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Many plus-size women have no real idea what size they are – for the excellent reason that they do not conform to any standard size

Plus-sizing tech: a fatal glitch

'Be careful what you wish for' is a cliché, but (ironically, as is often said), all good clichés exist for a reason, and this one is particularly relevant to those developing new retail tech.

The advances in technology for e-commerce (particularly for plus-size) womenswear are a good example. It seems that the prevailing intention is to provide the 'in-shop experience' for consumers (of all sizes), synthesised in their own homes – or wherever they do their shopping.  That is to say, the industry is now in the process of developing systems which ultimately will be capable of 'scanning' a consumer using her device (her phone or tablet say), thus creating a realistic three-dimensional avatar of her body, complete with all her measurements. This avatar will then be able to virtually 'try on' garments in a naturalistic way (showing the fit, the drape of the fabric – even believably reproducing movement), allowing her to make an informed choice as to her fashion purchase, without ever having to set foot inside a changing room.



So far so excellent: there can be no doubt it is preferable to enjoy what is best about the in-store shopping experience, while offering the benefits of a massive (and almost magically always-available) inventory to all: that's seemingly a huge improvement to anything bricks-and-mortar can offer.

So, where's the rub?  I was struck very heavily with a problem when I was discussing the concept with an entrepreneur, busily engaged in developing this very concept.  He told me, enthusiastically, that when his new tech is developed, the consumer would be able to 'treat her own bedroom as changing room, with her own device as a mirror'.  In the context of the plus-size female consumer, I felt instinctive horror at this thought.  In my long experience of styling larger women, I discovered that the very last thing they require is to be left alone and isolated.

Plus-size women, famously (or rather, infamously), suffer from horrendous fit problems.  Their diverse body shapes do not slip easily into any range of standard sizes, and many women have no real idea what size they are – for the excellent reason that they do not conform to any standard size at all.  Many plus brands have differing grading, created to offer more diversity of fit.  This, although a necessary step, has only added to the general confusion around plus-sizing.

On the face of it, all of this would appear to add weight to the need for the kind of sizing tech now being created: the consumer will click on her chosen piece of apparel, and the avatar will graphically show her whether it will fit or not – helping her to choose a good match for her body if one were available; warning her off if nothing suitable can be found.  This should at least prevent the customer adding to the mountain of returned stock that is afflicting the industry – the very expensive problem that is driving the development of e-commerce fit technology in the first place.

However, this system is likely to create a train of unintended consequences, which can all be traced back to those pesky fit issues.

Let's say a plus-size woman is shopping on a website that sells a brand that is not graded to fit her body shape: whilst browsing, she is likely to experience an irritating Groundhog Day.  She clicks on a blouse: "Computer says no" is the result.  She clicks her next choice, a pair of trousers "It says no".  Finally, she looks at a dress: "No".

And this problem is not just going to afflict the 'one brand' website.  It will also affect the multi-brand retailer.  The customer (even when she has the opportunity of picking from a spread of brands) will as likely as not will still be reliving a repetitive experience.   Why?  Because the reason why she chose the first item is the same one that's behind her subsequent choices: her taste.  She is unlikely to use a scattergun approach, choosing one item from each brand.   Rather, she will be attracted to the aesthetics of one design story, and the lion's share of her choices will come from that.  If she is lucky enough that this is a brand that suits her body shape (and, with the diversity of these shapes, statistically speaking, this is unlikely), then she'll be fine.  Otherwise, it's going to be a miserable experience.

This is a system that relies, firstly, on the retailer stocking a range of differing grading – carefully selected to suit the six main body shapes.  And secondly, it needs the customer to happen to want to shop the brands that suit her.  You might say that what we are expecting to happen is what occurs every day with the very best plus-size retailers (who succeed in providing the correct spread of stock), but with one fatal exception: at home, the customer has no guide.  There is no helpful stylist by her side: she is expected to do this all alone.

Let's say that the pieces of clothing she clicked on will physically go on her (which is often impossible), but simply will not suit her body shape: they will cling in all the wrong places, and flap loose in other areas: all in all, it would all look horrible.  The avatar is there to show her the truth: the 'realistic' look of the apparel.  Will the avatar sugar-coat the pill, and make the clothing look acceptable?  It should not, because that would risk encouraging her to buy something that is not going to be suitable.  Will it give her a 'warts and all' image?  If it does, it's likely that the repeated experience of ugly clothing (again and again and again) is going to make her feel depressed.   When clothing does not fit plus-size women, it shows up their bodies in a poor light: she is likely to feel depressed, not just about the clothes, but about herself.

