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Can Virtual Dressing Rooms and Sizing Apps Fix Fashion’s Fit Issues?

American shoppers are expected to spend nearly $60 billion on apparel and accessories online this year, according to research firm eMarketer. But before heralding the demise of the physical store, try these statistics on for size: In-store sales still represent more than 94 percent of overall retail revenues, consulting company McMillan Doolittle claims. Furthermore, U.S. retailers report a return rate of 20-40 percent of online sales — where poor fit is cited as the number one reason why.

Ever since custom clothing gave way to fast fashion, there’s been no such thing as standard sizing. So, bombarded by a deluge of brands and sizing guidelines online — and encouraged by free shipping and lenient return policies — consumers are increasingly turning their living rooms into fitting rooms, ordering styles in a range of sizes and sending back what doesn’t work.

With rampant returns costing retailers billions of dollars every year, start-ups are springing up in response, hawking software they claim will take the mystery out of selecting a size online. London-based, for one, focuses on building virtual fitting rooms and offering fit advice by creating avatars based on the shopper’s exact measurements, or on his or her height, weight, gender and body shape. As CEO James Gambrell explained, “We try to overcome the inability of consumers to interact with garments before they buy them online.”

Current clients including Henri Lloyd, Thomas Pink, QVC and Hugo Boss have reported an increase in conversions from first-time buyers who use the virtual fitting room. Operating on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business model, little effort and upkeep is required on the retailer’s end and pricing comprises an initial fee and a recurring monthly charge.

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Similarly, Finnish start-up Stylewhile allows consumers to mix and match items from various brands to build an outfit on top of a virtual model with a similar body type. “The idea originally grew from personal frustration,” CEO Jutta Haaramo said. “As an online shopper, I wanted to be able to try on products before buying, to get an idea which items look good together and how they would suit my body type and style.”

She launched the app with Saks Fifth Avenue in September of 2013 but it has since evolved to become a sort of online marketplace for emerging and independent designers such as Yoana Baraschi, Twisted Aristocrat, Study New York and Kevin Shahroozi. “For designers and brands we offer a unique way to sell fashion online, providing them with their own brand page and online fitting for the items they are selling,” Haaramo said. For every transaction facilitated through Stylewhile, the company takes a cut of 20 percent.

But virtual dressing rooms like these are nothing new. Land’s End was one of the first to dabble with the technology on its website back in 2000. Sears and Lane Bryant followed suit. However, in a New York Times story from that year titled, “If That’s Me in the E-Dressing Room, Why Doesn’t This Fit?” journalist Stacey Kravetz called the experience “an inexact science at best.” Fifteen years later, not a whole lot has changed.

Ed Gribbin, president of fit mannequin company Alvanon, said it’s because most brands and retailers are not attacking the fitting process from the first stitch. “The vast majority is still basing its fit and sizing on the shape of the fit model they use,” he said, noting that while it is commendable of virtual sizing apps for trying to fix the problem, it’s not a universal solution.

“There’s a missing link between the production side of this industry and the distribution side,” Gambrell said. “Most brands don’t know how people wear their clothes and most consumers therefore don’t know what size to buy because they don’t know how something will fit them.”

In a bid to streamline the design process, [TC]2 (or, the Textile Clothing Technology Corporation) and DNA Interactif Fashion have teamed up to introduce iStyling, which creates avatars based on measurements captured by 3-D body scanners. The technology made its U.S. debut last November when eShakti, a custom clothing-maker for women, unveiled a kiosk at the Staten Island Mall in New York. Once a digital body has been generated, users can then shop the company’s website, where each style can be customized to their exact measurements and fit preferences, without physically trying it on prior to purchase.

Likewise, Acustom Apparel uses a 3-D body scanner to create custom-fit clothing for men. “Shopping is pretty much a drag for most guys,” said Jamal Motlagh, a Harvard Business School graduate who co-founded the company about four years ago with Charles Tse, a physicist and mathematician and the brains behind Acustom’s digital pattern-making technology. “Men don’t like to shop. Their interest and consumption of clothing has risen, but the buying experience is terrible. If they go to a store and try on every pair of pants in their theoretical size, half of them don’t fit and half of them don’t look good.”

That’s where Acustom comes in. For a fraction of the cost of a traditional tailor, a client can visit the company’s flagship in New York City, step into a changing room decked out with depth sensors — the same as an Xbox Kinect — and within seven seconds, the scanner has downloaded two million data points of within-a-millimeter measurements that are then used to create custom shirts, jeans, suits and more. “In the last four months, 50 percent of our revenue has come from repeat customers,” Motlagh said, “because we offer an easy solution.”

San Francisco-based ThirdLove is trying to turn bra shopping into something seamless, too. Co-founder Heidi Zak, a former Aeropostale business director and Google Marketer, claims her app can measure a woman’s bust size more accurately than a seamstress by using nothing but selfies. Available for free download on iPhones and Androids, the 2-year-old app turns a phone camera into a virtual tape measure when users snap two carefully posed photos wearing tight-fitting tank tops. Using computer vision technology, it analyzes body size in relation to the phone size and, according to Zak, “it’s accurate to within half an inch.”

Once a size has been established, users are then invited to shop a curated selection of customizable bras — and Zak prides her company on its “extremely low return rate.” She points out that whereas most lingerie brands offer standard sizes, ThirdLove goes a step further and offers half-sizes because many women fall in between. “Women are more than just a size,” she adds. “And at the end of the day, e-commerce isn’t a great experience for most consumers because of these fit issues that still exist.”

But are virtual fitting rooms or sizing apps the answer? Motlagh doesn’t think so. “I think there will be a more streamlined and better way of finding fit for people online and I think these apps will eventually figure out how to do it but in my opinion it’s a baby step of what Acustom is doing,” he said.

The key, according to Gribbin, lies in the data collected by the likes of Acustom and iStyling. He points to a technology Alvanon is currently testing out in a Hong Kong retail store. “Using a single-scan device we capture data anonymously and we can tell the retailer how many people walked into the store, in what size and how many of those people will fit into their clothing or not,” he explained. “By understanding the size and shape of their customers they will then be able to design clothes specifically for those customers, thereby enhancing fit satisfaction while increasing customer loyalty and retail conversion rates.”

Gambrell agreed: “Right now, there’s no perfect answer. It has to go beyond simply helping someone select a size.”