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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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