It is extreme cruelty to leave a plus-size woman all alone while she is trying to find something that fits her: I would hope that this fact alone is enough to give developers pause.  If it does not, then it may be worth mentioning that this glitch may well lead to the overall failure of their fit tool.

Sizing tech and curated content go hand-in-hand with the plus-size womenswear customer.  Each time a woman is told that something she has selected is not going to fit her, she needs to be shown something that will.  It's not a problem that should be underestimated – depending on her size, it's likely that most clothing will not fit her adequately.

A consumer will need to be triaged at the earliest point of the interaction, and a story that will fit her should be collated.   A lot of effort should be given over to being able to gather a selection of apparel that suits her body shape, and every clue that she gives off should be used to discover stock that makes sense to her aesthetically, and is practical, relevant and useful to her.  Many larger retailers will be in a position to provide what is required to fit all these needs, but for smaller retailers, it would be better for them to buddy-up and pass on their consumers to partner companies with whom they share a platform.

The real issue is not whether it's feasible to recreate a realistic facsimile of an authentic in-store experience using cutting-edge tech.  Unfortunately, it's all too possible to accurately synthesise the miserable encounters that legions of plus-size women have had in mediocre, failing stores over many decades.

The true issue at hand is how to provide a system based on excellence.  This should be what we focus on, and what we wish for.

Trapped inside their glass towers, the big fashion decision-makers indulge in a counsel of despair: apparently, returns (like death and taxes) are just a ‘fact of e-commerce life’.  Image courtesy of Josh Calabrese https:/unsplash.com/@joshcala

Apparel fit: big fashion and the glass wall

Large companies are not all the same. Take the big fashion retail brands, for example. It might be expected that there would be a high degree of industry-wide conformity, given that the overall activities of different companies are basically the same.  Large e-commerce apparel businesses all either buy or manufacture clothing, which they then market to the public – but nevertheless there are wide areas upon which they diverge. Fast/low price-point fashion contrasts widely with classic/luxury wear, for example, and there are an infinite number of other vivid combinations of apparel genres that combine to create a massively varied, vibrant and exciting industry.

All this ‘difference’ adds up to a sector with a great many players who revel in their diverse approaches – and not just about what they stock and how it is made.  Because the fashion industry’s very beauty lies in its originality and variation, some brands have created a culture which makes a fetish of singularity, that, when taken too far, can be detrimental to the bottom line. 



Take my specialist subject, fit, for example.  I'm not talking about the characteristic differences in grading between brands – I'm speaking about the process of fitting each brand's own customer base. This is something that should be of ubiquitous interest, due to the truly horrendous returns problem that is slicing away at margins throughout the fashion industry.  Product returns can run at between 20–40% for mainstream-sized womenswear, rising to a whopping 70% for plus-size female apparel.  Disappointed customers report that most of these returns are ‘fit-related’

The implications of the online fashion industry’s returns problem now are truly horrendous: the ripples of cost from a single garment return spread out like a toxic spill in every direction – from credit card charges, to picking, packaging, consignment, carriage, loss of customer loyalty, disruption to the inventory and tainted and/or wasted stock. It’s clear that this is an expensive, detrimental, ecologically damaging process that should be avoided if at all possible.  Yet, with the growth of the proportion of consumers who choose to buy online (and of those who are plus-size) it is growing year-on-year.

In the pre-internet era most ‘mail order’ fashion retail companies simply offered their consumers a size chart.  A customer was expected to take a measuring tape, expertly deploy it on a series of areas of the body, and then check their measurements against the chart, so as to judge for herself which size she should order.  This was the legacy system of the fashion industry at the beginning of the online shopping era.

I could write an entire piece on the failure of this method, beginning with the not unimportant fact that less than 10% of the population have measurements that can in any way be shoehorned into the proportions assumed by these charts.  However, as it is not the subject of this article, I shall make just this observation: this system does not work, it has never worked, and it will not work in the future.  Indeed, the proof is there for all to see: the continued use of this legacy 'method' (and the thinking behind it) is largely to blame for the high level of returns that we are seeing today.

