Returns plague fashion e-commerce. Can technology fix the problem?


With 3D-modeling technology you can see exactly how different sizes of pants fit your exact body type. (Courtesy of eBay)

Getting clothes to properly fit an online shopper on the first try is a holy grail for retailers. Depending on the estimate, anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of fashion e-commerce purchases are returned. That’s a remarkable inefficiency that can likely be improved.

If shoppers could find the right clothes more easily, they’d probably buy more online and return fewer items, which is exactly what merchants want. Brick-and-mortar stores will always have an advantage of letting customers actually try on items, but technology could help close the gap for online retailers.

The red shades indicate where the clothing fits tightly. (Courtesy of eBay)
The red shades indicate where the clothing fits tightly. (Courtesy of eBay)

PhiSix, a recent eBay acquisition, seeks to apply the digital effects you see in blockbuster films to e-commerce. The same technology that helps a computer-generated character in a film look realistic can help the average shopper find clothes that fit better.

While shoppers can’t yet benefit from the technology — eBay is still determining how to integrate PhiSix into its retail innovations efforts — it appears possible that it will eventually make the online shopping process better for consumers.

Let’s say a customer wants to buy a pair of pants online.

He or she could share waist size, inseam, height, weight and body build. PhiSix then would pair the body type with one of 20,000 mannequins. The clothing item a customer is interested in is then worn by the mannequin. PhiSix can provide a heat map as well, to point out where a snug piece of clothing will be most uncomfortable. Another feature shows a mannequin in motion — such as swinging a golf club — so one can see how a garment acts in real life.


(Courtesy of eBay)

To make this happen, clothes need to be scanned and uploaded into a database. PhiSix places the clothing item on graph paper and takes a photo of the front and back. A reference object — such as a CD or credit card — is included in the image to ensure the software knows the exact size of the clothing. This method allows it to quickly scan a significant amount of clothing.

Just as this technology could improve the online shopping experience, there’s potential in the world of physical retail as well. PhiSix co-founder Jonathan Su shared with me how it could make shopping at a mall easier and more enjoyable.

“I just ripped my pair of jeans. I need to go buy a new pair now,” Su said. “I care how I look but I don’t necessarily want to spend my whole day at a mall. You know my favorite pair of pants. Curate for me the 10 pair of pants that would fit in my entire mall. I’ll go try them on.”

He recalled hating going to the mall as a child with his mother to shop. What if she had all his measurements and could see the clothes on a 3D mannequin that’s exactly his size? Perhaps one day, boys and men around the world who hate the typical mall experience can happily stay at home.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland · March 27