As data innovation affects every aspect of the industry, we invited Edward Gribbin – a leading authority on garment sizing – to discuss the challenging issue of fit.
In an age of instant information and gratification, enabled by new technologies and the internet, it seems incredible that something as seemingly simple as the sizing and fit of clothing remains such a mystery and challenge. Sizing and fit not only challenges consumers, it confuses retailers and brands alike. Customer populations are constantly changing in terms of stature, body size and shape; they are getting more diverse thanks to migration and accessible global tourism. Retailers are expanding to emerging markets for growth, but those markets have very different populations in terms of shape, stature and size. In effect, retailers and brands are trying to hit a pretty fast-moving target.
Consumers, on the other hand cannot understand why they might be two or even three different sizes even within the same brand; why they need to try everything on; and why their favorite brand seems to change their fit every season. The frustration of dealing with fit and sizing issues leads to lower conversion rates, lower sales, and reduced brand loyalty.
The clothing industry has been trying to find the answer to this dilemma for years, but only in the past decade or so has technology and data collection evolved to the point where viable solutions are at hand. In the early 2000’s, body scanners became more accessible and affordable and were used by industry groups, academia, and individual retailers to scan real shoppers and collect valuable data on body measurements, stature and shape characteristics. In analyzing the data, it became clear that for the vast majority of brands fit standards and size specifications were woefully outdated. They were not doing a very good job of matching their clothing with real people, and in many cases, less than 30% of consumers would actually be able to find off-the-rack clothes that fit them well. Making radical changes to their fit was not an option as that would have been riskier, in the minds of most retailers, than doing nothing.
A handful of pioneer retailers and brands did lead the way in employing new consumer data and analysis to modify and update their fit standards and the shaping of their products. Retailers such as Target or J.Crew in the US, and M&S and Littlewoods in the UK used the research to modify their sizing and better connect with their customers. They selected fit models who more closely resembled their actual customers and revised product specifications to be, in most cases, slightly larger to better accommodate the customer of today. From about 2000 to the beginning of the recession of 2008, the brands that did modify their fit to be more realistic, and the brands who did not, drifted further and further apart, exacerbating the confusion that consumers already harbored about fit and sizing.
When you add international expansion of brand and global tourism into the equation, that confusion multiplies. Different country size designations, an absence of country or international size correlation standards, different and dramatically inconsistent grading between sizes, and confusion around alpha, or letter sizing, such as S-M-L-XL all add up to a perplexing environment for shoppers.
If the traditional retail models of ten years ago were still dominant today, the situation would be bad, but when you factor in the new realities of retail, they get even worse. Today web and mobile technologies are radically changing the way consumers shop for and buy clothes. Retailers are responding by developing and embracing omnichannel strategies designed to give consumers what they want, when and where they want it. But these strategies do nothing to address the differences and challenges around size and fit. They basically take the all-important fitting room and, essentially, move it into the home, and they try to make up for the problem by making returns easier and ‘hassle-free’. However, as a shopper, when you buy something online and it does not fit and you have to return it, is there any such thing as ‘hassle-free’?
A new wave of technologies is just beginning to hit the market that (a) acknowledge that different brands fit differently, and that they will likely never align; and (b) can help individual shoppers, no matter what their size or body shape, find the brands with the best personal fit for them. These technologies, can quantify the exact size and shape variances among thousands of brands. They will allow brands and retailers to more accurately connect shoppers with the brands and styles that will fit and flatter them on a personal level.
Fit among brands may never be aligned, but empowering consumers with better information and simple, intuitive tools, designed for today’s increasingly mobile lifestyles, will ease the pain of finding the right size the next time they need that perfect fit.
Edward Gribbin is President of Alvanon, who have compiled the world’s largest database of 400,000 body scans and provides customized fit and product development strategies and tools to the world’s leading fashion brands and retailers.