SAN FRANCISCO, United States — Online sales of apparel and accessories are growing faster than any other e-commerce product segment in the US, driven primarily by improvements in online merchandising and return policies, according to a report released by eMarketer last April. But despite these advancements, the difficulty of finding the right size and fit without trying on prospective purchases in a physical store remains a major barrier to even faster fashion e-commerce growth.
At Guess, e-commerce is “growing at a much faster pace than brick-and-mortar stores,” said executive vice president Michael Relich, but nonetheless, 70 percent of people who visit Guess.com shop at the company’s physical stores two or more times per year, where they tend to actually complete their purchases. "They’re using our online platform like they would a catalogue,” Relich said.
In order to increase online conversion rates, which hover around 2 percent, a growing number of online retailers are offering free shipping on returns. “Some customers treat our free shipping service as part of their changing room experience, except it’s at home in their bedroom,” said Sophie Glover, head of technical services at online fashion juggernaut ASOS. But the costs associated with such policies — including shipping, handling, credit card processing fees and repackaging, not to mention the unique restocking challenges that stem from the seasonality of fashion — can add up quickly for retailers.
In recent cycles, a number of young companies, including Virtusize, Fits.me, True Fit and Clothes Horse, have attempted to tackle the fit problem with a range of technology-based solutions, from morphing mannequins to size recommendation engines, that aim to match shoppers with well-fitting garments, boosting conversion rates and lowering returns.
But what’s actually working?
Swedish fit guidance start-up Virtusize helps shoppers select correctly sized garments based on items already in their wardrobe. Users physically measure a well-fitting garment they already own and enter these details into the Virtusize application, or select previously purchased items from online retailers who are partnered with Virtusize (and for which the company already has sizing information), to receive a visual comparison between the reference garment and a potential purchase.
While the experience isn’t exactly frictionless, Anders Rindevall, Virtusize’s head of sales, said shoppers are willing to take a few extra minutes to use the tool. "People are taking time to submit measurements, because oftentimes they are making a big investment,” he said. “People aren’t just buying socks online; they’re buying expensive products like dresses and coats, and they take an extra three minutes to check the size.”
The service is now being tested by twenty-one retailers across Europe, including Nelly, Stayhard, WeSC and Whyred in Scandanavia; StyleBop and Apropos in Germany; and E35 in Austria, who each pay Virtusize a monthly fee, proportional to the number of pageviews their sites receive. ASOS, one of the U.K.’s largest online retailers with almost 4.5 million active customers from 160 countries, is also trialling the technology. According to Sabina Schött, Virtusize’s head of public relations and marketing, approximately 30 percent of shoppers use the tool, of which 15 percent make a purchase. What’s more, the tool reduces fit-related returns by 50 percent, she claimed.
London-based Fits.me enables shoppers to view garments in various styles and sizes on a personalised, robotic mannequin, or “FitBot,” that can mimic 100,000 different body shapes, based on user inputs like height, neck, bust, waist, hips and arm measurements.
“Shoppers see the tool, close the tool, then they shop around, and when it’s time to spend money, they take the time to measure themselves,” said Fits.me CEO and co-founder Heikki Haldre. So far, Barbour, The Outdoor and Country Store, Boden, Ermenegildo Zegna, Sangar, Gilt Groupe, Hawes & Curtis, Otto, Pretty Green and Thomas Pink are using Fits.me, for which they pay the company a monthly fee.
Hawes & Curtis, which does 30 percent of its business online, was an early adopter of the solution. The London-based menswear specialist offers free returns within the UK, according to Antony Comyns, the company’s head of e-commerce. But as the business expanded internationally and began serving customers outside its free-shipping domain, it became increasingly important to assure online customers that they were going to receive a well-fitting product. Since implementing Fits.me, Hawes & Curtis has seen its return rate drop by 35 percent, while conversion amongst first-time buyers increased by 57 percent, according to data provided by the company. Using Fits.me has also had the unexpected effect of strengthening Hawes & Curtis’ connection with its customers, added Comyns. The morphing FitBot is “engaging and fun for customers,” he said.
FIT RECOMMENDATION TOOLS
True Fit aims to match shoppers with garments that best fit their personal style and body shape by feeding a proprietary algorithm inputs like a database of product-specific size and fit information, previous shopping behaviour, and responses to a personal size and style questionnaire. After five years of testing the technology on an e-commerce site called MyTrueFit, which eventually attracted hundreds of thousands customers, founders Romney Evans and Jessica Murphy teamed up with former Timberland executive Bill Adler and have been able to attract clients including Macy’s, Nordstrom and Guess, who pay a monthly fee to use the tool.
True Fit’s customer questionnaire is extensive and time-consuming, however. Shoppers begin by selecting their gender, then answer a series of detailed questions about their upper and lower body. Then they are then asked to select preferred brands, products and silhouettes before inputting their height, age and weight. The entire process takes about ten minutes. But once a shopper’s True Fit profile is complete for a certain product category, the application can offer size and fit recommendations for any item in that category sold by retailers who have implemented the True Fit solution.
While declining to share exact numbers, Relich said the conversion rate of shoppers who use True Fit on Guess.com was approximately 250 percent greater than the conversion rate of those who do not. Guess shoppers who use True Fit are also buying more items and more expensive items, he said. What’s more, in tests with 400,000 users, True Fit reduced the return rate for premium denim to 20 percent from 50 percent, Adler told The Wall Street Journal last March.
Founded by Vik Venkatraman, Dave Whittemore and Will Charczuk, Clothes Horse also offers personalised size and fit recommendations based on inputs like a customer’s height, weight and body type, as well as preferred brands and comfort in a given brand. But critically, Clothes Horse has prioritised ease and speed of use, and the questionnaire process takes customers less than one minute to complete.
Clothes Horse, which collects a monthly fee from retailers based on their online traffic and revenue numbers, has been implemented by twelve companies, including Nicole Miller, Frank & Oak, Ledbury, Bonobos and Ernest Alexander. Virginia-based Ledbury sells blazers and shirts on the promise of high quality and great fit, but does an impressive 96 percent of its business online. Clothes Horse is a way of “de-risk buying online,” said co-founder Paul Trible, who added that while Ledbury’s return rate has remained around 7 percent since adopting Clothes Horse, 9.6 percent of people who use Clothes Horse make purchases, well above average conversion rates.
This type of correlation does not guarantee causality, of course. In fact, it’s quite probable that customers who decide to invest the time required to use a fit guidance solution like Virtusize, Fits.Me, True Fit or Clothes Horse do so because they are more intent on actually making a purchase. A reduction in return rates, on the other hand, is a more accurate gauge of effectiveness.
Yet, for some retailers, a solution that is adequately engaging and easy to use has yet to emerge. ASOS is “regularly presented with new technology designed to support more accurate sizing choices and reduce returns related to this area of purchase, but so many of them are not practical in what they require the customer to do,” said Glover. And although ASOS is currently trialling Virtusize, the company is in the very early stages of testing a proprietary method that is “less tech-based than most solutions on the market,” revealed Glover, who described the tool as “very visual and easy to use.”
Nathalie Pierrepont is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.