BBC Radio 4 Four Thought ident

Four Thought – Fit and finished

Please press the play button below to listen to my BBC Radio 4 'Four Thought' broadcast/podcast on 17 June 2020.



The process of clothing-size standardisation is at odds with the diversity of human bodies

Plus-size fashion: the shape of fit to come

Today's plus-size women's fashion suffers from a serious problem with fit.  This struggle is evinced by an unsustainably high level of e-commerce garment returns (between a half and three quarters of all online sales in this sector are ultimately cancelled), the lion's share of which is reported by consumers as being caused by 'poor fit'.  The subject of fit has become inextricably linked with the lack of sustainability that fashion (one of the world's major industries) presently wrestles with.

Fit has repercussions that go way beyond mere aesthetics and customer dissatisfaction: with major disruption to the inventory, wasteful delivery costs and newly manufactured product even ending up in landfill (just to scratch the surface: the list of ramifications is substantial).



Failure to obtain accurate apparel fit reliably presents ongoing ecological and product lifecycle damage that cannot be ignored.  So, if the industry could just develop dependable ways to ascertain the size of a customer at the point of sale, this would surely cure the problem?  No, it would not.  For one thing, size is not fit.

Across brands and styles, the fit requirements of a size 22 woman may vary anything from a size 16 up to a size 26

Anyone who is active in the plus-size (or regular) fashion social media platforms will be familiar with the drum-beat of pressure from consumers, influencers, activists and even the press who are desperate for there to be more 'standardisation' of the sizing system of apparel.  What they want appears to be reasonable: it is for all items that are sold as the same size to be of the same measurements, believing that this will result in an improvement in the ease of obtaining well-fitting apparel.  But it will not.  With the present system of sizing, it would almost certainly have the opposite effect, because the very process of standardisation within such a limited range of options is at odds with the diversity of human bodies.

It's easy to see why consumers are dissatisfied and confused.  My research with this cohort shows that any plus-size woman may well have a wide array of differently sized apparel in her wardrobe. Indeed, when ordering online (where she can't try something on before she buys), she has to make judgements about sizes on a brand-by-brand or style-by-style basis, often using sources such as customer reviews or her own experience of a brand, rather than the retailer's sizing information.  Across brands and styles, the fit requirements of, say, a size 22 woman may vary anything from a size 16 up to a size 26.  Attempting to judge by size label alone, it's practically impossible for a consumer to know for certain which garment to order online, so it is little wonder that the fashion industry is suffering from a major fit-related returns problem.

The lack of consistency of apparel sizing is a symptom of the problem, not the cause, which is that not all women are the same shape.  Plus-size women's figures diverge far more than 'mainstream' sized women, who themselves vary considerably.

The fashion industry doesn't really know enough about the body shapes of the female plus-size population, because the subject has never been studied with a large (or a representative) enough sample.  There have been far too few studies of 'curve' women, and there is no evidence that those that have been undertaken have actually looked at the entirety of the shapes of the consumer cohort.  In general, women who are willing to reveal their fit data to the fashion world are likely to be those who have an 'acceptable' body type: that is to say, their bodies are either 'well-proportioned', 'straight' or 'hourglass' shapes.  These are the figures that look more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, yet which, in all probability, encompass only half at most of all women.  Other shapes, which look less conventionally attractive, such as 'apple', 'pear' 'supersize' and 'busty' demand to be better studied in order for the industry to find out all it needs to know about the female plus-size consumer.

The present sizing method works on a very small and crude set of sizing, theoretically with no variation in body shape whatsoever; indeed (apart from being able to source garments with personal stylistic fit synergies) the only reason why most women find anything to fit them at all is the lack of precision and random variations that have grown up between brands over time.  Through a process of evolution, it is the very mutations in the grading DNA of various brands that have allowed them to exploit whatever niches in the commercial ecosystem to which they are best suited, with consumers learning which brands 'understand' them.  This is why so many plus-size women have to rely on brand knowledge, customer reviews and guesswork in order to buy apparel.

