available as a matter of urgency.  This should become the new industry-wide norm. Shareholders should be clamouring for it, and business analysts should be investigating where and why it is not happening. It will not be costly: rather, the whole point of them is that they will save a lot of money.  Directors who do not have the expertise, time or energy to undertake the search for an appropriate IT fit solution for their business can, for now, outsource the search to independent consultants. In the future, they will be expected to own the brief for themselves.

There really is nothing to lose and much to gain.


 

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