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On a recent trip to the fast fashion retailer Zara, 20-year-old Katherine Hearden invited over tops, summer shorts and dresses in various sizes.
With Zara’s changing rooms still closed due to restrictions related to Covid, she knew she couldn’t try anything on in that particular store. Instead, Hearden checked out and dragged herself across the street to another department store with her father, where she happened to grab a pair of jeans and walk into an open locker room. Her plan all along was to use this shop to try on her Zara picks and boldly send her father back to Zara to give back what she wouldn’t keep.
“My poor father,” said Hearden, a student at Boston College, in an interview. “We keep him waiting in lines everywhere.”
Hearden’s experience underscores a larger dilemma that clothing companies have been grappling with for years, but one that was particularly highlighted during the pandemic. Retailers from Gap to Lululemon to American Eagle had to close their stores to customers for several weeks last spring. And even as clothing stores reopened, many companies still chose to keep dressing rooms closed to prevent the spread of Covid. Some of them, like Zara’s, remain closed in parts of the United States.
The headache for consumers is obvious: if you can’t try on items in stores, like Hearden, you may need to stock up on extra sizes to see what works at home later. Buyers tend to follow a similar strategy when shopping for clothes or shoes online – they buy a dress in two or even three sizes – which has increasingly happened in the wake of the health crisis. For companies, this chain of events causes response rates to skyrocket. And that comes at a cost. With the Covid pandemic something of a wake-up call, retailers, including the largest in the country, Walmart, are looking for ways to resolve the locker room dilemma.
Last year, consumers returned approximately $ 428 billion worth of goods, or about 10.6% of total retail sales in the United States, according to a study by the National Retail Federation. Clothing made up about 12.2% of that, NRF said, adding that the average retailer receives $ 106 million in returns for every $ 1 billion in sales.
Justine E., a healthy recipe blogger known on Instagram as “@justine_snacks”, recently used the social media app to vent her frustration with Zara.
“The changing rooms are not open so automatically you know you need to return SOMETHING, but if you return this thing you will [probably] buy something else and then you get stuck in the ‘Zara bow’, ”she wrote.
Zara did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
A survey of 401 U.S. shoppers conducted by Coresight Research found that 42.4% returned unwanted products from March 2020 to March 2021, with clothing categorized as the most commonly returned product category, almost double that of electronics.
Of the top 10 causes that Coresight identified as reasons for the returns in its survey, “only bought to try on” ranked 7th.
According to Coresight founder and CEO Deborah Weinswig, the higher return rates, especially in the clothing category, are likely to be compounded by the fact that many people bought clothing online for the first time last year. Consumers who used to go to the mall had no choice but to browse the internet. According to Coresight data, online apparel and footwear sales rose 27.2% to $ 121.5 billion in 2020.
“High returns affect the profitability of a product,” said Weinswig. “Size, fit, and color that don’t meet buyers’ expectations also increase response rates for apparel.”
Retailers are now turning to smaller startups that have been working on technology for years to address this very issue.
3DLOOK’s virtual dressing room technology gives users recommendations for styles based on their sizes.
3DLook, a mobile body metrology company, recently announced a new platform called “YourFit” that it plans to bring to more apparel retailers. It enables shoppers to try on clothing virtually and gives size recommendations based on user data. The technology aims to show customers exactly what the clothes will look like on them in a virtual experience online or on a smartphone.
“Getting people to scan themselves … that definitely takes a lot of education,” said Whitney Cathcart, co-founder and chief strategy officer of 3DLook, in an interview. “It’s a new technology. Consumers are used to taking quizzes and our goal from day one has been to ask as little as possible from the consumer and to have that really rich experience around the fit.”
1822 Denim was one of the first brands to be equipped with 3DLook technology about two years ago.
Tanya Zrebiec, vice president of innovation and strategy at 1822 Denim, said the company’s return rates have decreased by about 48% since partnering with 3DLook, while average order values have increased by about 23%. Conversion rates have also increased, meaning that customers are completing purchases instead of leaving a shopping cart online or leaving stores empty-handed.
“There have been so many problems with sizing and the fashion industry telling consumers what to wear, how to look and what size to wear,” Zrebiec said in an interview. “Most fashion companies never consider what their consumers really look like.”
Since the technology was added in 1822, inventory has been much better under control, she said. It knows what its customers are looking for because it maintains a database of their sizes.
“It’s difficult to offer every size of product to every consumer,” said Zrebiec. “This also helps us tremendously in managing our inventory – and really understanding who our customer is, what their size is and how we can get the right product and not have overstock and inventory that is simply wasted.”
One of the biggest shows of confidence in virtual locker room technology came from Walmart, which in May announced it was acquiring Israeli start-up Zeekit to better serve the customers who shop for apparel on its website. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Walmart acquires Zeekit, a virtual locker room startup that has technology that allows shoppers to upload a photo, digitally try on an item of clothing, and get a friend’s opinion.
With Zeekit’s technology embedded on the Walmart website, customers can upload photos of themselves – or choose from different models to suit their size, shape, and skin color. The website then shows how the clothes fit. Users can also share virtual outfits with friends for second opinions.
Zeekit has said that its virtual locker rooms cut the response rate by 36%. Previous customers include the department store chain Macy’s and the sneaker manufacturer Adidas.
“The virtual try-on is a turning point and solves what has been the most difficult thing to replicate online in the past – understanding the fit and actual appearance of an item,” said Denise Incandela, Walmart’s US executive vice president of apparel and private brands.
Before people started using augmented reality apps to try on clothes, however, virtual try-on was the most widely adopted by the beauty industry. Google launched an augmented reality try-on beauty product tool late last year to support brands like L’Oreal, MAC Cosmetics, and Charlotte Tilbury. According to experts, lip balm and eye shadow are much easier to replicate on a face in a mirror than finding the right fit for an entire outfit.
Facebook is working on ways to use augmented reality to virtually try on items such as clothing – even if they are shown in an ad. This could be an initiative that will help catapult the experience into the mainstream. This was followed by Snap’s takeover of the sizing technology company Fit Analytics last March.
Amazon, which made Walmart the largest apparel retailer in the country, has tried virtual fitting technology, but nothing has gained momentum. It seems more geared towards making the technology work in the home category. It has a “View in Your Room” feature on its website, which customers can use to design a room using augmented reality tools.
Amazon could look to increase its investments in fashion after switching from Walmart. Still, some consumers are likely to always prefer a trip to a real locker room.
“I would be skeptical,” said Hearden of the use of virtual changing room technology for himself. “I still like to try it on.”