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This Tech Startup Takes on Unsustainable Online Returns

Everyone loses when a customer returns an item bought online.

The retailer, of course, loses money paying for the reverse logistics. Then, once it regains possession of the return, it faces the uphill battle of selling that item again, often at a steep discount—if at all.

For the consumer, the whole process is an inconvenience at best. For those who purposefully buy multiple sizes intending to return those that don’t fit—a September survey conducted by Narvar found 62 percent of consumers “bracket” their purchases—dropping that package off is still time wasted. Not to mention the frustration of the consumers who bought an item fully expecting it to fit.

But, the environment also loses. Shipping the product back and forth produces needless greenhouse gas emissions. Packaging the item creates unnecessary waste. Should the retailer fail to find another buyer, the product may end up tossed in a landfill, the sum of all the environmental costs involved in its manufacturing now wasted.

One of the companies working to minimize returns is the sizing solutions provider MySureFit. Its CEO and founder, Christian Ruth, and president of brand partnerships, David Cunningham, joined Fairchild Media Group’s Sustainability Summit last week to discuss how the brand is making e-commerce more environmentally friendly.

MySureFit, a sizing solution that plugs directly into brands’ e-commerce sites, uses consumers’ photos of themselves to calculate the right sizes across different styles and brands. According to Ruth, the process measures with 99 percent accuracy. MySureFit’s return rate, he added, stands “well below 5 percent.”

“When they receive it, it fits them and they end up keeping it and they’re free from the frustration of return,” Ruth said. “We believe this increases the customer loyalty and engagement with that brand retailer.”

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One of the big problems with e-commerce returns, Ruth noted, is the long restock window. When someone shops in-store and tries on a few different items to figure out which fits best, it does not take long for the rejected pieces to return to the selling floor. But, when consumers buy clothing online with that same mentality, it can take weeks to months before returned items finally make their way back to the retailer or brand.

“In terms of what the brands are facing, it’s either they’ll face a stock-out situation very quickly—that’s why you’re seeing stock-out rates increasing—or they would have to manufacture an exponential increase in inventory,” Ruth said.

This leads to the other big challenge: the influx of returned items at the end of the season.

“One of two things happens,” Ruth said. “Either the brand has to dramatically discount pricing to sell those garments, which frankly threatens the aspirational value of the brand, or… they’d have to destroy it and it’s very significant in terms of the waste.”

By providing consumers with a size that’s accurate the vast majority of the time, sizing solutions like MySureFit can cut down on not just waste, but all the costs associated with excess manufacturing.

“The brand retailers end up avoiding very expensive, voluminous manufacturing cost and waste,” Ruth said. “It protects the risk of labor abuse, when you’re not manufacturing excess volume of items. It protects against the waste of the actual shipping, packaging materials. It protects against the waste of fuel energy costs to transport all those items to and back from the customer. It protects the warehouse employees as they’re having to restock…. It’s an issue that is impacting everybody in the entire ecosystem involved with fashion apparel.”

MySureFit is one of several technology companies focused on sizing.  One of the things that differentiates MySureFit, Cunningham said, is its virtual fitting room, whereby shoppers can see themselves wearing any given item virtually. These images can then be sent out to friends to get their feedback before making a purchasing decision. Retailers and brands then have the option to use these pictures as model images for that product.

“Therefore, as you’re shopping on their site, you see your own images come up as one of the choices of imaging for your garment,” Cunningham said. “You can see it in every color that it’s offered, so you get a true sense of when you open up that box, you have a very good idea of not only that it’s going to fit you… you also have an idea of how it’s going to look on you, even before you step in front of the mirror.”