Technology may finally be solving the thorny problem of buying clothing online - that you cannot try things on. Through scanners and data mining, consumers are now able to get a custom fit, saving them time and money because they do not have to order multiple items and return what doesn't fit.
The majority of these new systems do not cost a thing for the buyer to use. They are more about recommending a more exact sizing and style than if the customer tries to pick an item on their own.
Given that the average woman has $550 worth of unused clothing in her closet, according to a recent survey by VoucherCloud.net, a retail coupon site, shoppers could use a little help paring down their purchases to things they actually like and will wear.
One virtual try-on system is made by FaceCake, based near Los Angeles. Called Swivel HD, it works with Microsoft’s Kinect 2 to project clothing onto users as though they are looking in a mirror. Users stand about two feet away and hold out their hands as if they are grabbing products off a rack. If you bend with a virtual purse on, the strap bends with you so you can see how it fits your body contours.
"You don't have to tell it anything," says FaceCake Chief Executive Officer Linda Smith.
When the technology was featured at the Dubai Shopping Festival in December, shoppers tried on an average of 26 products - five times more products than the average shopper takes into a dressing room, according to FaceCake. This creates cost savings in various ways. For starters, buyers can view clothes in an ensemble more easily, and get a better idea of how those clothes look against their skin tone. Another feature lets users share photos of their potential choices via social media, so buyers can get input before making purchases.
With other software-based tools, a little user information is needed, but it can go a long way.
True Fit, software built for retailers, works with more than 1,000 brands like Michael Kors and Sean John. Shoppers can create a new profile in 60 seconds or less by entering their height, weight, body type and size of their favorite dress instead of traditional measurements. The technology then analyzes billions of data points to make clothing recommendations; the more a person uses it, the more True Fit "learns" about what works for them.
"It helps us zero in on some things that fit them in real life," says co-founder Romney Evans. "We also look at past sales information so we can get smart about a recommendation. It's really an ongoing conversation with customers, and those conversations will get better with time."
Some technologies do use measurements. At Me-Ality's website, customers can input four simple measurements to get clothing recommendations. The Left Shoe company could finally make the Brannock Device - the metal plate with sliders that has measured shoe sizes since 1927 - a thing of the past. At the West Hollywood, California-based store, customers stand on a platform while a high-resolution camera rotates around each foot on a circular track, taking 300 total images in 40 seconds.
As of now, this kind of fitting can't be done via the web, but Left Shoe store co-owner Patrick Mayworm says a mobile-based system is coming.
At Stitch Fix, it takes about 10 minutes to complete a profile that addresses size, style, shape and lifestyle - as well as your shopping budget. A personal stylist then picks five items for you. It costs $20, but that amount applies to paying for the clothes you keep. If you keep all five, you get a 25 percent discount; if you return any, there are no restocking fees and Stitch Fix pays the postage.
The average spend per item is $55, which "is very similar to retailers like the Gap," says Stitch Fix founder and CEO Katrina Lake. "They're also saving money that they would otherwise spend on gas to get to the mall, or on shipping and returns for online purchases," she adds.
You can also get recommendations via social media from companies like Zappos. All you have to do is type #nextootd on your Instagram postings and they'll respond to you based on your user profile. And starting in June, Zappos will also offer #askzappos, where you can snap a picture of an outfit you like and get help finding out where to buy it.
"People think about shopping in a different context now," says Will Young, director of Zappos Labs in San Francisco.