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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!

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