I know what you are thinking. The trouble with sizing is that, well, there is no such thing. I can try a dress on in a size 6 in one brand and it fits perfectly, then in another brand, it falls off me and in yet another brand, it is way too small. This makes ordering online an incredibly stressful task.

If the end goal is to sell more stuff and have fewer returns, retailers need to step up and either communicate their sizing more accurately or find a way to help customers find what fits them better.

The (flawed) Ways Retailers Try to Help Consumers with Sizing

Currently, there are a few ways that retailers try to move their online sales by reducing the stress of sizing woes for customers:

  1. Free shipping both ways
  2. Sizing charts with measurements
  3. Customer reviews
  4. Video
  5. New fangled body scanning technology
All of these have  their flaws, but some work better than others.
The first one, providing free shipping both ways, allows a customer to order multiple sizes in the same garment or shoe, try them on in the convenience of their home, then ship back the stuff that doesn’t fit. This technique works the best for the customer and is probably why offering free shipping both ways is the number one customer request for online shopping. But it’s bad for the retailer (shipping costs, high returns + depleted inventory while waiting for the fitting) and for the environment.
Some retailers like Rent the Runway, have  an innovative approach to this where they allow the customer to rent 2-3 sizes of the outfit they desire and return all three at the end of the rental period. Still…it could work so much better if we just actually knew our size.

Secondly, there are stores that try to make this easier for us by providing measurements, but there are two issues with this:

  1. Taking a look at sizing charts provided doesn’t help the customer much – what…do we carry around a measuring tape and check out our inseam every time we are browsing online? Nope.
  2. Besides, retailers usually have NOT taken the time to measure out every single garment.

Every now and then I receive emails from online retailers carrying several brands saying, “The hottest jeans of the season!” Though this video was created last September, the same thing rings true:

We all know that a 29 isn’t a 29 everywhere. I have jeans in my closet that range from a 28-31 right now and they all fit perfectly. Piperlime isn’t the only offender here. I went to several major retailers online and found that they use one standard sizing chart across the entire site – between brands, fabrics, etc. This may be because I was once told that sizing is part of the designer’s IP, which made my head explode a little bit. Aren’t they in business to sell clothes?

Customer reviews, though, can help a bit with insight, especially in the case where a reviewer has the option to choose how ‘true to size’ (whatever that means) a garment is. I find other customer reviews incredibly helpful and have changed my mind with sizing because of another customer’s input. A recent review that helped me make a size change on Modcloth:

The issue here is that you don’t really know the size or proportions of the commenter. Mia described herself nicely here (more of a pear shape – smaller up top than on the bottom), and Modcloth has got her to input her actual measurements, but even so, I don’t know how close her shape is to mine. I’m a 34D and there were a few other commenters who mentioned the top of the dress was tight on their bust, but they didn’t include their measurements. It’s a lot to wrap my brain around when I’m making an order.

One of the other issues is fabric. Some fabrics have stretch and are, therefore, very forgiving. Others not so much. We all know that various fabrics hang differently as well. Did you know that if you constructed your favorite jean pattern onto a cotton or khaki fabric, they will fit entirely different? So in order to help the customer see how a fabric fits, the retailer will create videos. Best of breed videos usually have a real person (not a fashion model) wearing the garment. I am a big fan of how Zappos does theirs, but as evidenced by the fact that I could not find a product that had a video as a demo, this is a costly and time-consuming process for the retailer.

Oh…and just seeing a gorgeous model walk and turn around in a dress or jeans doesn’t help me and makes it mostly impossible for me to browse your site on my mobile phone. Just saying…

That brings me to the holy grail of retail: body scanning software/booths/etc. Last week at the Decoded Fashion Summit, they had a panel with 5 startups in this area: each with a different approach and at a different stage of their adoption. The startup panelists were Jamal Motlagh from ACustom (not really online, you need to go into the store to have a bespoke experience – I actually liked his approach the best), Vik Venkatraman from Clothes Horse (a B2B solution you can plug into your site that asks customers for basic data – no measuring tape, I’d have to see it in action), Judith Richardson from Me-Ality (the furthest along of the group, they install big TSA-like body scanners in malls and give everyone a barcode that holds their sizing info – biggest issue is that it only works with big brands) and Raj Sareen from Styku (uses the Kinect to body scan – I have a Kinect and I know how off it usually is, so I don’t know how much I trust this to help me fit clothes).

I know of a couple other startups in this area, too, like LoveThatFit and the classic (I used this one in the early 00′s) MyVirtualModel. They are all coming at fit from a different angle and though they are all solving THE biggest problem in online retail, they all have an enormous uphill battle. Why? Because ever since mass production came along, sizing has missed the point.

The Real Trouble with Sizing

Sizing a body, and especially a woman’s body (men tend to have fewer cuts and wear their clothing a bit different), is incredibly difficult because we all have very different bodies. D’uh. Even with similar dimensions (bust/waist/hips), we have different shapes. And because women’s clothing is usually tailored to hug the curves, this is problematic. There are more than dimensions to consider as well. As mentioned before, fabric comes into play. How about pleats and darts? What about how a woman wants her clothes to fit. My mother always bought one or two sizes too big for her frame because she liked to move in her clothes. I like a fit that shows the form of the body (but not too tight).