Even were it actually possible, standardising sizing would mean that all items of apparel (from every brand) would be manufactured with precisely the same measurements, doing away with this variety and creating a homogenised situation that would be less fair than ever.  It would be comparable to a cosmetics company producing a foundation for all women's skin tones by offering just one 'average' colour.  The resulting single-shade option would only suit a tiny number of women, disenfranchising most of the customer base.  If it sounds ridiculous to do this with skin tone, it is equally so with body shape: yet this very 'one grading fits all' system that is (albeit somewhat theoretically) what the fashion industry is deploying to fit customers. It is a situation that urgently calls for change.

Our society is highly censorious of women whose bodies differ from the 'beauty standards' of the day, so negativity is disproportionately directed at those with particularly divergent body shapes.  These women therefore experience an avalanche of opprobrium, with the mainstream media, strangers, social media (even friends or family members) directing health-vigilantism, ridicule or critical judgements towards their bodies.  Some divergently shaped women suffer a loss of body confidence, becoming extremely uncomfortable with having their physiques monitored and a significant number do not even want to know their own measurements.  This means that, in order to find out about their fit requirements, the fashion industry needs women who may be dissatisfied, secretive, embarrassed and perhaps even ashamed of their bodies to cooperate with having their fit data harvested.  Obtaining the participation of enough of this cohort is an extremely difficult ask.

Some divergently shaped women suffer a loss of body confidence, becoming extremely uncomfortable with having their physiques monitored and a significant number do not even want to know their own measurements

It is, in all likelihood, a better idea to approach consumers whilst they are participating in an activity when they look on body monitoring and analysis in a more positive light.  For example, my studies have shown that those who are engaged in what may be termed 'body transformation' are often far more accepting of physical examination.  Looking at scans taken from the health and fitness industry, it's clear that these have offered a far wider, more representative range of body shapes than those gathered by fashion studies.  It might be time to take a more imaginative approach about where to seek volunteers for the examination of the sizes and shapes of the female population.

The effort will be well worth it: with modern scanning techniques, the technology is available to make much more penetrative studies of the body shapes of this astonishingly diverse cohort.  What the apparel industry needs to accomplish it is the acceptance that body shape diversity is at the core of the fit problem, and the will to do something about it. 

The stakes are high enough to warrant making radical changes to e-commerce fashion: the returns issue is a significant problem assailing not only the plus-size sector, but all womenswear.  Anything that provides a fit for plus-size customers will also do so for all fashion consumers, of every size and sex.

Once the data has been obtained, in order to create a sizing system that is better suited for online retail, as can be anticipated, it will be necessary to develop one that is far more complicated than the model presently in use.  Given the wide number of differing body contours (which is virtually infinite), in the beginning it will be necessary to group women into a workable range of body shapes (say, six or seven), and then, possibly three heights (petite, average and tall), taking average measurements of each group to create a grading. Even with this (fairly gross) simplification, already there are 18 types of grading.  This is not size: this is body shape (which can probably be simplified down to about 12 for separates, when taking similarities between various 'half body zones' into account).  So, if the plus-size womenswear size range started at size 16 and went up to size 30 (just 8 sizes in the present system), the result would be a variety of around 100 differing sizes and gradings.  If this were expanded out to include 'mainstream' apparel sizes (which would be preferable), there may ultimately be something like 150 differing fits, as opposed to the 12 (official) sizes that exist now.  This is only one imagining of how a new methodology might be developed: there are many others, but they will be nearly all of equal or greater complexity.  Clearly, this is problematic, and goes a long way to explaining why, as yet, this has been a nettle that the fashion industry has not been overly keen to grasp.

Suggestions as to how exactly to take such a grip will probably be as varied as is the industry itself.  Larger companies may choose to stock an inventory with a full range of fits (I suggest calling them 'fits' rather than sizes) and medium-sized concerns may select a number of whichever lines of body shape customisation they believe suit their consumers best.  Luxury brands might develop individual customisation or even bespoke manufacture.  Tiny brands will possibly choose one (or perhaps two) body shapes to specialise in (much like the mutations in fit that happen today;  indeed, it will probably be possible to simply impose the new fit denomination on much existing inventory by simply analysing what is already there).  The difference will be that all consumers will know the exact measurements of apparel before they buy.

