December 28, 2001, 12:00 AM

A perfect fit-online

Lands’ End and Jos. A. Bank are demonstrating a new formula for successful clothes selling on the web: Provide custom fit without the tedium of waiting for a tailor to serve you.

Apparel seems to be coming into its own on the web as online merchants figure out the not-so-secret formula to successful sales: Make buying clothes on the Internet as much like buying in the store as possible but leave out the tedium. Shoppers at LandsEnd.com and JosABank.com can now skip the frustration of doing battle in a dressing room with standardized sizes that don’t fit exactly, thanks to new shopping tools and technology that offer custom-tailoring of clothing online. And shoppers’ response to customization suggests these two retailers could be at the top of a trend.

Hampstead, Md.-based Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc.’s web sales boomed last year, up 94.5% in November over the previous November. The star of its recently-re-launched site is a Build-a-Suit feature that allows shoppers to order suit elements as custom-sized separates rather than in standard sizes. This goes beyond specifying inseam or sleeve length, though those also are factored in, to get at the fact that customers come in all shapes and sizes, few of them perfect. Custom alterations have solved the problem of fit in the offline world, but it’s not been an option for online sales of tailored clothing until now.

Vive la difference

“Suits off the rack have a six-inch drop from the chest to the waist. But not everyone’s built the same,” says Dave Ullman, chief financial officer at Bank. Build a Suit lets online shoppers skip heavy duty and expensive alterations by ordering up a custom fit in the first place.

Bank’s approach is a prime example of doing something on the web that a retailer can’t do in the store. With much more extensive inventory in the warehouse than in a store, Bank can allow the breaking of suits to mix and match jackets and slacks. Doing that in a store would create havoc, leaving too many mis-matches in a typical store’s limited inventory.

What is essentially smarter marketing is boosting clothing sales at Bank, but in characteristic fashion, Dodgeville, Wis.-based Lands’ End Inc. goes at the challenge of better fit with technology. In October, it launched Lands’ End Custom, which lets online shoppers order three colors of chino pants that will fit not only their waist and inseam, but their particular body contours as well. “If you’re 5 foot 9, weigh 175 pounds, and have a 34-inch waist, there are still an infinite number of body types within those measurements,” says e-commerce marketing manager Terry Nelson.

Lands’ End’s technology partner, Archetype, gets better-fitting pants with science: algorithms developed from a former military database containing measurements of millions of people. Lands’ End shoppers fill out an online form that includes not only height, weight and waist measurements but other descriptors such as “tummy shape” and fit preference. The detailed information from the customer is added to information on body types from the database, yielding a customer-specific body profile that takes into account factors such as weight distribution and body curvature.

Archetype technology transmits the body profiles digitally in batches to factories in Mexico that manufacture Lands’ End standard chinos. The information generates directions for a special automated cutter that cuts fabric pieces one at a time instead of in mass-produced multiples. By largely automating the measurement, fit and manufacturing process-and by pricing the custom chinos $20 higher than standard chinos- Lands’ End aims to offer mass customization cost-effectively.

It’s in the execution

But executing properly is still a challenge, says George Whalin of San Marcos, Calif.,-based Retail Management Consultants. “It’s a wonderful concept, but when you say custom you’d better deliver pants that truly fit right.” And that, he adds, is a moving target. “There’s a human factor here; what may feel good one day doesn’t feel good when you wear it the next day.” Whalin notes that an attempt by Levi Strauss & Co. at custom jeans failed, due in part of lack of demand. Levi required customers to get measured in a store, a barrier Lands’ End seeks to overcome by having customers enter their own measurements online and then adding the Archetype overlay.

Still, Whalin questions whether a relatively inexpensive item such as chino pants -even at higher prices-will justify Lands’ End’s investment in the technology. Lands’ End isn’t disclosing that investment, or the volume of sales on Lands’ End Custom. It does say that customer response has been so favorable it’s planning to add custom jeans this spring. Bank, meanwhile, says the sale of suits has jumped to 20% of its online business since it launched Build a Suit last summer. The next few months should tell whether, when it comes to selling apparel online, “mass customization” is a magic formula or just an oxymoron.

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