It's no secret that online fashion is today grappling with a huge product returns problem: a conservatively estimated 25%
of all clothing being sent back to the retailer. This rate of failed sales is causing a host of problems from disruption to the inventory, through customer dissatisfaction to damage to the environment. And it is also a heavy financial burden to the industry: last year, customers in the US alone returned about $351 billion worth of items, according to estimates by National Retail Federation
. The vast majority of these refunds are reported by disappointed customers as being caused by poor fit, and, as with every business inefficiency, it is ultimately customers who foot the bill.
For e-commerce, selling stretchy, baggy and loose-fitting items is fairly easy, but obtaining the more specific fit required by the variety of fashion styles being retailed today is a complex undertaking. Even a cursory glance at a random group of people offers an illustration of the magnitude of the fit problem faced by fashion e-tailers. Human beings are extremely diverse when it comes to size and body shape. How can the correct items reliably be selected by consumers when they buy online?
Clearly, it is necessary to find out everything possible about a consumer's fit requirements before stock is sent out to them, but the solution to the e-commerce fashion returns problem doesn't begin and end with an individual customer at the point of sale. It starts with recognising the wide range of appropriately sized and shaped apparel that needs to be manufactured to suit the cohort of consumers in each distinct market worldwide. Data that the fashion industry gathers today will power the next phase of e-commerce and help it to become more ecologically responsible, profitable, and of better value to the consumer. It's clear that, such is the pressing need, e-commerce fashion should be gathering and deploying customer information wherever and whenever possible, but as yet this seems to be occurring only sporadically.
Take plus-size womenswear, for example, which represents about half the womenswear market (the half, in fact, that suffers from the most profound fit problems). My research found something of an 'all or nothing' gulf opening up between websites in this sector. On one hand, there are many fashion websites that still employ the 'tried and failed' sizing grid which abandons users to their own judgement, doing nothing more than outlining the size constraints of the brand in question and not harvesting any useful customer data. At the other extreme, e-commerce retailers dash headlong into an interrogation: presenting the customer with questions about height, weight, age, bra size, body measurements and the customer's 'usual' apparel size. These enquiries can show a breathtaking naivete, not only with regard to the sensitivity of the issues in question, but seemingly also with the accuracy of the responses.
Most plus-size women do not wear just one dress size: rather, they wear a bewildering range of sizes according to different clothing brands (or even the same brand), and many if not most plus-size women are presently wearing the wrong size bra. A considerable proportion of larger people spend years avoiding a weighing scale, and report finding it traumatic when required to face one, even in the enforced privacy of a doctor's surgery. Nor is it at all unusual for plus-size women to experience harsh criticism and social prejudice about their size and measurements, which can result in a strong dislike of being monitored. And this intimate questioning is taking place against a background of recent online data misuse, such as the recent Facebook scandal, which hardly reassures them about the confidentiality of their inputs.
Even when a consumer is willing to co-operate with all of this, some of the information gathering needs skill and basic equipment she may not have to hand (many larger people do not possess a tape measure or set of scales, for example). The quality of the metrics can also be in question, as a customer may find there is an emotional toll for facing up to the reality of her ever-changing body, ending up with her inputting 'tweaked' or 'aspirational' metrics. This then is a list of inputs which can cause discomfort, distrust, embarrassment, inaccuracy, practical difficulty, inconvenience and confusion all at the delicate point of making a sale!
This is a big ask, when all that is being offered in return is the ability to buy an item of clothing that fits properly, in a market where any number of garments can be sent (and, if necessary, returned) for free. It's hard to see what, exactly, is being offered to make it worthwhile.
So far, fit data that the fashion industry keeps on individuals has been a covert business: what happens from now on is going to matter more as we start to gather body metrics in the quantity and quality necessary for the purpose of making a serious dent on the returns problem. As a society, we are used to dealing with personal data, and most countries have laws that necessarily require confidentiality when storing information such as birth dates, addresses, bank details etc., but body metrics have to be different. In order to prevent the damage done by a mountain of stock returns, there has to be an entirely different way to deal with consumers' physical measurements which will, by necessity, always have to accompany them when shopping online, well before they have even clicked onto a website. The fashion consumer needs to be browsing by bodyshape and size
As yet, the population is not being kept informed about (or allowed to benefit from) the advantages of preventing unnecessary returns. It's clear that this situation is unsustainable, so at a time when the fashion industry needs to be restructured, it is necessary to have a more advanced, open and mature relationship with people about their physical data and provide genuine incentives to give the fashion industry what it needs. There should be no problem in sharing with consumers the financial riches gained from returns prevention nor should there be any secrecy in what is occurring in order to facilitate this: rather, it is necessary to do both in order to incentivise the consumers' co-operation. In the near future, we may see a covenant between the fashion industry and its customers that puts the latter at the centre of the fit process.The customer's contribution:
- Provide body metrics
- Allow purchase/return history to be monitored
- Participate with return reduction strategies
- Undertake conscious measuring systems
- Allow ongoing passive measuring
- Respect genuine data
- Tolerate social media access
- Contribute photographs
- Allow in-store data gathering
- Allow body metrics to be shared
- Be clear and upfront about everything at all times
- Inform the consumer as to the real price of returns (including the ecological damage)
- Share rewards with participating consumers according to their contributions
- Never take information without permission
- Educate/provide consumers with different input methods
- Give consumers a choice of which body metrics they are happy to reveal
- Provide all body data held on file easily and promptly when requested
- Do not feed-back data to the consumer unless asked
- Allow the customer complete control over who has access to the information
- Keep information completely secure
- Keep body data quarantined from all other data
- Do not allow use of metrics for any purpose other than that intended by the consumer
- Remove data/allow customer accounts to be closed when requested
Bodyshape and sizing information is a valuable commodity. It is needed to transform the fashion industry, and, in doing so, it will help solve one of its most intractable and damaging problems: that of product returns.
It should be controlled, understood and traded by its rightful owner: the consumer.