Alibaba’s Tmall Global now features goods from 14,500 overseas brands, 80% of them selling in China for the first time.
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Jos. A. Bank is another manufacturer leveraging its manufacturing expertise on the web in the name of customization. Since Bank added the Business Express Suit separates feature to its web site last year, suit sales have grown to account for 20% of Internet sales.
The program tackles the issue of fit, a problem more often solved in the offline world with a lot of hand tailoring. “Standard off-the-rack suits come with a six-inch drop. If you order a size 42 jacket, you get pants that are a size 36. The program lets you order the pants that fit you to go with the jacket, so you get the right fit to go with your body type,” says CFO Dave Ullman.
Adding the ordering feature to the web site wasn’t difficult. The greater challenge with the program lies in keeping enough of the garment pieces on hand for mixing and matching for the wider audience of the web, and beyond that, in ensuring that the cut and fabric for each SKU stay consistent over time. “Say you’ve got a striped suit. You have to make sure that the where the stripes on the jacket line up with those on the pants is always consistent,” Ullman says. When a style may have a life of three years or more, Bank also actively controls dye lots as it orders new bolts of the same fabric from vendors.
“We’ve been able to develop consistency in the cut of the patterns and in the dye lots so that you could buy a jacket today and buy the pants three years from now and it would match perfectly,” says Ullman. “It’s not a custom-made suit, but it looks and fits you like one.”
Curvy or average?
Mixing and matching from pre-cut units as eBags does and from pre-assembled units as Bank does is one way to deliver “customization” online. But Lands’ End Custom, launched last October, goes a step farther by actually cutting and sewing chino pants to the precise measurements of individual customers. Project partner Archetype, a software developer, has a program built on an enormous database of actual body measurements. Its technology builds on information supplied by the customer to generate a customer-specific pattern that factors in elements such as weight distribution and body curve. The patterns are batched, and transmitted electronically to Lands’ End’s factory, where pattern pieces are cut individually by a programmed laser cutter.
Five months into the program, Lands’ End already has made three sweeping changes to the software model that generates customer-specific patterns for the pants that shoppers are ordering online. Those changes affected pattern-making for every size ordered, but feedback from customer surveys also has driven changes to pattern directions for specific dimensions on specific sizes, such as lengthening or shortening inseams, for example. While saying that the return rate on the custom pants initially came in higher than predicted (though he wouldn’t disclose numbers), adjusting the model based on customer feedback has already dropped the rate of returns, says Lands’ End Custom project manger Ron James.
Living, breathing database
The ongoing adjustments to refine the model are part of the plan, James adds. “For us, this is a living, breathing database,” he says. “The more sales results and survey results we get, the more we can fine-tune the model. This is a never-ending process until we get to the point where there’s no imbalance in returns.”
It’ll be tough to fit every customer perfectly, James, adds, because shoppers don’t’ always supply accurate information. Shoppers who order the custom pants fill in a two-page form online, supplying not only such basic information as waist and hip measurements, but also more sensitive information such as weight. It also asks shoppers to make a number of judgment calls in describing hip or abdomen curve as “average” or “curvy.” Based on customer feedback, Lands’ End already has changed how it asks some of those questions on the form with the goal of getting more precise information.
“Our challenge is getting people to be truthful in how they fill out the form, and getting them to understand why we need the information to be accurate,” James says. “Another challenge also has been in leaning how to ask the questions on the form so as to produce the most accurate patterns.”
Though the custom pants cost about $20 more than standard chinos, Lands’ End isn’t making public any numbers on profitability, return rates, or even how many shoppers have ordered the pants. But it’s proceeding with plans to add custom jeans on the web site this summer. It’s also looking at tailored pants next, shirts, and possibly down the line, that most difficult-to-fit item of apparel: women’s swimsuits.
It’ll take more orders and more data on ROI to determine whether customization is simply today’s new toy or if it warrants a permanent place in online retail. Consultants such as Whalin for now retain some skepticism. “I’ve always had trouble with the mass customization concept. For a specialty, highly-niched business, sure. But on a broader scale, I have some doubts about its viability,” he says.
Yet there already are some positive signs in the uptake on custom messenger bags on eBags, in the Business Express Suits separates that are now 20% of online sales at Bank, and in Lands’ End’s plans to go full-speed ahead with custom jeans, shirts, and more. If these early experiments at selling custom goods online do succeed, they could raise the bar for everyone else.
While there aren’t enough numbers yet to make that call, experts say part of successful marketing is to be able to peer into the future and forecast with confidence. So some e-retailers already believe they have an answer. “We think customization is the future on the Internet,” says Cobb. l