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CAN VIRTUAL FIT TECHNOLOGY STEP UP AND REPLACE FITTING ROOMS?

August 25, 2020


BY
MAGHAN MCDOWELL

25 AUGUST 2020

With fitting rooms closed, physical retailers are looking to online tools to circumvent try-ons and increase consumer confidence.

The urgency to solve for virtual fit, once relegated online, has extended to stores, where the pandemic has made trying on clothing more complicated.

Reopened stores are mostly contactless, meaning that fitting rooms are closed, restricted or just unappealing; 65 per cent of women feel unsafe trying on apparel in dressing rooms, according to First Insight. Thus, shoppers are left to guess size and fit — and more inclined to adopt the buy-then-try behaviours that mimic e-commerce. The phenomenon has compromised a key value proposition for stores; fit is the top reason for online returns, which for apparel can be 40 per cent. Even before the pandemic, returns overall cost retailers one-third of their revenues annually.

“People are using their bedrooms as fitting rooms,” says Haniff Brown, founder and CEO of fit-tech startup Fit:Match. Next month, Fit:Match will open a first-of-its-kind fit studio in Chicago’s Oakbrook Center that scans people to make product recommendations. More than 50 brands have signed on, including Ted Baker, Good American and Under Armour, and Fit:Match plans to open studios in Los Angeles and Dallas this autumn as part of a national expansion.

Fit technology hasn’t been a slam-dunk, online or otherwise. Ideal fit is as much about personal preference as it is about mathematical measurements, and without consistent sizing across brands, size recommendations require precise measurements from both the customer and the brand. But during the pandemic, with retail stores hit hard, brands are relying on fitting room tech to not just bring customers back into stores, but improve the experience. A new sense of urgency could unlock virtual fit, be it online or in person.

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“Twenty years later, somehow this is still a problem — or opportunity,” says Karen Katz, consumer company advisor and former CEO of Neiman Marcus Group, who first met with a sizing tech startup in 2000 after the launch of neimanmarcus.com. “I dont know of anybody that has unlocked this one yet, but [solving this] would be staggering. The winning technology absolutely could be applied online or in-store.”

Fit:Match is one of a spate of fit-tech startups applying artificial intelligence to physical stores. True Fit, an online fit-tech tool that works with brands like Levi’s, Ralph Lauren and Kate Spade, is now having conversations with every one of its partners to use the tech in stores, says co-founder Jessica Murphy. Fit Analytics, which makes size recommendations based on an online survey, has been getting inbound interest from brands specifically for its in-store solution, even though the tool was created for e-commerce, says Irina Sulejmanovic, Fit Analytics senior client success manager. 3D Look, a company that generates 3D models and body measurements from selfies, partnered with Tailored Brands, parent company of Men's Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank, to be used by in-store associates — the first time the tech has been designed for an in-store experience.

AI can make fit recommendations in a number of ways. At Fit:Match’s fit studios, customers answer questions about height, weight and fit preferences in a mobile app, then 18 3D cameras capture 150 data points in 10 seconds. Its algorithm combines data from the scan with data from a brand’s tech pack, information on fabric qualities and other inputs to suggest specific styles and sizes from brand partners.

Fit:Match’s pilots collected more than 12,000 customer measurements and more than 1.8 million unique data points, while 80 per cent of shoppers who entered the studio were measured.

In pilots in Houston and Miami, the experience especially attracted millennials and Gen Z customers, with the average age being 27, Brown says, and reached a 95 per cent accuracy. Levy Group Inc, which owns brands including Nautica, Tahari and Betsey Johnson, recently signed on with Fit:Match in part because of the potential for insights into specific geographies to help the brand in merchandise planning, says Levy Group head of e-commerce Nick Levy, allowing for greater visibility on recommended sizes and styles for various areas before a purchase has been made.

True Fit has a profile for each of its 180 million registered users, who provide information on height, weight and the size and information on their best-fitting pieces of clothing. The profile gets smarter as it observes a customer’s specific behaviour across thousands of participating brands. Typically, for brands that adopt True Fit, conversions increase by three or four times, and there is a double-digit decrease in fit-related return rates, Murphy says. Recently, the platform has been adding about 2 million new users every week.

Bringing AI-based fit solutions into stores could give shoppers the convenience of in-person shopping without the need for them to try on clothes, and could help retailers recover from the loss of physical retail, which still accounts for 78 per cent of total US retail sales. Levy says that a tool like Fit:Match will give shoppers confidence. “It's obviously been a challenging environment, and Haniff is offering a really viable solution in a world in which no one wants to be shopping.”

While customers using Fit:Match can currently buy items online or find them in-store, Fit:Match is developing a concierge-style service in which the store brings customer-selected items to the fit studio. In the future, a brand with excess inventory in a certain size could then market that item to specific customers, Brown says. And True Fit is partnering with retailers to bring tech into stores through their apps; customers will be able to scan QR codes or bar codes within a retailer’s app to see personal recommendations, or they can access a personalised catalogue from within the store. While Murphy didn’t disclose which retailers will be the first to introduce the tool in stores, clients of its online tools include Macy’s, Ralph Lauren and Lane Bryant.

Fit Analytics adapted its online quiz for in-store associates. Brazilian womenswear brand Amaro saw a 2 per cent increase in conversions and a 4 per cent decrease in returns after two months using it online and in stores.

It’s not just customers who can use fit tech in stores. Some brands are providing them to in-store associates. As stores began to open, 3D Look was “bombarded” with calls from companies in need of a digital measurement tool for associates, says co-founder and chief strategy officer Whitney Cathcart. Tailored Brands adapted 3D Look’s online consumers-facing tool so that tailors can measure customers with an iPad without touching them.

Even as need for the technology increases, challenges stand in the way of it becoming mainstream quickly. “The specs in fashion are constantly changing, and you couple that with different bodies, and bodies change,” says Katz. Trying to sync all that together in one moment in time from a fashion perspective — I dont think it’s easy. We have been through so many generations of these kinds of technologies. Everyone knows it's a problem; it’s trying to come up with the right tech that’s the hard part.”

But sometimes, even simple technology works: Dutch suiting brand Suitsupply made clear “Safe Shopping Screens” that tailors can reach through. The company’s multiple new measures provide customers “a sense of the old normal as they integrate into a new normal shopping experience”, says company founder and CEO Fokke de Jong. “They don’t really change what the customer is doing when they have in-store customisations. They are still standing straight and looking into a mirror.”

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