Since the birth of ecommerce in the mid-1990s, retailers have wrestled with the issue of sizing. If consumers can’t try on a sweater or suit before they buy it, how do they know it will fit? Lack of understanding about size and fit can discourage sales on the consumer side, and when a consumer chooses the wrong size, they’re apt to return it. According to Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Internet Retailing and Retail Studies Program at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, sizing is part of a larger issue of how consumers determine that a product is right for them without seeing it, holding it, or trying it on. It’s not a major concern when buying basics like printer paper or light bulbs, but the more a product’s appeal centers on design aesthetics and uniqueness (like with clothing or jewelry), the more it important that tactile contact becomes. “Some consumers have a high need for touch,” he said. Also compounding this problem is the fact that there’s very little size standardization. In fact, proprietary sizing can be a selling point for certain brands. “If you really like the fit of J. Crew, that’s something that drives loyalty,” points out Vik Venkatraman, cofounder of Clothes Horse, a third-party software that helps consumers understand how an item will fit before they buy. Here’s a look at how some retailers approach this issue of size and perception:
- Try before you buy: With its Home Try-On Program, Warby Parker applied the Netflix-type concept of DVD rentals through the mail to the eyeglass industry. Consumers can try up to five pairs of glasses for five days for free before they mail them back and select a pair to purchase. The concept works because Warby Parker designed lightweight packaging. Mailing heavier objects like shoes may not make financial sense for other retailers.
- Generous return policies: Zappos built its brand on excellent customer service and hassle-free returns for a full year, allowing consumers to order the shoes they wanted without worrying about fit. “This proved that even though we think sizing is very important, in certain situations the consumer is willing to buy shoes sight unseen online because she knows the brand,” said Kalyanam. “The challenge with that is that Zappos never truly made money before they were bought by Amazon.”
- Mailing multiple sizes: Companies like Rent the Runway and Little Borrowed Dress that rent dresses for special occasions alleviate concerns over sizing by sending two sizes for the price of one rental. This is economical because they’re already sending a prepaid envelope so that the consumer can mail the dresses back. It might not work for business models where the consumer is supposed to keep the item. Little Borrowed Dress also mails free fabric swatches to consumers and uses designs that incorporate halter necklines and sashes so they fit a variety of body types.
- In-person try-ons: As The New York Times reports, online retailers are increasingly creating a physical presence in addition to their websites. Warby Parker’s “class trip” tour over the summer generated buzz for the brand while allowing consumers to see and touch its eyeglasses, and the company recently opened a brick-and-mortar store in New York with a plans for a Boston location reportedly in the works. Little Borrowed Dress hosts trunk shows in New York City so that consumers can try on dresses in advance of renting or buying.
- Online imaging and sizing notes: Technical solutions like online imaging and consumer reviews attempt to bridge some of the gaps between online and in-person interactions with merchandise. On some of its handbags (like this Chanel tote), Bag Borrow or Steal uses diagrams to show the proportions on an average-sized woman, similar to MyHabit.com. and BlueFly.com. Rent the Runway features reviews from consumers that include notes and a fit rating (plus the consumer’s size to offer context). Rent the Runway also lets consumers live-chat with a “fit specialist” to discuss sizing.
- Third-party vendors: Third-party solutions like True Fit and Clothes Horse help consumers predict size and fit before they buy online. Clothes Horse uses preference data based on what’s already in the consumer’s closet and 3D modeling to predict the fit of a new garment. The software company works with retailers including Nicole Miller and Ernest Alexander to create a user experience that integrates with the brand’s website. “I’m pretty confident that along with boosting the bottom line [for the retailer], we’re also providing a valuable and useful experience for the shopper,” says Venkatraman.