Complicated as it sounds, the cure need not be worse than the illness.  Technology is rapidly being developed to obtain fit details from customers at the point of sale, and new digital manufacturing processes are capable of producing the smaller runs of diverse fits that the inventory would require in order to supply a far more complex system. 

New procedures will also be able to analyse how styling alters the measurements of garments which in turn feeds into the individual consumer fit profile.  For the first time, apparel could be constructed to extremely precise measurements in a clear and sane manner, standardised across all brands.  The consumer would buy online with a high degree of confidence in fit.

There is no need for the fashion industry to be hidebound by outdated systems, struggling eternally with an unsustainable level of garment returns and a heavy carbon footprint.  The slow creeping towards a better, more efficient system has begun, but is likely to become a jostling, highly competitive stampede as the third decade of the millennium gets into full swing.


Women's fashion has always had a problem with the unrealistic mirror it holds up to its consumers

Fashion's broken mirror

In her last exclusive for WhichPLM this year, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the issues in our current sizing landscape. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 10 December 2019.



It's very nearly the end of the second decade into the millennium, and this is what today's average UK womenswear consumer looks like: she's 5'6" tall, with a bust measuring 36", waist 29", and hip 38.5".  She's twenty-two years old, white, with size-5 feet, perfect hair, skin and teeth.  She wears her clothing in exactly the way that the designers intended (in other words, she has predictable preferences) and she aspires to wear new clothing in a selection of the latest mainstream styles.  She works full-time in a job with above average pay, and she is free from insecurities about her body.  She has no physical blemishes, no disability, no religious or cultural sensitivities or other special requirements that might affect her choice of apparel, nor does she have any interest in where her clothing comes from or how its ecological footprint affects her environment.  Oh, and she rides a unicorn to and from work.

Women's fashion has always had a problem with the unrealistic mirror it holds up to its consumers.  Over the course of the last century, if this reflection were to be believed, the 'typical' woman has gone through repeated re-modelling.

Take one of the most instant and drastic changes, which happened in 1947, as an example.  That was the year that Christian Dior's 'New Look' appeared out of nowhere and thundered into the fashion scene, crashing and burning the somewhat masculine, natural and militaristic physique of the 'typical' 1940s woman.  In this new post-war epoch, if you didn't have the tiny 'wasp' waist or the wherewithal to have a skirt made out of 25 yards of fabric (not the easiest thing to do when it was still on wartime ration), as far as the fashion world was concerned you didn't exist.  Back then the physical, financial and lifestyle standards a woman had to live up to if she stood any chance of being taken seriously as a fashionable person were extremely onerous.  But then again, the fashion industry as it existed then had a tiny customer base and didn't need to cater to anyone else.

It certainly didn't need to know what all the fashion 'rejects' were doing at that time.  As it didn't sell apparel to just anybody, there was no need even to acknowledge the existence of, for example, women on lower incomes, or taller, larger or older women.  Nor need it concern itself, generally, with women of diverse ethnicities, or those who had jobs that did not allow them to wear these fashionably restrictive outfits.  These groups, alongside women with disabilities or 'non-standard' bodies, were airbrushed out of fashion history.  In apparel design terms, we know little about them.

But, surely, all this has no relevance to what is happening today?

A new generation of consumers have expectations of inclusivity, but are these images not an echo of the same restrictive forces that have always been at work in the fashion industry?

It's easy to say that things now are very different.  The present generation of women do not have to sign up to any particular style: indeed, differing stylistic looks are indulged and celebrated by a fashion industry that (in theory at least) is open to all.  A woman can opt for a sport-influenced or a goth-inspired persona, cover herself in bling, or decide to join any of a hundred other fashion 'tribes'.

And it would appear that women are 'allowed' to have different body shapes now, too.  They are to be seen advertisements and editorials for plus-size clothes, modelled by larger women, and there are increasing (yet still tiny) numbers of brands and designers who show their apparel on models with disabilities.  At long last, it's also slowly becoming unacceptable for a brand to restrict its images only to one race: a new generation of consumers have expectations of inclusivity.

