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What Will It Take for Consumers to Embrace Virtual Fitting Rooms?

Long touted as a solution for e-commerce’s low conversion rates and ballooning returns, AR and AI-powered fit-tech is gaining momentum — but many of the same old challenges remain.
Virtual Fitting room platforms from Perfitly and 3DLook.
Virtual Fitting room platforms from Perfitly and 3DLook. (BoF Collage)
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KEY INSIGHTS

  • Virtual fitting rooms have been positioned as a way for retailers to boost online sales and lower returns, but have largely failed to gain meaningful traction.
  • Investors, a new crop of tech companies and retailers are more optimistic about the tools because of pandemic-induced shifts in habits, technological development and brands’ desire to differentiate themselves.
  • To see success, brands and retailers need to think about how to make virtual fitting rooms a more exciting and experiential proposition for consumers.

As long as e-commerce has existed, so has consumer frustration with finding the right fit. Again and again, tech companies promise virtual sizing solutions that will boost sales and reduce returns.

As of yet, none of those promises has resulted in widespread adoption. But some recent twists have retailers, fit-tech start-ups and analysts alike wondering if their mainstream moment has come.

For one, pandemic-induced digital dependence jutted the e-commerce industry years forward, and in turn, also exacerbated its faults, most evident in the record number of returns retailers are struggling with. At the same time, consumers — especially younger ones with newfound shopping power — are more comfortable with 3D technology given the movement of the metaverse into mainstream discourse and the ubiquity of augmented reality through things like Snapchat filters. Brands are eager for ways to differentiate themselves amid a crowded market that has made garnering loyalty difficult. And, most importantly, technology has developed to make virtual fitting rooms more cost-effective, complete solutions.

“You’ve got all of these different pieces happening at the same time. It’s almost like a perfect storm,” said Whitney Cathcart, co-founder and chief strategy officer of 3DLook, an AI-powered virtual fitting room company that scans users’ bodies and creates personalised avatars so that they can see themselves in digitally-rendered clothing.

Raghav Sharma, co-founder of Perfitly, which creates avatars unique to customers’ bodies based off photos or measurements to try on e-garments and recommend size, said the level of activity in the space is anywhere from 10 to 20 times more than it was a year or even just eight months ago. He added that interest from investors has increased significantly in the past year as well: 3DLook raised $10 million in a Series A round in Nov. 2021, bringing its total fundraising amount to $14.7 million; Perfitly raised $739K through Equity Crowdfunding in July 2021.

“We are seeing materially different conversations with investors in terms of their belief that now is the time for the technologies,” said Sharma. “From a pure business standpoint, valuations and the amount you’re able to think of raising are much higher.”

Whether virtual fitting rooms catch fire, though, still depends on whether brands, retailers and tech companies can succeed where they haven’t before and actually build significant consumer desire for the service.

“Even if something is, in theory, easier or user-friendly, if it requires behaviour change, it can be a really big hurdle,” said Katie Thomas, Kearney Consumer Institute lead.

A New World

Though coming change has been touted before, proponents say this moment is different because of a mix of technological development, increased consumer demand and pandemic-induced change.

“We’ve been trying and adopting new things at a rate that wasn’t happening before the past couple of years,” said Adam Pressman, a managing director in AlixPartners’ retail practice. He points to AR simulations and try-on tools’ pick-up in categories like furniture, accessories and makeup as evidence for increased appetite for new online experiences, but said the apparel industry is in the early stages of building relationships and trust as well as understanding what exactly its consumer is looking for. Added to that, rendering 3D garments is significantly more difficult than showcasing static things like furniture, glasses à la Warby Parker, or even shoes.

The virtual fitting rooms of today are not the ones of the past — fit predictors that analysed measurements and compared sizes across brands to give recommendations, or “paper doll” image overlays that provided a vague idea of what the garment might look like on — said Sharma.

Now, companies can produce more integrated, all-in-one fit recommendation and visualisation experiences, said Cathcart. Priorly, 3DLook separated out its fit-and-sizing and its virtual dressing platforms — this year, it folded that all into one. In the next few weeks, in a bid to embed itself further into the consumers’ discovery on social media, and desire to show off clothes on the site, it will launch a new feature that lets users share their try-ons across social media.

Mainstream devices caught up with Perfitly’s back-end capabilities around the release of the iPhone 11 in 2019, said Sharma. Before then, users would have had to go to a laser scanning booth or a tailor to get measurements with the accuracy required to render a 3D image or digital avatar. More brands now deploy digital tools that measure the things Perfitly needs to render digital garments — CAD patterns, grading logic and tech packs — as part of their regular operations. (Sharma estimates that when the company started out in 2016, 20 to 30 percent of brands had that data; now it’s around 50 to 60 percent.)

Meanwhile, social media and gaming have made consumers more comfortable with the technologies these companies use, as apps like Snapchat make AR a regular part of Gen-Z’s day-to-day with couture try-ons and filters and luxury brands create virtual collections for popular games like Animal Crossing.

Industry interest has broadened with investment from mainstream retailers like Gap and Walmart in late 2021 — which acquired fit-tech firms Drapr and Zeekit, respectively.

“You’re starting to see social platforms, major retailers investing themselves, not just leveraging a tool but buying tools, which shows a level of commitment,” said Pressman.

Same Old Challenges

The challenges associated with implementing virtual fitting rooms still sing the same refrain: high costs and low adoption rates. Virtual garments are still difficult to render and fit is subjective. A lack of data surrounding fit preferences for different materials and styles often means brands will have to strategise where they put the tech first, such as initially offering it only for their most popular items or most loyal customers as a sort of test to gather data and improve results, said Pressman.

But to change habits and convince consumers to adopt the tech in the long-term, retailers will have to get creative and offer consumers something more than a discount in terms of experience, said Thomas.

Companies, she added, need to think about creating extra experiences surrounding them — like an in-the-metaverse gamified experience, or something that replicates the feeling of entering a dressing room. Conversations about virtual fitting rooms today are often framed by the adjacent opportunities and experiences they might help create — like personalisation and online group shopping, as well as acting as a low-stakes on-ramp to the metaverse, said Pressman. Cathcart and Sharma both noted that, increasingly, clients are coming to them with a desire to build out immersive experiences, looking at virtual fitting rooms as another way to engage consumers, rather than just improve margins.

“If you don’t get the right experience, or it doesn’t lead to something better, that’s going to be frustrating,” said Pressman.

Retailers have gains to make if they implement virtual try-ons and can get users to engage. New York-based denim brand 1822, for one, saw conversion rates about three to four times higher than its regular website after it implemented 3DLook’s latest plugin.

While stats like that are promising for the state of the fit-tech start-up and telling of retailers’ broad temperatures, scepticism about consumer interest remains.

“If it didn’t take off during the pandemic when people felt actually unsafe going into stores and touching things and other people — are we really going to see it take off?” said Thomas.

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