February 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Try Me On

Virtual fitting rooms give e-retailers a leg up in the battle with stores for apparel sales.

Apparel e-retailers have always had an Achilles' heel. How do they appeal to consumers wary of buying online because they want to know how a piece of clothing fits?

Even with online apparel sales projected to rack up double-digit annual percentage gains for the next few years, according to Forrester Research Inc., retailers know they could sell more online if they could satisfy shoppers accustomed to trying on clothes before making a purchase.

Technology vendors have for years tried to come up with ways to enable consumers to virtually try on apparel, without notable success. But a new crop of technologies have emerged in recent years that mimic store dressing rooms or advise consumers on what items are likely to fit them well. And, while they're not cheap to deploy, some retailers say these new systems are boosting conversion rates, reducing returns and making online clothes shopping more fun.

Jeans that fit

Take Hurley, a clothing brand and e-retailer that implemented an online try-on application from Embodee to the denim section of its e-commerce site in October 2010. On category and product pages, denim shoppers see a large button reading, "See These Jeans On You." When clicked, the Embodee application takes a shopper to a page that first asks for her height and weight. Step Two features slider bars and asks for waist, hip and inseam measurements.

The final step asks the shopper to select the silhouette of her hips—straight or rounded—and her fit preference—snug, roomy or loose. The app then returns images of what she would look like in each of three different sizes of the jeans selected. One image shows the model with a color-based scale designating portions of the garment that are loose, snug or tight. White parts of the image designate a loose part of the garment where, the application explains, the "fabric barely touches the skin." Red portions are snug: the "fabric touches skin everywhere."

The technology is helping spur denim sales for Hurley.com, whose target demographic is young, sophisticated online shoppers comfortable with advanced technologies, says Jeff Hurley, vice president of the digital side of the retailer's business. Since deploying the Embodee technology Hurley has seen a significant boost to its conversion rate for denim items and fewer returns. "Denim is historically our highest return percentage as a category," he says. "Since Embodee, our return rate on denim is down about 34%."

The cost of Embodee ranges from $20,000 to $100,000 per year; pricing is based on the number of items the technology is applied to and how often shoppers use it, says Embodee founder and CEO Andre Wolper. He says the application requires the digitization of each garment, a complicated process that takes into account gravity and garment weight in simulating how an item would fall on a body.

The search for the perfect-fitting jean is also going on at the women's denim section of Macys.com. The department store chain introduced in October a system from True Fit Corp. that recommends styles based on a shopper's body type. The shopper enters her size and brands of pants she wears, likes and that fit her best. She also selects her body type from such choices as curvy for hips, or flat for rear ends. No measurements are required.

Macys.com then directs the shopper to a Shop True to You section, which recommends several pants styles. The section displays True Fit Size, which suggests the most appropriate size for the consumer, and True Fit Scores, which indicate on a five-star scale the pants that will fit best. The shopper also can view True Fit Details, which shows how loose or tight each particular item will fit.

How they know

True Fit Corp. has obtained from the manufacturers of most of Macy's jeans brands sizing specifications of each product, making it better able to accurately gauge which jeans tend to fit tighter or run long, Macys.com president Kent Anderson says.

Additionally, shoppers can click on a Love It button below each recommended product image and share their favorites on Facebook.

When wading through the scores of available fit simulation tools it was the simplicity of True Fit that sold Macy's. "We discovered a while back that women are remarkably willing to share a little bit about themselves," Anderson says. "Keeping it simple is more important than whiz-bang technology."

Macy's also is using mobile technology to bring the new personal-fit technology into its stores. Android smartphone users can access their True Fit profiles and recommendations on Macy's mobile commerce site, helping them narrow their search for products when in stores. Macy's True Fit application is built with Flash technology, which is not supported by Apple Inc. devices such as the iPhone or iPad. The retailer might expand the tool into the shoe and dress categories, Anderson says.

"The women's apparel business and ready-to-wear category, especially, are very fast growing for us," he adds. "This is a continuation of a journey that we've been on for a while, but now we are raising the bar a bit."

Outfit builder

Other apparel retailers are using the virtual fitting room concept to replicate the in-store experience of pairing items together to form complete outfits. In March, for example, Dutch clothing e-retailer Men at Work implemented technology from vendor MimicMe that allows a shopper to select a virtual model with her body type and place several garments on the model at once to see which items look best together.

The technology encourages consumers to spend more time on the site, view more items and spend more on a typical order, says e-commerce director Willem Wijnen. "It makes shopping for clothing a step more realistic," he adds. "You can resize the model, and as soon as people see that, the vast majority becomes much happier with the site."

Men at Work has both a male and female model, but testing shows that it's women who respond most favorably to the MimicMe option. "The male doll works, but in general, the female effect is bigger and the enthusiasm is greater," Wijnen says. "The women, they go through the roof, it's funny to see."

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