But are these images not evidence of an enlightened era of diversity, but actually an echo of the same restrictive forces that have always been at work in the fashion industry?

My area of expertise, for example, size inclusive apparel, is still exceptionally poorly represented in advertising and fashion journalism.  Although it would no longer be true to say that larger women are invisible, their appearance is substantially shrouded.  The sheer number of plus-size women in the population is woefully underrepresented by fashion's visual output.

Worse still: the very character of the larger female cohort is distorted by the images we see.  'Curvy' women have far more diverse body shapes than their smaller-sized counterparts.  Due to the nature of women's bodies, any extra weight is not usually spread evenly over the entire physique but concentrated on those areas where the woman is inclined to store it.  This means that differing body shapes become more exaggerated as women grow larger.  There are at least six or seven main body types in the population – not that we would ever guess this by looking at plus size women in the media.

Does it matter if apparel images do not reflect the reality of women? After all, isn't fashion about aspiration, exclusivity and beauty?

The two basic body shapes that are 'acceptable' to the fashion industry are Perfectly Proportioned and Hourglass, and images of these are ubiquitous, despite the fact that they are rather rare types.  I would challenge anyone, for instance, to find an image of larger size fashion that is being advertised on a model who has an Apple-shape body.  It would be unheard of to use a model of this body shape in a national campaign, despite her figure being far more numerous than an Hourglass shape, for example.  In the plus-size world, incredibly, there has been a return of the 'wasp' waist.

Indeed, it would be extremely difficult to find images being provided by the fashion industry that include four out of six of the most common body shapes of real 'curvy' women.  As we are living in an era where a much higher proportion of the population are larger sized with diverse body types, this means that our fashion industry still 'disappears' a huge proportion of the population.

But does it really matter if apparel images do not reflect the reality of women?  After all, fashion is about aspiration, exclusivity and beauty, which by definition, are not the perquisite of the average person, and there can be no surprise that fashion images are more about the ideal than the actual.  These are promotional images, directed towards the public, and not the industry, yet I would argue that whereas they are not an accurate representation of the female population, they are an all too accurate representation of how the fashion industry sees its customers.

Just as it always has, the apparel world peers into its broken mirror and the fanciful image of the consumer that it sees is extremely telling. The evidence is there to see.

It's extremely difficult to obtain accurate figures for the exact proportion of UK women that are size 16 and over (due to the way that everything to do with size is complex), but it is likely to be about half the female population.  Yet, from a financial standpoint, the 'Curve' sector is about half the size of its 'mainstream' counterpart, and is thus extremely poorly served, with restricted design, price-point and quality, and a severe fit problem (evinced by a horrendous garment return rate).  Larger women are almost never seen as the muse for top designers; the entire sector is underdeveloped and ripe with untapped opportunity.

Any objective observer would, judging solely by what our fashion industry is sending out (both in terms of product and image), conclude that the average size woman in the UK is a size 12.  They would certainly not guess that women in the UK have such a high proportion of larger sizes with diverse shapes, any more than they would guess the range of ethnicities, ages, fit preferences and physical, political and social differences that exist in our population.  In many ways, it is still working on principles and methods developed in the last century, and the apparel business is (quite literally) the poorer for that.

In the third decade of the second millennium, for the first time, technology is being developed to gather accurate information about today's consumer cohort on a range of issues. The fashion industry is on the cusp of huge change, and there's not a unicorn in sight.


In this post (first written for WhichPLM) At Last founder, Emma Hayes, explores the issue we have with fit and returns – especially as it relates to the plus-size sector

Fashion fit and the returns covenant

Following on from her last exclusive for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the issue we have with fit and returns – especially as it relates to the plus-size sector.  Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 20 September 2019.



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.

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

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.

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

The industry:
  • 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.


Why not incentivise consumers to provide the fit information that the fashion industry needs?  Imagine a credit account whose currency is information; a consumer will ‘pay into’ this account by adding her data.

E-commerce fashion fit and the data credit card

In the era of e-commerce fashion we are suffering from an epidemic of poor fit.  Consumers do not know which, out of the sizes being offered, are the correct ones to choose, and sometimes this results in their decision not to buy anything at all; the issue of so-called 'abandoned baskets'. 

