Human perception is fallible, and few experiences illustrate that truth more than shopping.
Ask any person who’s ever returned a blazer, dress or pair of jeans to a store, even after spending 15 minutes in front of three dressing-room mirrors, and they’ll tell you the same. As such, apparel brands need to account for the environmental factors that can drastically alter the way items appear in-store.
One of the most alterable aspects of a garment is color, which can look completely different under two different light sources, even within the same store. This phenomenon was illustrated perfectly by “The Dress,” which sparked a huge debate on the Internet a few years ago.
“Verification of the lighting used in the store is the first step in ensuring a predictable and pleasing experience,” said Ken Butts, global key account team manager at Datacolor. “Changing the lighting can have a significant impact on the color perceived by the customer.” Since apparel manufacturers can’t control the in-store lighting at every retail location, much less the way finished products appear in e-commerce photos, it’s vital they do all they can to guarantee color accuracy from the production floor to the shelf.
Butts recommends testing fabrics in a variety of lighting settings, throughout the production process and when presenting samples to potential buyers. “Retailers can overcome many problems caused by lighting by using the same light sources during the color development process as those used in retail stores to ensure consistency when merchandising,” Butts said. “They can also require use of a common light source by vendors and suppliers to ensure consistency in color development.”
Garment suppliers should use multiple light sources, or a light booth with multiple settings, Butts recommends, to visualize the way garments will look in different settings. That helps brands account for inconsistencies, like reflected light or natural light, that might vary from store-to-store.
A characteristic called flare, or a significant change in color perception due to lighting, might even cause two products to appear the same color in one part of the store, but not in another, Butts explained. The disparity, called metamerism, may cause customer confidence to falter and risk a loss in revenue. Depending on the way a brand’s supply chain is set up, some companies may be able to alter the dyes or materials they use in order to minimize these kinds of variations, but that isn’t always the case.
To account for the potential impact of flare in the design and development process, brands should utilize digital color management tools, which will give assurances the human eye cannot.
“A trained colorist can recognize metamerism when viewing samples in a lighting booth, but the most accurate method to identify these issues is through digital color measurement,” Butts said.
Apparel brands can use color measurement tools called spectrophotometers to assign precise, repeatable, and objective color data that can be digitally communicated across the supply chain. “Digital technology offers objective measurement of color, ensuring that it looks the same in the store as it did during development, regardless of in-store environmental factors,” Butts said.
Spectrophotometers come in handy when planning for e-commerce, too, where it’s much more difficult to account for environmental factors. “The online experience of the customer is in many respects out of the control of the retailer,” Butts explained. Apparel retailers can ensure consistency in on-site color information by using measurement tools, but the final color displayed on a monitor or mobile device depends on the device itself. The same piece of clothing can look very different on two different monitors or when viewed on a phone screen, and this can only be improved using screen calibration devices. Otherwise, an item might look differently on a desktop computer in fluorescent lighting than when it’s viewed on a phone screen in a dim subway car.
There are limits to what retailers can do to curtail color misperceptions, but through a combination of technology and careful testing, retailers can avoid wild disparities. Apparel brands that design and buy with lighting in mind can capture the fragment of the market that other retailers leave behind, especially as bright colors take over street style and runways.