I’ve worked with a number of companies (and looked at many others) that are developing the new generation of sophisticated fit tools, which generally perform two functions.  They identify the sizing and shape of individuals with better accuracy, and they use that information both to assist consumers to obtain the correctly fitting apparel, and to feed back large quantities of precious customer metric data to brands, allowing them to create stock better suited to demand.

All of the IT e-commerce fit tools that I have seen have offered a significant reduction in returns. They are extremely cost-effective, so with the plethora of IT fit solutions for fashion e-commerce now emerging, we should be seeing a stampede from the large retailers... each busily transforming their systems to stem the tide of unnecessary returns. We should also be witnessing the tech companies seeing their client lists growing exponentially. 

However, as with everything in fashion, the picture is mystifyingly varied, and there are a wide range of approaches in play.  Finding out how each apparel 'e-tailer' addresses the subject of fit is the easiest thing in the world.  Simply click on a given fashion website and see.  Extraordinarily, there is a significant proportion of websites that still employ technology whose principles haven’t changed substantially since the middle of the last century – having dragged those old size charts on to their websites. A few have high-end fit tools created by the best minds in the field, and some seem to have produced their own in-house systems.  Because the genius of the apparel industry tends to be in fashion, rather than IT, many, if not most of the latter, are lacklustre, crude and basic. So what is going on?

It’s easy to see why company officers have to screen those who have access to them.  If a director of a major retailer read every email trying to interest her in a new service, she would never have any time to do anything else.  If she allowed cold-callers from all those promising her profitable new innovations, she would be driven mad within a day.  And if she agreed to meet with everyone who was trying to talk her into an offer she couldn’t refuse, she would instantaneously fill her calendar with enough meetings for the remainder of her career.  Top company directors get remorselessly pestered, and they have to build a carapace around their world, so it’s easy to understand why they are not easily accessible to the men and women in shiny suits trying to sell sparkly new technological ideas to them. 

When I talk to companies who create IT fit tools, the most pressing subject on their mind is recruiting new clients – particularly among the bigger brands.  It seems that even the best of them are finding that they cannot break through the plate-glass windows that protect the big fashion decision-makers from unwanted contact. The chatter is that those businesses that don’t have fit tools have failed to get them because they don’t really know how effective they are.  Trapped inside their glass towers, they indulge in a counsel of despair: apparently returns (like death and taxes) are just a ‘fact of e-commerce life’, and nothing can be done to avoid them.  Put simply, there is disconnect between many big fashion brands and the IT industry.  Those trying to sell fit tools are having trouble getting a foot in the door.

This situation is a miserable one: on one hand we have fashion retail, where many large companies are suffering from a horrendous returns problem, and on the other we have a tech industry that has already achieved substantial advances, but which needs enough clients to make every further solution financially viable.  It’s a chicken and egg situation: the fit tools will ultimately prove to be the instigator of transformation in the fashion industry, yet they need to be taken-up in greater numbers in order to facilitate progress. The money people who are backing the IT start-ups in this field are getting impatient.

Where fashion companies are privately owned any reluctance of the board to bring in outside tech expertise could be argued to be no-one else’s business than their own.  However, for a publicly quoted fashion brand to neglect to equip its website with a cutting-edge fit tool that is going to substantially improve the bottom line, is a dereliction of duty. To see a major brand with a sizing box in their online store is frankly an embarrassment.

Shareholders could be forgiven if they look on out-dated sizing systems on websites as unacceptable, and evidence of managerial complacency: especially where they are mirrored with a profit-draining returns problem. 

Fashion industry best practice should dictate an informed, pro-active and responsible attitude to returns, centred on cutting-edge IT solutions.

Some readers will be impatient with my thesis, asking when all the other benefits from a better sizing system are going to be mentioned. It's true; we can see a slew of advantages for our diverse population – ranging from better social justice to improved levels of happiness. However, I have written about those rewards before, and will do so again. In this post I am focusing on one thing: money.

All fashion e-commerce decision-makers should be looking to acquire the very best fit tools available as a matter of urgency.  This should become the new industry-wide norm. Shareholders should be clamouring for it, and business analysts should be investigating where and why it is not happening. It will not be costly: rather, the whole point of them is that they will save a lot of money.  Directors who do not have the expertise, time or energy to undertake the search for an appropriate IT fit solution for their business can, for now, outsource the search to independent consultants. In the future, they will be expected to own the brief for themselves.

There really is nothing to lose and much to gain.