When they do decide to take the plunge, too often confused consumers fail to select the size that would fit them best, and the process ends up as an apparel return.  Worse, this return often leads to a disgruntled customer deciding never to try this brand again.



In addition, many apparel companies create product that simply does not fit the figures of their clients.  The problem, all too often, is about body shape (otherwise known as 'grading'). 

Fit is as much about shape as it is about size, but the fashion industry largely exists in a state of ignorance as to the body shapes in the population. 

Ultimately, this can lead to an inventory that offers no 'right size' for a consumer: nothing fits, because the shape is wrong.  Shockingly, this unsuitable new stock can end up in landfill.

To solve this problem information is needed.  Firstly, the body shapes of the customer base need to be gathered and studied so as to create an improved inventory, comprised of the correctly sized and shaped garments.  Then individual clients' body shapes need to be ascertained, at point of sale, so that the appropriate sizes are picked from that selection and sent out to them when they buy. 

Information is the name of the game – and it is incredibly valuable, yet it isn't easy to get.  Going out into the population to find meaningful data is a huge task, fraught with problems.  Firstly, there has to be a big enough sample (which needs to be substantial and widespread: there is no inhabited continent where we can afford to make assumptions as to body shape and size).  This study has to be on-going (body shapes change over time: for example, right now the waistlines of our population are growing and, simultaneously, certain demographics are changing – such as average age, which is rising).   

Then, the sample has to be accurate and representative.  When testing the cohort, those groups who are happy to donate their time to undertake testing for, for example, financial rewards, may have distinct features (they may be a younger sub-group for instance).  And other considerations also come into play.  In the plus-size sector, many women who have 'non-standard' body shapes (ironically, body shapes such as 'Pear' and 'Apple' shape are far more common than the figure that is assumed to be the 'norm', but which is actually rather rare, the 'Perfectly proportioned' shape) are super-sensitive about having their bodies analysed.  Many people contaminate their data by miss-reporting it, so the manner of gathering has to be bullet-proof.

Then there is the small matter of obtaining metrics from individual customers at point of sale.  It all sounds perfectly easy: how much of a problem can it be to ask women about their weight and body measurements?  (I'm being sarcastic, in case that's not obvious: to many women, there can hardly be anything more fraught with complication and sensitivity than asking for these details.)

All this data is valuable; so who deserves to benefit from that value?  Money flows back and forward in the fashion industry.  It enters via the consumer when a sale is made, then some of that flows down the plug-hole of customer returns, wasted stock and lost trade.  Would it be possible to divert some of that money away from these expensive (and ecologically damaging) causes, and send it back towards the provider of the data?

Imagine, if you will, a credit account whose currency is information.  A consumer will 'pay into' this account by adding her data. 

She might input her weight, height, bra size – or any of a significant number of metrics.  This gives her a credit.  With just these inputs, it may be enough to qualify her for free delivery with participating retailers.  At the point of sale, she is reminded that if she would like to also earn free returns, she might wish to 'top-up' her information with extra inputs.  She could, for example, opt to visit a body scanner in her nearby sports or shopping centre in order to make a major deposit of information.  If she is able to visit and be re-scanned regularly, she would be able to enjoy all free postage – and she would also be eligible for entry into prize draws, get early notice of sales events and discounts: a whole cornucopia of rewards could be opened up to her if she were to provide enough data.

And the method of payment could be endlessly flexible.  Each time she returns items, if she were to run through a thorough survey as to why the garment does not fit – then this will also earn her credits.  If she would like to link her social media account photographs to the system, this will pay into her account as well.  Each picture uploaded into the process represents a credit.  If she chooses to allow her anonymised information to be sold on to product developers who are analysing cohort data, this would raise some more credit for her.

She can also build up a good 'fit credit rating' by having a minimal returns footprint.  A woman found to use a returns service sparingly in comparison to how much she has purchased, may indeed end up being offered free returns as a reward.  Information has a sell-by date, so any data that she inputs will become stale and will need to be renewed, and she will be informed about this as it happens.  Regular upkeep will earn her rewards.
So who would want to give this data?  Wouldn't it be risky to be giving away all this personal information?  Not at all.

