Can Technology Help Fashion Etailers Tackle ‘Try Before You Buy?’

LONDON, United Kingdom — In the early days of e-commerce, fashion brands were hesitant about selling online for two main reasons: fear that online distribution would dilute exclusivity and suspicion that consumers would never buy luxury fashion they weren’t able to physically try on.

Nonetheless, in 2009, in the midst of The Great Recession, the online luxury market grew by 20%, a rate that’s expected to accelerate through the close of 2010, and online fashion retailers at both ends of the spectrum, from Net-a-Porter to Asos, the UK’s largest online-only fashion store, are reporting rapid growth.

But buying fashion online is distinctly different to buying consumer electronics or books from Amazon. Fashion consumers still like to try before they buy, even if that means ordering items in a few different sizes and returning the ones that don’t fit.

To address this issue, many online retailers believe in topnotch customer service and flexible shipping policies. “We are continuing to improve our best in class delivery and returns proposition,” said James Hart, e-commerce director at Asos. “But also, I’m always looking at any technology that can help people make purchasing decisions.”

Over the last year, we’ve seen some interesting experiments that leverage new technology to help consumers gauge fit and look without the benefit of physical fitting rooms.

Fits.me, a company based in Tallinn, Estonia — a country with one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world — is experimenting with a cutting-edge application that uses sophisticated biorobotics to enable consumers to try before they buy when shopping online.

Fits.me creates a mechanical model of a torso based on a consumer’s measurements. It’s a remarkably quick process that then allows customers to use the robot to “try on” shirts in various sizes so they can choose the best fit in a particular style. The robot can create 100,000 different body shapes based on algorithms derived from over 30,000 body scans, so its accuracy rate in matching consumers with a shirt that will fit them is remarkably high.

“When customers cannot try, most will not buy,” says Heikki Haldre, the company’s chief executive. “And when they do, on average 25 percent of clothing is being returned – mostly due to poor fit. Fits.me lets the customers see what size fits them, ensuring the perfectly fitting garment, and making sure there’s no need to return. As returns often arrive after the season has ended, the cost savings for retailers are significant.”

At the moment, Fits.me has only been deployed in the market for men’s shirts, in partnership with Jermyn Street shirtmakers Hawkes and Curtis. But while it’s still early to definitively gauge the start-up’s performance, trials conducted by the company have been successful. “For mid-to-higher priced items and fitted fashion, the increase in sales was 3.1 times,” says Haldre. “While this technology does not increase the customer’s desire to buy more, it simply answers an important question: which size should be placed in the shopping cart? Without the customer knowing the answer there will be no sale,” he asserts.

Meanwhile, Zugura, an interactive marketing agency based in Los Angeles, is exploring a solution to the ‘try before you buy’ problem that leverages augmented reality, a technology that uses a web camera to give users a live, direct view of a physical-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery.

Although this approach doesn’t allow consumers to find exact fits like Fits.me, it makes up for its lack of precision with a level of interactivity akin to an entertaining video game. Tobi.com, a successful San Francisco-based online retailer, trialed Zugura’s Fashionista application last year to enable shoppers to “virtually” try on clothes through their webcam.

But some online retailers remain sceptical. “I think it’s inevitable that we’ll get some pretty good ‘try-on’ software on the site at some point in the not too distant future,” says Hart. But “virtual try-on is nowhere near the top of the list of what [consumers] are asking for, to be honest. What they ask for more is the ability to build and share outfits; to gain validation from their friends of what they are thinking of buying and to see for themselves if the items they are considering will work together.”

Hart has a point. Offline, in-person fitting room opinions are indispensible to consumers and important purchase drivers. But despite the rise of social shopping platforms like Polyvore and ShopStyle, when you shop online, at the moment of purchase you still feel like you are shopping alone.

Realtime shopping apps that let people shop together online are emerging. Zugura’s latest concept, ZugStar, brings together augmented reality with video conferencing, to give consumers real-time feedback on potential purchases from online friends.

But although these new technologies may offer a glimpse of how the shopping experience will evolve online, they’re not foolproof solutions just yet. “It can’t simply be a gimmick. It must provide real value,” says Tom Adeyoola, founder and CEO of Me_tail, a soon-to-launch “plug-in service” for fashion sites that allows consumers to try on clothes using realistically rendered 3D models and aims to reduce the friction and costs associated with customer returns.

For the moment, online retailers may be better off focusing their efforts on delivering the best possible customer service. “My view right now is that we need to continue focusing on taking the pain and cost out of delivery and returns; trying an item on at home is always the best place to do it,” says Hart.

Robert Cordero is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.

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12 comments

  1. The future of online fashion WILL be about letting customers combine products and share. Most importantly these wardrobe technologies should encourage outfit purchases – increasing average basket values.That’s what the retaileris looking for. It’s not enough to reduce returns.

    You’re speaking to the wrong people.

    The problems with FitsMe and MeTail report are due to the amount of images their apps require from retailers.
    Most wardrobe apps laboriously take specific, extra photography e.g. MixMatchMe, Looklet, Couturious, FitsMe and MeTail.

    Retailers do not want to deal with the slow production time and expense of apps that need SO many photographs – after the retailer has already paid for perfectly good website pics.