Emma (right) with Kimberley Carr host the Rakuten Fits Me webinar in September 2017

Rakuten Fits Me webinar, September 2017

I really enjoyed taking part in my first webinar with Kimberley Carr (above left) of Rakuten Fits Me yesterday.

For the uninitiated, a webinar is a seminar held online.  I've been a viewer before, but this was my first experience of presenting one of these events.  As I sat down at the desk I was thinking about a webinar that I attended last year, presented by Paul Pallin, the Development Director at Rakuten Fits Me.  The subject, of course, was my favourite... it was all about bodyshape and fit.





Even though I've been in the bodyshape, fit and customer service business all my professional life, there were several seminal moments in his talk (quite appropriate for a seminar, after all).  One that will live with me until my dying day was when Paul showed images of women who did not have 'standard' bodyshapes (i.e. their hips and bust may be a size 10, but the waist was a size 8, or their bust and waist was a size 12, but their hips were a size 10).  While they were on screen he asked what we noticed about these images.  Actually, it was nothing at all... which was rather the point.

These women's figures (they were computer generated, so no models were hurt in the making of the talk) were perfectly normal looking – even beautiful and aspirational.  Paul made the point that should have been obvious.  These bodies looked normal, because they were  normal.  It's far more usual to see figures that do not fit into the classic standardised sizing that our clothes are made to.  They are the shapes that we all see in the real world.

As I sat down at the desk yesterday I aspired to give similar revelations to my audience – it never hurts to aim high!  I'm lucky in that the subject I was talking about (the webinar was entitled 'Womenswear Sizing: Consistency versus Diversity') is one that involves every person I know... why is it so difficult to find well-fitting clothes and what is being done about it?

Emma Hayes speaking at Moda 2017

Moda seminar 2017

As a fashion professional for over 30 years I have attended so many fashion fairs that I can no longer count them.  These fairs – more accurately trade shows – are where the independent side of the industry comes together to do business.  It's not something that the public sees, and most people have no idea they even exist.

Such fairs take place in every country that has any kind of notable fashion industry – so we see them in Paris, Milan, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Amsterdam and, of course, London.  My usual haunts were the German fairs, because it was there that I had access to as many plus-size designer ranges as I could ever want.  However, over the years I have been to many elsewhere as well.





These shows have various aspects in common.  The first is that they are big – CPD occupies a huge exhibition space in Düsseldorf, Germany, for example, and in the UK the shows usually take place at Excel, Olympia or the NEC.

They contain stands displaying the next season's fashions, complete with samples and the ordering paraphernalia necessary to run one of the world's most important industries.  Buyers and agents walk swiftly or huddle over tablets – time is money in this environment and business has to be transacted quickly.

At the heart of each of these fairs is the catwalk.  It often runs down the centre of the space, and the music from catwalk shows can be heard across the hall.  Models stride out wearing the samples – time travellers from the future, telling us what we will be wearing in a year or so.

In between the catwalk shows, the runway is given over to the seminars.  This is where senior fashion insiders offer their insight, experience, knowledge and ideas to fellow professionals.  It's considered a mark of respect to be invited to give one of these presentations, and they are always good value.  Despite having a million other things to do at a show, I have often taken time to sit-in on seminar programmes, as I've found they offer fascinating information and thought-provoking perceptions.

So when I was invited to give a seminar in August at the UK's premier fashion show – Moda – which takes place twice yearly at the NEC in Birmingham, I was very honoured.  As a bodyshape and fit expert I am now working with the leading e-commerce fit experts, Rakuten Fits Me, and I was excited by the opportunity to talk about fit issues to fashion professionals.

In the past apparel was sold through bricks-and-mortar stores and customers were able to try on clothing before making their purchases.  Now more and more transactions are happening online, and suddenly – without being able to 'try-before-you-buy' – fit issues have become huge news.  One significant problem is the level of returns generated by the current somewhat hit-and-miss method of buying clothes online.

We need to use all the available expertise in bodyshape, fit, garment technology and online technology to move into the next phase of fashion retail.  The opportunities are fantastic.  This is already a very positive story, and I was delighted to get the opportunity to talk to Moda about it.



READ the full transcript.

READ Fits.me blog post: 'Rakuten Fits Me talk inconsistent sizing at Moda '.

REGISTER for the next Rakuten webinar on 6 September 2017: 'The issues of fit – specifically consistency vs diversity in women's clothing sizes'.


 

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