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Sourcing’s Role in Reducing Omnichannel Returns

For fashion retailers and brands, omnichannel commerce offers great opportunities to reach more consumers and increase sales, yet connecting with consumers anytime, anywhere also comes with challenges, including how to ensure shoppers across multiple channels get the best-fitting clothing.

While selling globally and locally through a variety of channels, there are ever-more ways to engage customers. But if the garment fit is not right, there are also more ways to lose them.

As the chief stewards for product execution, sourcing professionals can have a meaningful impact on reducing omnichannel returns. Working where the rubber hits the road, sourcing teams play a crucial role in translating the designer’s vision and technical team’s specifications into high-volume production reality. Their supply chain influence ultimately determines the fit and quality of garments that either make their way into consumers’ closets—or get returned.

Apparel returns: A prevalent problem

Omnichannel retail’s rise has been fueled by surging online sales. By default, this trend essentially takes the all-important fitting room and moves it into the consumer’s home. Apparel shoppers are then faced with the prospect of measuring themselves, making educated guesses about what will fit and utilizing fit information from the brand.

Inevitably, there will be online garment purchases that are not a good fit. While retailers strive to make the return process “hassle free,” it can be frustrating for the consumer and costly for the retailer.

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Kurt Salmon and Forrester Research both estimate online apparel returns account for roughly 20 to 30 percent of overall online apparel sales. A New York Daily News article went so far as to suggest that half of all clothing sold online is returned. Kathleen Fasanella, author of, puts e-commerce apparel returns at 17 to 25 percent. She further specifies that 60 percent of these returns relate to purchasing the wrong size.

Without question, omnichannel returns represent an enormous issue for fashion brands. Yet as the old saying goes, where there is adversity, there too is opportunity. When brands and retailers get fit right and reduce their returns risk, they can reap big benefits. For example, online retailer ASOS reports that for every 1 percent reduction in returns, it adds 10 million pounds ($15.5 million) back to the bottom line.

Challenges driving returns

Omnichannel apparel returns can stem from poor communication of fit-related information from the brand to the consumer. Sometimes, even if there is strong fit information online, the consumer may not notice it or might disregard it altogether. However, when the consumer makes a good faith effort to select the right size and still comes up short, the problem may be traced back to supply chain fit inconsistencies.

Despite detailed fit guidance and specifications from designers and technical teams, there can be noticeable differences in how global apparel vendors interpret fit-related information. This does not necessarily represent carelessness or poor quality control but rather lack of the right tools and solutions to guarantee greater fit consistency.

For example, a vendor might not have access to the latest pattern blocks or may be using a different fit form than its customer to evaluate how a loose fit should look versus a slim fit.

Sourcing solutions to minimize returns

Sourcing teams can help reduce returns through stronger sharing of fit-related technology, information and training with their global supply chain partners. To do so, sourcing staff must be looped in on the latest solutions being used by their companies so that they, in turn, can effectively roll them out to the supply chain.

For instance, key factory partners need access to the same tools, technologies and best practices as the brand’s home office. One example: More and more fashion brands are using product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions. When they bring international producers online with PLM, they help all stakeholders stay on the same page with size and fit data. This “one version of the truth” eliminates a lot of guesswork, redundant data entry and other communication challenges that can impact fit consistency between apparel vendors.

Sourcing professionals can help ensure suppliers have the right tools and are properly trained to use them in order to deliver consistent results. These solutions can include 3D avatars, fit forms, optimized, non-linear grade rules and comprehensive block libraries. PLM and 3D virtual product development technologies are increasingly popular among designers and product development teams, and there is considerable upside in extending these solutions to the supply chain. Through a strategic validation process, the sourcing team and its production partners can establish metrics to manage fit, recognizing and rewarding suppliers for consistent performance.

Such collaboration requires two-way commitment and investment, but the effort will pay off for all stakeholders. The apparel brand will attain better-fitting garments, greater customer satisfaction and fewer returns, while the global apparel vendor can win more business from the brand as a trusted and preferred provider.

Brands and retailers can lean on industry consultants with proven ability to provide vendor and factory training designed to quickly have a positive impact on process efficiency and product integrity. This work often includes analyzing fit from product development to sourcing to quality control, and testing and implementing solutions through sourcing partners.

With the right fit strategy in place, fashion brands can reduce omnichannel returns. Success will be based on having information for every product that is accurate, transparent, secure and accessible by key supply chain partners. Sourcing can lead the way in achieving accurate and consistent product execution anywhere in the world, improving fit consistency, reducing returns and boosting the bottom line.



Ed Gribbin is president of Alvanon Inc., a consulting and technology firm serving the global apparel industry. Since 2001, Alvanon has leveraged data-driven knowledge to equip leading fashion retailers, brands, designers and manufacturers with world-class growth, customer satisfaction, product development and supply chain strategies. Gribbin can be reached at 212-868-4318 or