Most apparel and fashion retailers have had to operate exclusively online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, taking away the one edge they’ve traditionally had―the ability to get shoppers to try on clothes in the store to ensure they are the right fit and look. Without this advantage, many of these retailers have opened themselves to risks of increased returns, which could cost millions and create substantial and unnecessary waste.
The drastic change in shopping norms represents a significant opportunity for apparel fit technologies, which have floated around the industry for a few years now, and are typically designed to determine an exact fit, and overall better size-chart creation, based on realistic body data measurements.
According to a 2019 report from e-commerce marketing platform Yotpo, 88 percent of fashion shoppers admit to having returned fashion items purchased online in the past year, with 51 percent returning between $50 and $500 dollars’ worth of online fashion merchandise. As many as 61 percent say they order more items than they intend on keeping at least sometimes due to ease of returns, illustrating just how big of a problem incorrect and inconsistent sizing was for apparel companies even before COVID-19 came into the picture.
But with COVID-19 making stores a risky bet for some apparel shoppers, these businesses have to solve problems within the field of returns as well as in understanding consumers and their desires―something that has been a considerable struggle for many apparel retailers. The importance of fit tech within the supply chain should not be ignored, especially when it can create constant communication and feedback loops regarding the exact sizes and body types apparel makers should manufacture for.
In addition, apparel retailers may even have the added bonus of unloading inventory that otherwise remains tied up in a closed store.
“Of course everyone knows returns is a huge problem, but it’s rare that that information goes up the chain where the suppliers and merchandisers have it and say ‘Based on this data, this population in the South likes this product better’ so that you can have less dead inventory,” said Jessica Couch, founder of Luxor + Finch Consulting. “I think there’s also a chance when you have these smart tools to quickly change your pattern development. For vertically integrated brands who have the ability to change things on the fly, you need that technology to make immediate adjustments if necessary. A lot of people just pigeonhole fit technology into one or two things, but really the technology exists across the supply chain.”
Asos brings apparel to life with augmented reality
And like any visually driven technology, fit tech is only as good as its appearance, and its ability to flatter shoppers and give them a realistic, contextualized sense of the product in a real-life environment. British millennial-centric fashion e-tailer Asos has sought to capture fit context in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding its augmented reality (AR) capabilities to give shoppers a simulated view of what its apparel looks like on a model within its online product pages.
The AR technology, developed in collaboration with Israeli AR and AI company Zeekit, simulates real-life model photography while pandemic renders in-studio model shoots unwise for health and safety reasons.
Asos will be digitally fitting six models in up to 500 products per week. By digitally mapping each product onto the model in a realistic way, taking account of the size, cut and fit of each garment, the technology is designed so that product presentation remains as realistic and engaging as possible while the company supports social distancing. Expanding its usage of AR enables Asos to launch new product each week with realistic product images fitted on model.
Bigthinx goes beyond body sizing
With consumers spending more time online, shoppers are increasingly comfortable with digital and virtual representations of reality. Chandralika Hazarika and Shivang Desai co-founded artificial intelligence-based body measurement startup Bigthinx as a way for shoppers and fashion brands alike to generate a personalized 3D virtual avatar from 2D images.
The company is powered by two apps: the Lyfsize software, which creates a 3D body scan with just a smartphone, is designed to enable shoppers to find out their clothing size in any brand, anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the Lyflike software allows consumers to upload just two full-body photos to create a 3D avatar that looks, moves and measures just like them, and virtually try on any clothing to see how it looks and fits, in stores or online.
The app seeks to capitalize on the fact that tailors aren’t readily available and affordable to many consumers, and calculates 44 precise body measurements and body composition ratios while claiming over 95 percent accuracy in women and 98 percent in men.
But the app is designed to improve the retailer-distributor relationship as well, and also create virtual photo shoots and runway shows that can also reach wholesalers and distributors and give them a better idea of how much product they need, and in what sizes.
“During the COVID-19 crisis, retailers are not able to carry out photo-shoots and fashion shows,” Desai told Sourcing Journal. “For many retailers, this inability has been a huge setback as runway shows and product shoots are necessary for them to showcase collections to distributors, wholesalers and customers worldwide, who are unable to travel at this time. Traditionally, such customers travel for fashion weeks from all over the world where they experience the designs of fashion houses on the ramp and place bulk orders thereafter.”
Desai noted that the number of requests for the platform has “gone through the roof” during the pandemic.
“The good thing is that it’s the decision makers that are reaching out,” Hazarika said. “It’s not just the chief of e-commerce or other managers. It’s CEOs and CFOs reaching out because they need more of this technology right now and they understand the importance of it. It feels like luxury fashion has officially taken a jump of 10 years in terms of technology application.”
Traditional retailers still don’t prioritize fit tech
While conventional wisdom would dictate that everyone would hop aboard the fit tech train once they realized brick and mortar would be suffering for months, if not years, that hasn’t exactly been the case.
