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Fit: the Underserved Attribute of Product

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In his first post for WhichPLM this year, fit expert Mark Charlton explores the competitive advantage that is fit. Mark believes that fit and sizing need to be treated in a similar way to other product attributes (colour, fabric, wash etc.) in order to be fully understood and iterated.

I have a passion for great fitting apparel, and for almost 30 years I have been helping brands understand sizing constructs and globalize fit offerings. Most of my articles thus far have addressed the complexities of creating, perfecting and executing fit across a diverse and ever changing consumer landscape.

And this article is no exception. I would like to continue the discussion of fit and sizing, exploring these as an attribute to product and how I believe both fit and sizing – if managed differently – would result in both being the competitive advantage they can and should be.

Let’s first look at all the attributes of product, then; let’s look at, as a brand / retailer, how choice is offered, managed and capitalized upon. Fabric & fabric mix, styling & design, colour, wash & treatment, performance (for performance brands) and price point are all attributes of product.

Using colour as an example, one product is of course offered in different colours. This is an industry norm and an expectation of consumers, dating back to Henry Ford’s model T, “you can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black”. But why do we offer the same product in different colours? Do certain colours perform differently than others? Does this inform future product offerings?

My perspective is that we offer different colours to offer choice. One colour would not suit every individual’s preference, or successfully supplement their wardrobe; nor would it complement every individual’s skin tone, hair colouring etc. Do some colours perform better than others? Of course, and yes this does inform future products and the colour range that is presented to consumers.

Other critical inputs are trend and competitor landscape: how this season’s colours are different from last season’s and what colours “carry over” from one season to the next.

What does the competitor landscape look like from a colour offering perspective and how does this differ? Knowing how to differentiate from your competitors is critical. This is a reciprocal, iterative process of offering choice, understanding what is working, repeating what is working, replacing what isn’t with different choices, and being aware of evolving and new trends and competition. Then the cycle repeats.

The same process of offering choice, analyzing, refining the offer, further analyzing, and so on is true of all product attributes: fabric & fabric mix, styling & design, colour, wash & treatment, performance (for performance brands) price point, etc.

I do believe there is significantly more choice across all the above attributes and, contrastingly, very limited choices with very limited evolution and/or iterations when considering fit and sizing. If one looks at the size range offered or fit offered (or even deeper, the diversity of body shapes said fits are designed and developed to fit), there has been little evolution over the last several decades.

Fit and sizing, I believe, are attributes of product that should follow the same iterative process. I would also suggest that these two attributes are separated for the purpose of analysis, however there is an obvious connection between the two that needs to be considered and understood.

So, why are fit and sizing treated differently?

Fit and sizing are intrinsically linked to each other and more complex than the example of colour because they have extra dimensions that have been historically out of the control of the brand / retailer: individual body shape, individual body size, and individual fit preference.

To accurately analyze then iterate fit and sizing an understanding of individual body size, body shape and individual preference is required.

Brands and retailers in my experience have a foundational understanding of size as an attribute and can highlight best selling sizes, size curve distribution, and size replenishment. However, size is directly related to fit. If size ‘Large’ is the best selling size, for example, do you know how this size ‘Large’ is actually being worn by your consumers? Without understanding your individual consumers’ body dimensions it’s pure guesswork and, as a result, more size ‘Larges’ are created and pushed into the marketplace irrespective of how this size ‘Large’ fits (Slim, Reg, Loose, etc). We all know that a consumer will either:

  1. Return a product if it doesn’t fit, or
  2. Size up or down to achieve the desired fit for their individual body shape, size and preference.

Both of these options skew the analysis without a true understanding and clustering of individual body shape, size and preference.

Colour, by comparison, is much simpler: offer a range of colours, see which ones are purchased by your consumers and iterate. As a brand or retailer you do not have to understand the individualism of your consumers in order to iterate.

So, what’s the solution?

First, an understanding that more fits and sizes need to be offered to create the same choice proposition as other attributes (styling, colour, fabric, etc).

A ratio I like to draw attention to, is that we humans are 100% unique, there is no other human who is our exact size, shape, or proportion and shares the same fit preference as us. To think we can cater for this uniqueness with 1-2-3 fits in a size range of 6-9 SKUs ( – even this example is a ratio of 3 fits x 9 SKUs [sizes], which equals a total of 27) for infinite body shapes, sizes, proportions, and preferences, is a ratio that is set up to fail.

Secondly, an understanding that these fits will be absorbed differently by your consumers – a slim fit T-shirt, for example, may be purchased in a larger size and worn loose. Only an understanding of individual body shape and size, coupled with purchase history would reveal this preference.

Thirdly, a mechanism to obtain and cluster your consumer’s body shapes, sizes and fit preferences.

And lastly, data analysis of fit and sizing to analyze fit and sizing sales / sell through and returns, compare/contrast fit against different sizes and layer in the intelligence of individual body shape, size and preference.

These 4 steps will help position fit and sizing as a vehicle of choice and a platform to iterate, understand what is working and what is not. Then as a result will turn fit and sizing into a competitive advantage.

The obvious problem that would need to be addressed is SKU proliferation: offering 9 different fits across 10 sizes, for example, would increase the SKU count by 63! Over 200% compared to the 3 fits x 9 sizes example I gave earlier.

This would require a different supply chain, distribution, replenishment and retail model. If COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s that e-com is here to stay and e-com offers a different retail model. No longer do all these fits and sizes need to be cascaded to every store; these can be centrally located at distribution centres, somewhat solving the retail and distribution model conundrum.

Supply chain and replenishment calls for less mass production and much more small to single batch manufacturing. Most retailers and brands have been initiating this for several years to lower excess inventory and maximize full price sales. I am challenging that fit and sizing should be part of these initiatives.

If a brand / retailer can produce in small batches, replenish in small batches and centrally distribute then why would the fit and size rules of old apply?

Call it disruption or evolution. But I believe 2021 will be a year in which we will see significant change in the fits and sizing offered by brands and retailers. I just ordered my first made-to-measure T-shirt from Amazon; I entered my height and weight, the app captured my body dimensions from the camera on my smart phone, and then I chose fabric, fit preference, neckline, and sleeve length – all for $25, estimated delivery 5-10 days.

Look out for my next article on fit: however good or bad, the platform is being created to readdress the ratio of few sizes in fewer fits to infinite body shapes, sizes, proportions and preferences.

Fit and size is a competitive advantage, it just needs to analyzed and iterated differently.

Mark Charlton With more than 20 years’ experience in the apparel industry, Mark Charlton is a technical leader who has worked with manufacturers, trading companies, direct-to-consumer retailers,omni-channel national and global brands. His key focus is product groups from M2M tailoring to lingerie and everything in-between. He has an uncompromising approach to understanding the complexities of apparel fit, both on a consumer and global level. Additionally, Mark has a proven record of driving and implementing organizational and process change from corporate teams throughout the global supply chain.