In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, delves further into the industry’s issue with fit when it comes to plus size womenswear – and offers a promising way out. Emma has worked in retail for over 3 decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.
How do we learn to understand consumers’ sizing requirements so as to prevent fashion returns?
In bricks-and-mortar fashion retail (and, indeed, in most face-to-face selling environments) salespeople sometimes have the mortifying experience of judging a customer by what they look like, only to discover later on, that they’ve made a complete misjudgement. When a person walks into a classy boutique wearing a threadbare £50 coat, for example, it’s all too easy for the assistant to dismiss the idea that they will walk out with that £500 replacement. Yet this can and does happen frequently: people can surprise you. This is why an experienced retailer will warn that, when directing a consumer towards a product, it is very dangerous to make judgements about that person’s needs, just by looking at what they have previously purchased.
With online fashion, even completing a sale is not everything. Were the retailer to close a deal with a consumer for their dream product, perfectly suited to their personal style and pocketbook, the company’s relationship with that particular transaction is often far from over. Indeed, with this industry, post-purchase, the problems are sometimes just about to begin, and that hard-won sale morph into an expensive refund. Between 20% and 40% of all online fashion sales are returned and for around 46% of these returns, the cause is reported as being due to fit problems.
My work is all about womenswear fit, and here, we’ve seen that relying on the consumer to judge her own size has proved of questionable wisdom. In-store, it’s possible to witness the denial, insufficient knowledge and bewilderment about sizing that many customers exhibit, but any confusion rarely survives trying the garment on in a fitting room. The shopper for apparel online, however, opens up a panoply of problems for the retailer. Does she, for example, know her measurements day-to-day (or indeed, does she know how to measure herself, and have the equipment to do so)? Is she willing to throw aside delusion and confront the reality of her body? Does she have the time, knowledge and attention-span to navigate the sizing boxes that are often the only thing to go on with many fashion websites (even for a sizing expert, these simple-looking charts can disguise a labyrinth of complexity)? Even where “fit tools” are employed on a website, what efficacy can they achieve in what, by necessity, is such a brief encounter with the customer? And who, if anyone, can adequately understand the particular sizing and grading she is looking at, when there is such a lack of standardisation in the industry?
All in all, is it wise to assume that anyone can be relied on to identify their correct size when shopping remotely? Judging by the prevailing number of returns, the answer is a resounding no.
Fit is about so much more than just accurate sizing and measurements. Fashion itself is preference (and fit preference – the way someone prefers to wear their clothes – is a vital aspect with apparel). A consumer is likely to return an item which, although a conventional “good fit”, does not interact with her body in the way that makes her feel comfortable. In this area, yet again, it’s all too easy to look at what is in front of you and mistakenly predict a consumer’s desires. A person’s fit preference changes from one garment type to another, between differing fabrics, from time to time and – even more confusingly – from one part of her body to another.
It’s likely, for example, that someone would like their party dress to fit in a different way to their gym attire, which may, again, need to fit differently to their work outfit (that’s to say, if “workwear” still exists by the end of the pandemic). Very often, people have personal sensitivities and look for extra ‘’ease’’ of fabric on one particular part of their body (the “Does my bum look big in this?” syndrome). Nor is it possible to extrapolate one person’s tastes from what has been observed in other people. For example, one consumer might choose her workwear to be inexpensive, loose-fitting, practical and long-lasting, where with another it’s all about the “corporate look”: tailored to within a millimetre, comfort and economy be damned.
It’s simply not practical to expect a consumer to make all the subtle judgements and wide range of choices necessary to achieve the fit she needs when she purchases online. That’s largely what’s happening at the moment, and we can see how this fails by the rate of returns. Even were the industry able to offer a consumer the highly technical fit knowledge about each product (information that retailers – large and small – do not necessarily possesses), she is unlikely to have the time, motivation or judgement necessary to do the complex calculations that result in a well-fitting garment. Ultimately, if there is to be a solution for online fit-related returns (and there has to be), it will by necessity be provided by technology.
But this can’t be achieved by solely judging people on what they have bought in the past. Some fit tools analyse a customer’s needs by asking her to report the sizes and brands of previous purchases, but even if AI was capable of automatically looking at the history of every one of the sizes and types of apparel she had previously purchased online, at best, it would still only be able to offer crude advice on the issue of sizing and fit. This is due to countless issues. For example, a consumer may change size or shape through diet and exercise: may have altered her style, recently had a baby or gone through the menopause, modified her confidence level, been influenced by a new partner’s taste, be purchasing for someone else, or gained a new job that demanded different professional attire. She may, in short, be living a life.
Further, due to the lack of sizing standardisation, the person in question may simply have had to settle for different sizes to achieve an acceptable fit across divergent brands too countless to analyse. Add this to the mysteries presented by her various personal fit preferences, her history would look quite complex and inexplicable. So even if the technology miraculously had access to a mountain of information about the consumer’s buying, almost instantly, much of it would be out-of-date, irrelevant or misleading.
Ultimately, if there is going to be an exhaustive solution to the garment returns issue, it will be necessary for governments to licence secure, independent commercial agencies that -armed with thoroughgoing consumer authorisation and cooperation – will gather every piece of available information that can be known about the consumer’s physique and fit preferences and collate them in one space. Technology presently being developed in a number of start-ups will need to be brought into the scheme, which will utilise a diverse range of techniques. It will keep a record of regular body scans (no doubt undertaken by an app on the consumer’s phone, backed up with occasional visits to 3D scanning pods): actual body measurements to go alongside purchase and returns history, weight, or any other metrics. Most importantly, the consumer will voluntarily input further relevant personal information to fill in data points, such as fit preference. Working along similar lines to credit card agencies, these entities will create a “fit ID” of individuals, which the organisation will present securely at the point of sale, so that the participant can enjoy rewards of free postage and returns, discounts, special offers, priority shopping, enhanced ease of purchase, tax breaks and safeguards against the loss of data security. There may even be, in the future, something along the lines of “carbon vouchers”, putting the enthusiastic participant into a “carbon credit” situation. Additionally, the member will retain the ability to delete or transfer the account at any time. Every effort possible should go into making it a body that is worthwhile for members of the public to join voluntarily: the legal compulsion for participation being directed solely towards the companies concerned. Initially, this may not suit every consumer’s taste, but such a system need only attract a percentage of the population to be highly effective. And, in time, social pressure would encourage it to become the norm.
So does this scenario – this elaborate system adopted by governments – look like something that’s about to happen anytime soon? Or does it appear to be nothing more than an idealistic pipedream? I believe that, actually, this kind of solution, although radical, is not unrealistic. In the interests of preventing further damage to the planet, the public has started to become accustomed to technological advances that initially looked unlikely. For example, had it been suggested ten years ago that by 2020 the UK would produce 20% of its electricity from wind farms, this would have seemed fanciful. Yet it is now the case. From solar panels to electric cars, human beings are seeing a cause for carbon-friendly solutions. Fashion retail’s damaging returns problem is another example of an area ripe for change: Forbes reports that apparel returns contribute 4.7 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually: this is not an insignificant problem, any more than it than it is one that is likely to go away on its own. And there is no shortage of finance for such a scheme: globally, internet-based fashion retail is presently looking down the barrel of a trillion dollars of apparel returns annually, so any system that effectively addresses this will not only be self-funding, it will prove to be extremely lucrative.
The fashion industry itself should be lobbying for this to happen.
Solutions to online fashion’s sizing and returns problem should be seen as essential eco-friendly technology; it cannot happen soon enough for consumers to recognise that these developments can prevent millions of tons of carbon being pumped annually into the Earth’s atmosphere.