Apparel sizing issue cost retailers billions.

Apparel retailers are currently suffering enormous return rates due to poor fit and, consequently, shoppers are expressing their woes with the process of trying to find clothing that will work for their bodies. According to a recent report by the National Retail Federation and The Retail Equation, retailers’ experience $260.5 billion in global apparel returns annually,

The report also emphasizes the deep consequences of the phenomenon stating that “if merchandise returns were a corporation, it would rank number three on the Fortune 500 list.”

How did we get here?

The Standard Sizing Mess — A Brief History

Prior to the mid-19th century, nearly all clothing was custom-made individually, by a tailor or by a seamstress at home. All of this changed during the Civil War because of the huge volume of uniforms needed. Manufacturers began to build factories, and for the first time, uniforms were mass-produced in a basic size created by measuring soldiers’ chests, and guessing the size based on that one piece of information.

Beginning in the Twenties, multiple factors combined to create a necessity for women’s ready-to-wear sizing. The rise of industrial production techniques, along with newly popular mail-order catalogs, created a demand that was fueled by the rise of the advertising industry. Unfortunately, retailers at the time used a variety of different sizing systems, and as a result, women found that the clothes often didn’t fit the way they expected.

In 1958, the National Bureau of Standards conducted a study to analyze the previous sizing charts and added in the measurements of some women who served in the army during World War II. This sizing standard study was published in 1958 as the “Body Measurements for the Sizing of Women’s Patterns and Apparel.”

One of the key problems with the study quickly became apparent: a decided lack of diversity. Non-white women weren’t included, limiting the range of results. The results were hopelessly skewed, and therefore the sizing standard was inaccurate. Acknowledging this, an update to the standards was attempted in the Seventies. But this was to no avail, as brands had already started creating their own sizing patterns based on their unique customer demographics — the same situation the industry struggles with today.

As time passed, the general population began to gain weight and change shape. Many brands and manufacturers responded with “vanity sizing” — appealing to a customer’s ego as a marketing strategy. Vanity sizing, or size inflation, is still rampant today, meaning that sizes are changing quickly. The smallest size in 1958 was a size 8; now the lowest is size 00.

Returns Today: By the Numbers

In the digital age, the lack of sizing standardization presents a bigger issue. Brick-and-mortar stores offer an obvious solution: changing rooms. Now, however, sizing uncertainty has created an enormous impact on bottom lines in the form of high apparel return rates. In fact, apparel return rates are the highest of any product vertical, adding up to billions of dollars annually in lost revenue. According to former Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru, offline returns average around 10 percent, online purchases clock in at 20 percent, and “expensive” online purchases are returned up to 50 percent of the time.

Free returns are becoming the expectation. A 2015 study by the National Retail Federation showed that 49 percent of retailers were offering free return shipping — a number that is expected to rise to 50 percent by the end of 2016.

With high return rates in online apparel shopping, it is still important to offer customers free and easy returns. A study conducted by Forrester and commissioned by the United States Postal Service shows that if returning an item from an online store is a hassle, 73 percent of respondents agree that they are less likely to buy from that retailer in the future.

As free returns begin to become the norm, an emerging consumer trend has codeveloped: the bedroom as changing room. Given the widespread challenge of consumer sizing across brands, shoppers have attempted to solve their uncertainties by trying multiple sizes on at home. Since size charts are often terribly confusing, trying on multiple sizes of a product with the intention of returning the ill-fitting ones has become the consumer-driven solution to the problem.

The problem with size charts is that they rarely help a shopper actually select the best size. They usually include a description of body measurements, such as “hips,” that often require using a measuring tape, a step that online shoppers are unlikely to take. After all, the average person doesn’t know their hip circumference — and might not even know exactly where the “hips” are for these purposes. When faced with sizing uncertainty, many shoppers hesitate to complete the purchase at all.

Reducing Return Rates and Fixing Fit With Tech

The problem may be old, but thanks to technological advances, solutions are available. By thoughtfully leveraging current technologies, such as machine learning algorithms, brands can help shoppers find the answers to their fit questions. Smart businesses are helping shoppers determine their size through technology: by asking shoppers simple questions, and then applying in-depth data science to offer intelligent recommendations

At the core of sizing patterns are body measurements, which represent countless variations of sizes and shapes. Unlocking human body data is paramount in understanding how a garment will fit.

What we’ve learned is that in order to obtain the most accurate garment recommendation, we must first have an accurate, detailed prediction of a shopper’s body measurements. Retailers no longer have to be trapped by high return rates, nor do consumers need to continue to wade through confusing size charts or a bedroom full of things to be returned.

Daina Burnes is cofounder and chief executive officer of Fashion Metric.

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