As luck would have it, on duty that day was a fairly unusual member of staff. Most of the people who worked in the store were experienced sales assistants. However, this time the staffing was augmented by the presence of a man who had decades of practice as a fashion designer, pattern-cutter and dressmaker a semi-retired old friend of the owner, who simply enjoyed 'keeping his hand in' by helping out occasionally.
This gentleman hurriedly stepped in to prevent Ms Smith entering the changing room. The conversation went something like this:
Designer: 'Oh, I see you have the wrong size there (it's a size 12: obviously you need at least a size 14). I'll get you the right size to try on'.
Helen Smith: 'Excuse me, I'm fully aware of what size I've got. I always take a size 12'.
Designer: 'You certainly won't fit into a size 12. We'll see if you can get into a size 14'.
There followed a brief contretemps marked by a spike in ambient temperature. La Smith declined to take a size 14 into the changing room on the ironclad reasoning that she had 'never taken over a size 12' in her life.
The designer, who knew everything there was to know about the fit of all the clothing in the store, and was perfectly capable of sizing up every millimetre of Helen with a single icy stare, stood firm. Perhaps she had put on a little weight recently, he speculated. The mercury continued rising.
The situation really came to a head when the designer strategically barred the way into the changing room, having opined that, if Ms Smith 'tried to force her way into that size' she was likely to 'do an awful lot of damage to an outfit worth a thousand pounds'.
I would say that Helen Smith left the store in a huff, but the expression 'towering rage' would be more accurate. This was not a woman who ever intended to do any business with my comrade's company ever again. Nor were any of her equally big-spending friends likely to remain ignorant of the slight.
So what does this story something that happened a long time ago in an old-fashioned retailing era tell us that is going to help in today's new world of fashion e-commerce?
Well, in human nature, just as nothing is ever completely new, so nothing is ever totally out-dated. This confrontation was actually one that holds crucial relevance to today's online fashion industry.
Looked at through a modern-day lens, the elements of the incident can be broken down thus:
- A customer who didn't know what size she really was.
- A customer who had been scanned, and her measurements and shape accurately identified by the retailer.
- A retailer who had perfect knowledge of the size and fit of garments being retailed.
- A client who was very emotionally invested in being a particular clothing size.
- A garment that risked unnecessary handling, likely to be detrimental to its value.
- The potential loss of a sale due to a poor fit.
- A possible loss of repeat sales due to confusion, disappointment and lack of confidence about sizing.
- Damage to goodwill: a valuable client left feeling alienated by the failure of the communication and customer service process.
- The contagion of bad PR to other potential customers.
From such a point of view this is a checklist of problems that apparel e-commerce retailers are now up against when trying to fit their customers. This industry needs to be able to target the correct fit towards consumers, as never before. Online product returns have reached epidemic levels, and are an extremely expensive and unsustainable luxury that we cannot afford.
We are rapidly approaching a time when, technically, we will have the ability to direct precisely measured and graded garments towards perfectly sized-up customers, but until we understand how to bring about a meeting of minds between buyer and seller, we will fail to make the most of our advances.
I believe there are tech developers working in the fashion industry right now who like the designer in my example think everything is going to be really easy. All we have to do is to point subject A towards product B. Simple. I hate to rain on anyone's parade, but sometimes it's worth irrigating the grass every now and again. From a practical point of view, how are we going to go about getting that necessary 'meeting of minds'?
Let's transpose the story into the near future. Helen Smith intends to buy some designer clothing online, and she visits a site and sees some garments she likes. She allows herself to be scanned (we are, as I write this, working on having this tech readily available to everybody at home). She then goes ahead with selecting her garment. As before, she sees herself as a size 12. But she needs to take a size 14.Scenario 1
: She is shown an accurate (some would say, cruelly precise
) 3D avatar of herself.