The data information credit service would work very much like a credit card.  Every piece of consumer data would be confidential and held 'in quarantine'.  Just like payment with a credit card, the information would be applied as and when it was needed only through very carefully controlled channels.  All the retailer would get to retain about the consumer is what is agreed with that individual.

The argument in favour of this system is a strong one.  For a start it's system that pays for itself: there would be no rewards offered that are not covered by the savings obtained, and it enables brands to make a significant dent in the ecological damage that is being done by the fashion industry.  It puts the consumer in control of the data – and, if anyone is to make money out of her information, it is only fair it is the owner – and provider – of that material.  It incentivises the customer to give the kind of data that is so desperately needed (and which is not as yet forthcoming in sufficient quantity and quality).  And it also encourages individuals in the population to take responsibility for their own carbon footprint, by making them aware of their history of returns.

Information is valuable and it belongs to the consumer.  Accurate, up-to-date data is desperately needed by the fashion industry.  A system where the customer is paid fairly for their participation is equitable and beneficial to all.


Free postage – the big, bad idea dogging fashion e-commerce?

Free postage – fashion's big, bad idea

This is a copy of an article written for WhichPLM.

In today's guest post Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and founder of At Last, shines a light into the hole we seem to have created for ourselves with free postage. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.



On the face of it, the offer of free postage (and particularly of free returns) on e-commerce fashion has got to be a win-win service.  Consumers are given the freedom to purchase their choice of apparel without too much worry about what they are getting themselves into, meaning that the retailer benefits from a quick and easy sale. This is particularly helpful for online retail, as it relies on the customer buying items based on trust.

Yet arguably, for customers, 'free' postage has led to increased costs, disappointing fit, frustration, time wastage, and harm to the environment.  And for the retailer damaged margins, havoc caused to the inventory, and stunted innovation.  Free postage has become a trap from which many brands cannot break free without risking market share.  It is right up there with the 'free plastic carrier bag' as one of retail's big, bad ideas.

Free postage is allowing consumers to buy product that is likely to be returned, with no apparent financial penalty, contributing to a situation where retailers are battling a huge and ever-growing returns problem.  Statista, for instance, estimates that in the US alone, returns costs will amount to $550 billion by 2020 – that's 75.2% more than in 2018.  If we allow this to happen that would be a lot of money draining out of any industry – and, of course, it all has to come from somewhere.  Once a brand has cut its margins down to the bone, the slack is taken up by the consumer.  So much for it being free!

One well-acknowledged downside of free postage – and a favourite journalistic obsession – is returns caused by customers abusing the system, either by buying items always doomed to be returned (caused by chronic dithering or 'buyers' remorse'), or worse, wearing and returning apparel: so-called 'wardrobing'.  Some people may indeed be overly click-happy, and it's also clear that there is a problem with individuals who use their retailer's website as if it were their personal wardrobe, wearing and then returning stock – all for free.  Retailers are beginning to grasp the nettle to deter this expensive behaviour; ASOS, for example, has recently caused a ripple in the news cycle by sending out an email to its customers warning: "If we notice an unusual pattern of returns activity: e.g. we suspect someone is actually wearing their purchases and then returning them or ordering and returning loads... then we might have to deactivate the account."

And ASOS is not alone: research from Barclaycard has revealed that 20% of retailers said they had made their returns policies more stringent in the past 12 months, with a further 19% of retailers saying they plan to do so in the next year.

That free deliveries encourage this kind of detrimental customer behaviour (which, by the way, pre-dates the internet, when bricks and mortar stores were not immune from what is – and always has been – an irritating minority activity) is undeniable, but whether punishing it actually makes a statistically significant impact on the overall level of returns is a moot point.  One would have to be convinced that it is rife.  Most likely, the real cause of most failed sales is not widespread and overwhelming consumer culpability, negligence or ineptitude; it's more likely to be an endemic industry problem: about 70% of all returns are actually reported as an issue with fit, and such a high statistic speaks for itself.

