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.