Centuries ago clothing was made to measure. The rich had bespoke tailor-made outfits and the poor stitched their own. Regardless of wealth, clothing was custom made to match each individual's shape.
This is a stark contrast to today's world where we mainly buy off the peg. Shoppers cast their eyes at labels to find out the size of clothing, but are left confused about how a garment will fit them when they put it on.
Luckily, consumers in a physical store can head to changing rooms to try clothing on and ensure it fits. But those that shop online are left playing a guessing game. Unsure of how an item will fit them, many online shoppers have started ordering multiple sizes of the same garment to find their favourite fit and then send the rest back. It's a habit that is costing retailers billions.
A stitch in time...
With the recent explosion of online shopping (research showing almost one in five pounds spent on shopping in the UK is done online) retailers have good reason to anticipate an increase in sales in 2014 but they should also brace themselves for a corresponding high in product returns.
A recent BBC article reported that it is common for three in ten items 'sold' online to end up as returns as customers 'buy' different colours and sizes to experiment with at home.
A new study by the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, looking at one major European online retailer, found that without the burden of returns, profits would be as much as 50% higher. This highlights the colossal amount of money that could be saved by reducing returns.
The key question is how do retailers reduce the cost of returns?
Moving the needle
It is becoming standard for online retailers to couple garment information next to videos and pictures of models wearing the clothing. But obviously, a size eight dress modeled by skinny 6ft woman is unlikely to look and fit the same on a 5ft 3in customer.
Equally, simply including a list of product measurements does not allow shoppers to visualise how the garment will appear on them.
The varied size system used by different retailers is a further complication. For example, a size 8 by British brand Topshop is 7cm smaller around the hips than a size 8 from Spanish Zara.
Without a global or industry 'standard sizing' system, customers cannot rely on the number or size in the label because brands persistently tailor to their niche and alter their measurements.
Retailers need to give shoppers the tools to enable them to see how garments fit before they order them online. According to a Drapers Fashion E-tail report better size and fit guidance is the number one request among consumers shopping for clothes online.
Retailers will never be able to replicate the physical changing room online but virtual fitting solutions are proven to increase customer confidence and prevent people from buying multiple items of the same outfit.
One of the most well known approaches is the 3D model that allows customers to mock up an image of their body shape to see how an outfit will look on them. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, these complicated solutions are expensive to set-up and often inaccurate; they show what an item looks like but fail to portray how a garment would fit.
Our research has found that online shoppers want another type of virtual fitting room. They are not so interested in seeing what the garment looks like on them on-screen but rather how the clothing will fit them in the real life.
They want to see if their desired dress is going to be shorter or longer than their tried and trusted favourite that holds pride of place in its wardrobe at home.
Sizing up the future
It is evident, online returns are a huge problem and inconvenience for both retailers and consumers.
It seems the missing piece of the puzzle doesn't lie in expensive technology but rather in going back to basics to help online shoppers buy clothing that makes them feel as if it were made to measure.