    MixMatch me takes 3 weeks to process 300 products – do you think any retailer in this day and age would be excited by that turnaround? Why did you speak to them?

    FitsMe doesn’t allow mixing, only shows a male torso and is impractical. Why did you speak to them?

    This is why the industry has not taken up such technology: a) too slow and b) too expensive.

    Looklet is featured on Vogue and has a great user base for sharing looks and commenting on those of others. Why didn’t you speak to them?

    Schway is about to go live on 3 Arcadia Group sites with approx 5000 products. Their apps don’t need any extra photography and can be used with any model or mannequin. Why didn’t you speak to them?

    Roberto, you should have dug a little deeper.

  2. Robert, thank you for the article!

    A real life fitting room – including trying clothes on at home – is always a superior customer experience to any virtual fitting rooms. However, the issue is the cost to the retailers, and cost to the customers who need to make an investment (of time and money) into returning the wrongly sized items.

    There’s ways to quantify some of the fitting room functions: 5-7% of returns are due to color misrepresentation; 15% of returns due to “feel” of the fabric; 60-70% of returns due to poor fit. Fits.me can only provide a solution to the final problem.

    The visual help of combining garments, like Polyvore, certainly increases the average shopping cart value as more items are bought together. Fits.me does not increase sales, but reduces shopping cart abandonment. For retailer it simply means more sales, less costs.

    Hawes & Curtis, where Fits.me is used, recently reportedconversion rates up 57% for their new customers, and doubled among some of their international customer segments (in Internet Retailer magazine) .

  3. Hey Robert –

    Nice piece. Thanks for including us (Zugara). I just wanted to quickly reply to a few of Mr. Hart’s points:

    – “What they (consumers) ask for more is the ability to build and share outfits; to gain validation from their friends of what they are thinking of buying and to see for themselves if the items they are considering will work together.”
    o We couldn’t agree more, which is why our application is built to integrate with the majority of social networks. People can get immediate feedback from their friends on Facebook, or whichever site is most relevant to them.
    – “virtual try-on is nowhere near the top of the list of what [consumers] are asking for, to be honest.”
    o I’d like to point out that our application is not about fit, it’s about style. It’s more of that at the rack moment when a person turns to a friend and asks “what do you think?” People validate style before they ever think about validating fit, and online, there’s no comparable way to validate a purchase in this manner. And it’s important to remember that. It’s not about whether it’s a better experience than offline, it’s about comparing it to the current experience online.
    o Just because consumers aren’t asking for it, doesn’t mean they won’t adopt it. We should be innovating for them. We should be constantly working to create better experiences for them. To quote Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

    Thanks again for including us. And if you’re interested in what else we’re working on you can check out this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_Lxqun-12E). It uses facial tracking to eliminate the need for a marker.

    Best,

    Jack
    Director of Marketing Strategy, Zugara

    Jack from Inglewood, CA, United States
  4. If we’re playing dress up this is fine! For color and print selection, maybe… then again adding depth changes proportions! Too many women have closets full of style and nothing that FITS… 3D scanning may be prohibitive an option that is not looked at is photogrammetry software as a basis for a solution ! I have been watching the space closely and thus far most solutions have serious draw back! Fitting, ultimately is a three dimensional problem! the bottom line who is going to compensate them for the time and effort !

  5. Eamonn Clarke is correct, retailers are quite rightly reluctant to invest in systems that do not allow then to re use their existing image assets, especially for volume value retailers with low ASP’s With online sell through rates getting quicker and quicker its important especially for retailers that shoot their stock rather than samples to be able to realise those assets on a virtual dressing program quickly before they go out of stock. It is important that any program is an application that has simple a back end that enables retailers to process their own images, other wise the virtual dresser becomes a service only option and is self limiting

  6. Thank you Lee.
    My apologies to Robert for getting a little over-heated earlier.
    I have been researching this space for some time and get carried away when such an important area isn’t reported to my liking :-0
    You can see there are some sharp minds working here to find the right solution for a relatively new but fast growing and lucrative market – fashion sales/experience/returns and styling online.
    We should create a group and produce Lee’s idea.
    Good people like Heikki Haldre, Carolyn Burnett at NN4M and Adam Berg at Looklet are making waves and opening doors for all of us working to give online fashion something extra and are to be congratulated….along with you Robert for bringing up the subject!

  7. The holy grail is optimizing the sales funnel at retail sites and producing useful data-driven merchandising info. Comparing and sharing multiple products on/off site is a pain point, so we have started at this level! Eamon and Lee are spot on and this is where the challenge lies. Retailers catalogs should be processed to consume content at the lowest common denominator. With inventory turn over so quick they don’t have time to alter images. On top of this resources are thin and IT is struggling to keep up w/ mktg. Integration points should be simple and require little effort. Many legacy platforms are not able to support newer tech. so this is a barrier to keep in mind as well.

    Cheers,
    David

  8. Sure, they can!

    In fact, at Pindle we’ve been doing it for a while. See how e-tailers have been able to increase conversion rate, online exposure and customer engagement here: http://www.getpindle.com

    Pindle Wall from Netherlands