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The Sizing Struggle: Is Consistent Fit a Possibility or Pipe Dream?

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the apparel industry in many ways, but the continued shift to e-commerce has put the long-standing fit consistency problem under an even bigger microscope.

While stores have largely opened back up in the U.S., many dressing rooms have remained closed and a large portion of shoppers wouldn’t be comfortable using those that are open. As many as 65 percent of women and 54 percent of men say they will not feel safe trying on clothes in dressing rooms, according to First Insight. Unfortunately for apparel brands, this means more consumers will be playing an online guessing game when it comes to fit.

Apparel designers and product developers, among others, have sought to bring some sense to fit consistency for years. Despite the fact that groups like ASTM International has created apparel sizing standards, the fit situation remains complicated. For one, the U.S. has lagged other countries in measuring consumer body types on a regular basis, with many apparel businesses still relying on outdated and inconsistent studies that deliver measurements across the board, according to Cindy Istook, professor emerita at the Wilson College of Textiles, North Carolina State University.

Arriving at a true universal fit is complicated because areas of the body are defined differently from study to study, she pointed out.

But ultimately, the real challenge comes from within the industry itself, she said.

“In reality, none of these companies really want a standard that meets everyone’s needs, because sizing is a significant marketing tool for a brand,” Istook said. “If a company gets sizing right, they have a captive audience, especially for women. Women will try on bunches of pairs of jeans, and when they find the one that fits them the way they want, they’ll buy that one over and over again at that size.”

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Even getting that consumer to repurchase is a challenge given that body shape and stature, not just size, dictate fit—and both change over time.

“If a woman in the U.S. is a size 8 when she’s 20 years old, and as she gets older she remains a size 8, her body shape and her posture change over time,” said Alice Rodrigues, senior consultant at apparel business and product development consultancy Alvanon. “That same product would not fit her the same way, even though perhaps her measurements or her standard size haven’t changed. A brand has to make those decisions about who they’re aiming for.”

For that reason, brands typically zero in on a target consumer and design around him or her. That’s why they might nail fit for that sliver of the population, while others still might find their products problematic, even if they’re the same size.

As returns increase, fit models become a necessity

But how are shoppers meant to identify the brands that have them in their sights? Too often, they don’t. And the costs of these mismatches are adding up, especially for online sales. In December 2018, Happy Returns predicted that the value of returned goods would rise from $350 billion in 2017 to $550 billion by 2020 in the U.S.—already a significant number before the spike in e-commerce spending generated from the pandemic.

According to a 2019 report from e-commerce marketing platform Yotpo, 88 percent of fashion shoppers admitted to having returned fashion items purchased online in the year prior, and 61 percent say they order more items than they intend on keeping at least sometimes due to ease of returns.

One way to mitigate this uncertainty—and the avalanche of returns it triggers—is for brands to stop cutting corners.

“So many people find that they don’t want to hire a professional fit model, and I think that’s shortsighted,” said Marianne Webber, CEO and director of product development and production of women’s apparel manufacturer Quick Turn Clothing. “You need to identify that person before you start making a pattern. We won’t even start a project with anybody before they tell us who they’re going to put it on. I think a lot of fit problems often come from bad budget decisions from the beginning.”

Charles Webber, Quick Turn’s senior patternmaker and technical director, noted that many apparel retailers that come to the manufacturer begin their sizing based off of a prior garment without even testing it beforehand.

“We insist on putting that other garment on the fit model before we even begin our project,” Charles said. “Half the time the thing they’re putting on doesn’t fit the model they’re looking for it to fit.”

Retailers don’t take advantage of data

Retailers have more tools at their disposal than ever before. Cecile Lee, CEO of product intelligence company Trendalytics, noted that the overabundance of data on consumer fit is excellent for apparel brands. The challenge here is making sense of what is available.

“There is a certain sense of analysis paralysis, where you can analyze all the data to death, but at some point you can draw logical, empirical conclusions for a larger subset of the population,” Lee told Sourcing Journal. “And if you’re able to make things five percent better, that’s still five percent better for every individual person and those factors rise exponentially.”

Lee noted that the larger traditional retailers typically have trouble with this because there are more people working with the data and they want to access as much of it as possible before making a final decision.

“After a certain point, you have to infer things from the data and you have to be OK with that,” Lee said. “I think that’s a huge challenge for a lot of organizations to say, ‘well I’ve been informed based on doing 20 percent of the analysis because we just don’t have time to do the other 80 percent.’”

Fit tech can identify design, manufacturing flaws

A number of fit technology companies have entered the fold in the past few years specifically to help retailers make sense of this data to ultimately improve on customer measurement capabilities and craft a more accurate portrayal of individual apparel fit.

For instance, True Fit’s True Insights dashboard is designed to allow retailers to see how their product specs match alongside others in the industry, so they can see if they run large or small.

“It’s helpful to identify those types of outliers because it usually means there’s something wrong in the design or manufacturing that’s not consistent with the other items in your brand,” said Romney Evans, co-founder and chief product and marketing officer at True Fit. “You can also benchmark it against return rates for the same styles so you can see whether it translates into the market as a problem.”

The introduction of fit technologies definitely adds a new dimension to gathering a more comprehensive understanding of how apparel fits the shopper. But regardless of the tools used, the inherent differences between apparel brands is going to make it more important than ever for them to establish their own consistent fit instead of aiming to conform to a set of standards.

“Brands must ensure that they put the protocols and processes in place that will deliver more on their product consistently. [Then] making sure that whatever messaging or visuals that they put online actually match what the customer expects is really what’s critical,” Alvanon’s Rodrigues said.