Sebastian Schulze, managing director of Fit Analytics, singled out retailers with liquidity issues as those that are not reaching out to them due to their level of financial uncertainty. Schulze defines retailers’ present interest in the machine learning-powered fit technology provider’s Fit Finder product suite through the pandemic, as falling into three categories: primarily brick-and-mortar, pure-play online and omnichannel.
“Brands with a high share of brick-and-mortar and underdeveloped e-commerce presence are in survival mode and have put new technology implementations on the back burner in order to focus on saving their companies,” Schulze told Sourcing Journal. “Pure-play online shops and retailers with a strong online presence are using this interruption to review new ways to enhance their e-commerce operations to meet the demand of the changed market environment, which includes looking at sizing solutions and other new technologies. The omnichannel retailers are in between both worlds. These apparel firms have been hit hard by physical store closures, yet their online market share has increased at a pace none were expecting.”
Retailers that primarily focus on brick and mortar and still ignore fit tech are essentially making the same mistakes they’ve always had when it comes to trying to understand their shoppers, and Couch noted that COVID-19 only continues to aggravate this problem.
“You have one chance to lose the modern consumer, and they’re not coming back,” Couch said. “There’s so many other options for them to try and so many other brands that they can go to. Almost nobody comes back from a bad fit experience, so for brands that miss the mark, they’re playing a dangerous game. You’re not only losing that one consumer, you’re going to lose their peer base.”
Visibility is key to fit tech at Bonprix
During the pandemic, it appears those that have already onboarded the Fit Analytics product suite are seeing the most positive results due to a sudden explosion in e-commerce activity.
Germany-based fashion retailer Bonprix, which offers “cheap fashion” for men, women and kids, partnered with Fit Analytics at the beginning of 2019 based on encouraging test results that “confirmed Fit Finder’s positive impact for our customer,” said Stephanie Murroni, Bonprix’s digital product manager.
“We saw a decrease in size sampling, fewer customers ordered two sizes of the same item only to return one, and we saw fewer returns,” Murroni told Sourcing Journal, even as its size advice process has remained the same since before the pandemic.
Bonprix has seen an uptick in consumer adoption since April 6, with Murroni indicating that the retailer has had the biggest user growth of any Fit Analytics retailer client so far this year. The retailer has been able to grow the number of shoppers using the fit tool throughout the pandemic in various ways, but has generated the greatest success simply by making Fit Finder more noticeable, while providing insight into why the platform promote shopper health and safety.
“In order to encourage more customers to use Fit Finder, we place importance on visibility and communication about the tool,” Murroni said. “One step towards more visibility we are taking is to inform our customers about the feature by placing Fit Finder logo on the online product listing page. We also promote both sustainability and the ease of usage as central points in our communication strategy. Regarding COVID-19, we also point to the health benefits of using the tool to shop, which saves avoidable trips to the post office.”
While fit technologies are designed to minimize returns, the Fit Analytics team says return rates have been largely similar during the pandemic.
“We currently receive the same shopper data as before―fortunately our solution was already optimized for new users and increased usage,” said Schulze. “We’ve already seen huge peaks, and the current COVID-19 pandemic shows another smaller e-commerce peak. During 2019’s five-day Cyber Week, we had 2.75 billion page views for Fit Analytics’ clients, amounting to requests from 130 countries, 355 million size recommendations and 23 million purchases of supported products. Our solution framework has already successfully handled extremely high traffic periods, and though e-commerce traffic has increased, it is still less than the biggest shopping phases in the year.”
Fit tech mitigates ‘returns loss’ mindset for large retailers
Bigthinx’s Desai noted that fit technologies are aiming to reverse trends of the past within apparel (and the e-commerce industry as a whole), due to a prior focus on scaling metrics such as revenue and customer acquisition. As offering free returns became the norm, apparel companies simply took on the returns losses as part of the overall cost of doing business online, and in stores.
“One of the things with online fashion that has happened is it has remained largely unchanged since e-commerce operated back in the early 2000s,” Desai said. “They’ve been sitting in their little niches operating the way they’ve always did. The big e-commerce players have these free returns policies which actually spoils consumers and poses a massive problem for them since they were hemorrhaging money, but it was all investor money. Just like Uber and other startups, they were focused on growth even at the cost of sacrificing their bottom lines.”
Couch believes the growth in fit technology represents a massive opportunity for small businesses, because they’ll have the chance to focus more on who their core customers really are, identify them, separate them and better understand what shape and body sizes they need.
“They have the advantage where they can use this time to gather information from digital content and user-generated content to really prepare for the next generation of fashion that’s coming,” Couch said. “For the larger brands that are already going bankrupt, it’s over for them, not just because of the pandemic, but because they did not have a good grasp of who their customer was. All the pandemic did was expose that. I told students when I spoke at FIT [recently], ‘This is your chance to dig deep with your customer and create experiences that did not exist with bigger brands. You don’t have to do things the bigger brands did.’”