Free postage doesn't have to be a damaging proposition; it could be a very powerful tool for good if deployed creatively

If (just for the sake of argument) free delivery were banned, and instead all consumers were openly billed for the real cost of any return (postage [both ways] as well as all other costs, like issues caused by the disruption of the inventory, credit costs, administration, picking and re-stocking, stock shrinkage and packaging – not to mention a 'green tax' for damage to the environment), the hefty charge would mean a great disincentive for customers to buy product unless they were really sure that it was suitable.

Of course, this situation could only happen if all brands adopted the same methods.  Many retailers simply would not be able to stand up to their competition if they had to go it alone.  It's why the industry has become 'addicted' to free postage.  The pressure against retailers being the 'first to blink' is immense, and many brands would not be able to afford to hand their rivals such a competitive advantage on a plate.  But, hypothetically, if this method were employed throughout the sector, there would be a huge downward pressure on returns: every brand, retailer, manufacturer, investor, politician, consumer, journalist, and anyone interested in protecting the environment, would put the subject under the microscope in a national debate.  And, inevitably, that microscope would focus in on the number one reason for apparel returns... fit.

Overnight, those brands that still don't use any technology to establish the fit of their consumer at point of sale or, worse, aren't even developing a fit strategy, would be placed under scrutiny.  Consumers will realise that they have the right to expect a much better system of fitting them effectively, as it is they who pay for any failures.

So far, so hypothetical.  Back in the real world, the high costs of deliveries and returns are spread equally around all consumers: those who do and those don't frequently return items, and the cost is concealed under the banner 'free'.  Few consumers really understand the downside of this expensive habit.  But, at last, things are changing.  The fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined [source] and the damage to fashion's carbon footprint by all this extra transport and other wastage is weighing heavily.  It's likely that in the future, pressure from a population that is becoming more informed about these issues will come to bear on the industry.

In order to tackle e-commerce's fit problems, it's vital to engage the consumers' co-operation.  It is their participation that is necessary to make any 'fit tech' work at point of sale, and it is their accurate data that is needed to develop the new sizing and grading strategies necessary to better suit their needs.  Yet with free postage there is very little leverage that can be brought to bear on consumers to use a fit tool at all.

My research with plus-size female subjects (the cohort that suffers worst with fit problems) shows that few of them engage sufficiently with the available fit technology.  We don't know how much more effective today's fit tools would be if they had the benefit of higher participation levels (it's likely to be 'very'); we don't know what, if anything, those who do use fit tools have in common (they are a self-selected group, and are likely to share certain characteristics); we simply 'do not know what we do not know'.  Without the penalty of paying for deliveries, consumers do not presently have enough incentive to bother interfacing properly with that tech, meaning that the efficacy of the tools is diminished, and some brands are not taking them seriously enough, or are kicking them into the future.

Radical as it sounds, there is a highly convincing argument that free postage, where it is offered at all, should be done so only on the condition that the consumer genuinely engages with fit tech provided by the retailer.

If this were to happen then it is likely that the technology would immediately take a giant leap forward.  Today's fit tools are effective, and some such solution should always be deployed, but the 'nudging' of all clients to use the fit technology offered to them as a matter of course (using genuine 'input' data) would be of tremendous benefit to a range of developers, giving them access to the information needed to exponentially advance tomorrow's fit solutions – starting at the point of sale – with benefits all the way through to a much improved sizing and grading offer.

So, contradictory as it seems, free postage doesn't have to be a damaging proposition; it could, in fact, be a very powerful tool for good if deployed creatively.  Indeed, it seems incredible that the fashion industry actually has at its fingertips such an effective way to persuade customers to use the fit tech each time they buy – and yet they are not using it for this purpose.  Far from the fashion industry coming together to use postage charges as a precious tool to effect change, it is being squandered in the cause of internal struggles over market share.

Free plastic carrier bags were dispensed with as a result of changing social attitudes, which ultimately resulted in legislation.  As things stand, it's only a matter of time before informed citizens turn their attention to free postage and see not a win-win service to the customer, but another one of fashion's big, bad ideas.



 

Now there's a solution to buying fashion online... At Last!

Please contact me on emma@AtLastLimited.com or via social media...



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