She takes one look at the image, and is appalled. This is not because she is vain (although she might be); it's because few (if any) of us look like Lara Croft in real life, and Helen, like the majority of people, will not like the look of her avatar. She leaves the site straight away, and goes on her chosen social media to warn her substantial quantity of followers against the brand concerned.Scenario 2
: Helen visits a second website, which this time uses an idealised avatar one with more attractive proportions and fewer 'lumps and bumps' than their customer's actual body.
The brand offers the ability to virtually 'try on' clothing, and Helen stubbornly opts to view the size 12 garment on her avatar. The text indicates that the garment is too small. Because the avatar is flatteringly unrealistic, the tight dress looks fairly good on it: this firmed-up image is actually aspirational.
The recommendation system suggests that she views a size 14 on the avatar, but Helen ignores the advice.
She orders the size 12, which is subsequently returned.It seems that if we want to get e-commerce customers into our clothes, we are going to have to get into their heads.
Not everybody has in-built issues about their size (although a sizable I would even say surprisingly large proportion of people do), but most need help with obtaining their preferred fit when purchasing remotely, because it is an individual and complex issue. Each person (particularly each woman) has one of a number of distinct body shapes. Apparel is made in a selection of these shapes (nowhere near enough to actually suit the consumers, but that's another story) meaning that one person, if they can get a fit at all, may well take a certain size in one brand, and something completely different in another. This just adds to the confusion.
The systems that we evolve in interacting with our e-commerce customers have to be every bit as carefully considered as was the customer service that developed over many decades in bricks-and-mortar stores. We should not be blasé and jump into unnecessarily fulsome disclosure with our customers, because, if we did so, we would often have to tell or show people something that they do not want to hear or see.
How did I train my staff to deal with squaring this circle? The most important thing is to help the client to find her preferred fit as swiftly as possible. Consumers quickly get demoralised when confronted with ill-fitting apparel and many times they take failure personally. The aesthetic result is always the customer's call, but it is important that she is offered expert advice to help her to achieve her goal without overemphasising sizes or measurements. Ultimately, the customer is happier if she is simply given the correct size from the outset.
If we are experts (and we certainly should be), we should be bold and confident about taking control of the fitting service it is our duty to curate what is offered to our clients but we have to be thoughtful, subtle and tactful as well. With the development of avatars, we are going to have to create a new language where the customer is not shown the unvarnished truth about their bodies, whilst they are fully aware that what they see is not to be taken too literally, either.
Now we are experiencing the new technology we have to introduce a new framework within which to interface with it. This doesn't mean a loss of control for the consumer although it can seem so initially. When we board an aeroplane, we enjoy the freedom of movement that our society, our technology and our pockets, allows. We choose where we are going, how, and at what time. We may even select our seats, meals and entertainment, and rightly feel that we have the management of our journey, yet we do not expect to be taken to the cockpit and handed the controls of the plane.
By the same token, the customer's control over the selection of the size of garments should be limited to the final destination their preferred fit of the chosen piece. Once we have established the customer's preferences and their physical sizing, and been able to refer to a perfect knowledge of the actual measurements of the garment, it makes no sense to offer a choice of sizes. We can say that our aim is to minimise product returns, but another way of putting it is that we are aiming at consistently providing customer satisfaction.
Alexandra Shulman, the celebrated Vogue editor, once said that when fashion concentrates on size, the garment is in control: emphasising fit wrested that control back into the hands of the consumer. As soon as we can body-scan our customers, we must throw the myth of size choice out of the window, and provide a fitting service instead.
In order to achieve this we are going to have to remove the whole concept of standardised clothing sizes from the wearer's mind and this is going to be helped by the fact that it is shortly going to be a defunct concept anyway.
When we are able to scan the majority of our consumers we will see how divergent the body shapes of human beings are, and then move forward into creating apparel in the far wider range of gradings and fits that are necessary to provide customer satisfaction for the majority of our population. To shoehorn these divergent shapes and measurements into the old sizing system will not be possible.
Let's quickly welcome an end to today's outmoded sizing system, which is no longer fit for purpose if it ever was. We need to educate our industry and our consumers into a new era of accurate fitting. In my opinion, this can't start soon enough.