How More Than $1 Billion in Holiday Returns Could Trigger Massive Retail Disruption

The holiday season invariably brings with it a number of familiar traditions: steaming mugs of hot cocoa after ice skating at outdoor rinks, for example, or White Elephant office party gift exchanges.

However, for the retailers that count on the gift-giving festivities to claw their way into the black, there’s one tradition they’d rather do without: the avalanche of returns that inevitably cap off the merry excitement of year-end celebrations.

The more people shift their shopping online, the greater the returns problem becomes, especially when looking at fashion e-commerce. It’s one thing if mom doesn’t appreciate the smart home speaker you got her, but it’s another matter altogether if the sweater simply doesn’t fit. There’s no getting around that.

The problem applies not just to the guesswork-fraught gift-giving process but to shoppers buying clothing online for themselves, and more so when taking a shot in the dark with a brand they don’t have experience with. Blame it on the lack of sizing standardization.

In fact, new research by BodyBlock AI based on a survey of 1,200 American consumers found that 84 percent female shoppers are exasperated by what they described as “random or arbitrary” sizing, which is frighteningly inconsistent from one brand to the next and even more so across borders. BodyBlock AI is a data-driven clothing fit predictor that uses close to 1 million 3-D body scans to calculate the right size on e-commerce fashion sites and help boost conversions by 3 percent to 8 percent. Customers include Stitch Fix, Under Armour and Rhone, a men’s activewear startup.

“The State of Holiday Shopping E-commerce Returns in 2018” paints a picture of an online fashion retail industry that has a lot on the line if it can’t figure out how to stem the bleeding from the $1.39 billion worth of clothing that shoppers expect to return because of fit issues. That’s half of the total expected online apparel sales this holiday, based on BodyBlock AI’s calculations from a variety of sources.

Adobe Analytics puts Thanksgiving-through-Cyber Monday sales at around $14.1 billion. The common assumption that typically holds true is that apparel accounts for 20 percent of online sales, which would put Cyber Weekend fashion sales at about $2.8 billion. However, because many people purchase and gift apparel around the holidays, the quoted numbers — for both sales and projected returns — could be considerably higher.

The fallout from online fit issues cannot be overstated. Half of people burned by poorly fitting garments purchased online or in receipt of the wrong size, wouldn’t give the brand a second chance, BodyBlock AI found. Overall, fit problems are laughably common when it comes to shopping online. Virtually all surveyed consumers (91 percent) said they’ve purchased clothing online that didn’t fit as they hoped it would. Another 72 percent have gone through the hassle of sending back poorly fitting garments, the report said.

A consumer’s initial fit experience with a brand they’ve shopped for the first time online has major consequences for how that budding relationship will turn out. It’s sort of like a first date; if it goes well, date No. 2 is probably in your future. That’s why 89 percent of consumers say they’re likely or very likely to buy more apparel from a brand if the inaugural order went off without a hitch.

Call it fit fatigue, but evidence shows consumers are wary of the potential headache that comes along with purchasing clothing through e-commerce. Most people (72 percent) do their due diligence prior to ordering, consulting sizing charts and using fit prediction tools in hopes of alighting upon the best-fitting size. Then there’s the subset of 37 percent who’ll buy multiples of an item in different sizes to ensure that one of them fits correctly.

Fit, BodyBlock AI found, gives far too many shoppers pause when they’re lured into the crisp photography of e-commerce catalogs. They’re ready and willing to spend, more or less, though 88 percent claimed they’d purchase more clothing online if the worries over fit were removed from the equation.

Some people seem to hate the in-store experience so much they said they’d purchase their whole wardrobe online if fit problems weren’t constantly at the back of their minds (17 percent). Another 40 percent could purchase half of their clothing online if fit challenges were a thing of the past.

Which apparel items do shoppers most frequently return? Not surprisingly, jeans and pants were a problem for both men and women; it’s not uncommon for one part of the garment to fit fine while they rest is too loose or too tight. Note that twice as many men as women shipped back T-shirts, which have moved beyond staple status into the realm of Fashion with a capital F.

Editor’s Note: This story was reported by FN’s sister magazine, Sourcing Journal. For more, visit Sourcingjournal.com.

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