So you need to take the following into consideration:

  1. Woman’s measurements (and not just bust/waist/hips – what about thigh circumference, arm length, leg length?)
  2. Woman’s preferred fit (snug, regular, loose)
  3. Textile properties (stretch? thickness? drape? cut? etc?)
  4. How the style is supposed to fit (a flowing maxi skirt is supposed to have room, while an a line mini will be snug at the waist and flare out at the hip ever so slightly)

I’m sure there are more factors to consider as well, but those are a start. You’d need one helluvan algorithm to figure this out. Oh…not to mention the fact that our bodies change over time drastically. Then, what? Should we throw in the towel? I don’t think so.

Better (emerging) Solutions for Sizing

Emerging today are better solutions for sizing woes. They are still not perfect and, culturally, we need to adapt to them, but they are:

  1. Custom tailoring
  2. Reinvention of sizing standards
  3. Body typing
  4. Brand honesty

Custom tailoring was once out of reach for you and me unless we went to Hong Kong. But with great online options like Carrie Hammer coming available, I’m really excited. She’s found a way to make a custom fitted dress pretty affordable and though it takes a bit of work to get your measurements in, she provides fun videos that shows you how to do it:

I like the custom approach. Of course, this is not realistic for quick shopping emergencies or small trend pieces, but it will work more and more for those investment pieces: dresses, suiting, pants and the perfect blouse. And who knows? Once she has your measurements, she may be able to tailor her future lines to each of her clients, reversing the way we think about fit today. I’d love to see more brands emerge in this area with various styles to suit.

Which brings me to the reinvention of sizing standards altogether. Christina Wallace and Alex Nelson co-founded Quincy Apparel, a professional women’s apparel line that thinks about sizing in a more rational way. Blouses are fit at the chest and waist (and height of the woman). Skirts are fit by the waist/hip ratio. There aren’t size 4′s and 10′s. There are bust and waist and hip sizes. It’s very close to custom tailoring, but it’s a wee bit more general. From their site:

Our sizes are defined by bust, hip to waist ratios, and height – the three parts of a woman’s body that vary the most from woman to woman and cause the most frustrating fit problems. By focusing on shape rather than size, Quincy has created garments that are meant to flatter your body, whatever its proportions.

This seems like a simple, but sane way to approach sizing woes. There are still lots of issues with fabrics and the rest of the factors I listed above, but this is a nice start.

But how about just darn-well recognizing that women are different? That there are more body types than V, A, hourglass, square or whatever typing that has been assigned to us. How about rethink body typing altogether and help us on that front? A few stores already help you do this through questionnaires and asking for measurements. But these make me sad because they keep telling me I should only wear A-Line dresses to reduce my pear shape. #1, I’m not a pear shape. I have football shoulders. I’m 5’9″. A 42″ hip is fabulous on me. So there.

I quite like the approach that I stumbled on by Birdsnest. Those Aussies know a thing or two about customers and we should listen (came up with the Ikea man drop off area and replace your FB ads Dove campaign). On Birdsnest, you can shop by occasion, collection, personality and…body type:

I’m quite fond of the fact that they use cankles as a category. :) Even though the categories prey on women’s self-loathing a wee bit, a quick click through will help you feel a bit better about your bulbous posterior:

Round bottoms are sexy, just think Beyonce. Sometimes it is more flattering to actually show it off with tighter fitting clothing and other times you need clever tailoring and hiding techniques to balance out your curves.

They even put outfits together for you, which is a huge help. Did I think skinny black jeans would be a good choice for voluptuous bottom? Nope. But with the right styling, it seems to be exactly right.

Still…it doesn’t help 100% with my sizing woes. I was hoping that their product pages would be as honest and open as their navigation. For instance, “These skinny jeans are sure to prevent muffin top as the slightly dropped waist with some elastic give just lightly hugs, not squeezes your mid-section.”

If only brands could be honest about the bodies they are designed for. At the end of the day, women just want to feel beautiful in what they are wearing. If we can’t breath or if we catch a reflection of ourselves in a mirror that isn’t so flattering, we stop wearing that item of clothing and we don’t return to that designer or shop for fear of repeat offending. It’s basic economics. Make us look and feel gorgeous and we’ll spend every dime we have on your brand. It’s in our nature. Or at least it is in mine. I remember not being able to pay my bills, but when my favorite jeans were on sale, I had to buy 3 pairs. Wearing them made me feel like I could conquer the world.

There can never BE a standard sizing because there isn’t a standard in women’s bodies and preferences for fit, but we can approach sizing in a very different way. I love the custom approach, rethinking sizing altogether and the idea of body typing, but I’d really love to see brands embrace the beautiful variety of women’s shapes in a meaningful, honest way.

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