A Question of Fit

The breadth of problems e-commerce has solved is staggering. We can shop 24/7 at most national retailers and many of our local favorites. We are assured of getting one of the first copies of the latest Harry Potter novel long before it hits bookstores. We order tickets for the latest blockbuster movie weeks before opening weekend. We customize the captions on our M&M’s as well as the components in our computers.

Customer service was never more transparent. Order tracking is a click away, eliminating time spent on hold, listening to bad music interrupted only by repetitive promotional offers. If we can’t wait for delivery, the most advance multichannel retailers will let us order online and pick up in the store.

Throw in the ease of comparing prices and widespread availability of customer reviews, and it would seem we may have attained a kind of shopper’s nirvana.

Struggling to Fit Customers

There is one remaining imperfection: Apparel retailers seem to still be struggling to deliver the “perfect fit” online.

The need for the perfect — or at least a better — fit plagues consumers and retailers alike. So why can’t the e-commerce wizards crack this problem like they have so many others? Apparel retailers are motivated — cutting down the US$28 billion lost in returns due to poor fit would reshape their bottom lines. Today’s time-starved consumers are ready. So what’s the hold up?

It’s simple. This is not a technology problem — or rather, this is not a problem technology can fix. First, as we all know, human beings come in a chaotic and unpredictable number of shapes. These shapes are also constantly shifting. Today’s perfect fit may be a little different from the one that worked so well a year ago.

Now the programmers step forward. Software can be programmed to take millions of numbers and turn them into the required shape. This chaos of human forms is of course programmable, and the output of that program can be utilized to build clothes.

200 Measurements

The software company Intellifit promises to do just that, declaring it only takes “200 body measurements” to really get the perfect fit. Their business model requires consumers to go to specific stores or other locations to be measured. From this measurement, a “print” is created and is used to identify brand name clothes that match this print, “guaranteeing a perfect fit.” Intellifit fittings can be done at many Levi’s stores, as well as other retailers across the nation.

The software may work; however, its understanding of human behavior has a bit of a bug. It is one thing to stand in a dressing room with a suit or dress on (that you already love and must have) and submit to the pin-pricks, pirouettes before the mirror and endless measurements. You are already in the store and you are already committed to the clothing. Getting an Intellifit requires a trip to a retailer you may or may not know where it has been suggested you will endure a fitting encompassing 200 measurements.

Exactly how perfect do we want that fit?

Shopping by Shape

However, myShape.com simplifies this process and demonstrates a deeper understanding of the online shopping experience. To start, it offers an array of designer ready-to-wear items, available free for browsing and immediate purchase. It also provides a more intricate version of a shape system used by multichannel retailers such as L.L. Bean. L.L. Bean offers a description of body shapes by using a rectangle, triangle or circle to provide a bit of customization for items such as bathing suits.

At myShape.com, it takes the shape system deeper with 7 body shapes — M, Y, S, H, A, P and E. These are clearly defined and may be helpful. These are applied to their entire offering, and visitors can shop by shape, calling up clothes that is best for them. So far, this is a good extension of the work better known retailers have already begun.

Additionally, myShape.com takes it one step further, offering “A Personal Shop.” Here it runs up against two problems. The first all online marketers face. How much information is too much for the customer to give? They ask for a lot, and while the site designers smartly support saving mid-process, there is one last page that is just too taxing.

All About Motivation

The second problem is, once again, input — the real barrier between a programmable solution to the perfect fit and clothes with the perfect fit. myShape.com wants our measurements, and this requires a visitors investment of time, effort and the use of a tool most of us dread seeing whether a size 4 or 14 — the tape measure.

Again, it comes down to how motivated are we to get the perfect fit?

Having a clear answer to this question is at the core of success of retailers like L.L. Bean, Land’s End and Eddie Bauer. They understand a significant ratio — the importance of the fit is a ratio of the type of clothing and the perceived value of the clothing to the consumer.

Theirs is not the type of clothing that requires exact measurements to be perceived as fitting; outerwear, polo shirts and sweaters. Exceptions to this rule have been identified; for example, their shape systems come into play for bathing suits and pants.

In theory, myShape.com’s inventory is much more sensitive to delivering fit, and its price points are generally higher than L.L. Bean and competitors. This combination has led it to invest in the belief that online consumers will now be motivated take the extra steps to get the right fit.

However, they may be betting wrong.

Make It Easier

E-commerce solutions that have succeeded have one thing in common — they make it easier to do inconvenient tasks online (order gifts, track orders, be the first to have anything) than it was to do offline. myShape.com, Intellifit and their like fail to pass this critical test. The perfect fit still requires measurements, awkward poses and now forms to fill out. They make big promises — and may indeed fulfill them, but what a lot of work to find out.

Why not just order the blouse, skirt, suit or pants and either return it — something that is now easier than ever to do — or take it to the tailor for a nip or tuck? These new online solutions just don’t fit our lives any better than the old ones, so we will probably stick with the old, and retailers should turn their technical attention to other problems — ones they can actually solve.

Perhaps all that technology should be applied to something else — like teaching kids to be tailors?

Kathy Sharpe is CEO of Sharpe Partners, a digital marketing agency that specializes in retail and e-commerce.

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