Finding the Perfect Fit, Without the Fitting Room

When I was a young professional in the habit of buying clothes for recreation, the King of Prussia mall, in a tony suburb of Philadelphia, was one of my favorite places to shop. The selection of stores covered the entire spectrum of favorite destinations, from casual Abercrombie & Fitch to luxe Saks Fifth Avenue. The concourses were wide and peaceful; the fitting rooms, large; and the attendants, solicitous. And fitting rooms were important: Though my body changed very little in those years, my size could change three or four times in a single $300 afternoon.

Unfortunately, trying to find the right fit has only gotten worse in the 10 years since I shopped to my heart's content and my credit card's limit. A half inch at a time, clothing manufacturers have been choosing their own adventures when it comes to sizing, departing from the ASTM standards to create such sizes as the "double zero."

MyBestFit ScannerWouldn't it be nice to have a cheat-sheet telling you which size you fit into at different stores and for different designers? Enter MyBestFit, a company that's applying the genius of airport security scanners to the pressing problem of vanity sizing.Located in the King of Prussia mall, the scanner, as the New York Times describes it, takes a full-dressed customer and "a wand rotates around her, emitting low-power radio waves that record about 200,000 body measurements, figuring out things like thigh circumference." Once the scan is complete (about 20 seconds later), software will match the customer's measurements to a database that includes clothing styles from 50 different stores at the mall. The only machine of its kind so far, My Best Fit plans to install scanners at 13 more malls on the East Coast and in California this year.

The primary benefit for consumers is, of course, the ability to save time -- and to make it easier to buy clothes online, where trying things on isn't an option. While some retailers may mourn the loss of bargain-hunters headed home from the mall with printout in hand to seek online deals, it's likely that they're salivating plenty (enough to neatly compensate for any lost sales to dotcom outlets) over the potential to reduce the biggest cost for retailers: returns.

My own dotcom heyday was largely spent on the management team for an innovative company who's goal was to streamline -- and re-imagine -- the processing of returns for online orders. While working on endless iterations of the business plan, I learned, for instance, that the standard yield for returned goods is 10% of the retail price. And clothing can be even less valuable in the secondary market than other categories of goods; in fact, we didn't pursue the clothing market because of this. If you buy a $100 dress, for instance, and return it after a few wears, deciding it's a bad fit, the retailer will be happy to get $10 for it. Really happy.

The National Retail Federation reports that 8% of all clothing purchases were returned in 2010 for a total value of $194 billion -- a figure that retailers will mostly write off as a loss. If even a quarter of those returns were due to a bad fit and would be prevented by customers with a data sheet in hand, mall stores nationwide will be kissing the hand of Tanya Shaw, CEO of MyBestFit. This innovation is a true win-win for consumers and retailers.

Of course, this could all be done much more simply. Manufacturers could just return to the old days of ASTM sizes, when the skinny version of me -- my best self -- would have reached for a size 12, knowing a bad fit would be the manufacturer's fault.

But in our self-doubting, narcissistic, fashion-idolizing American present, it's going to take a lot to be the retailer who calls "chicken" to avert from a course that will surely lead to everyone being a size zero (my mini-est friend Erica will be -- what? -- a size 0000000?). Until some brave soul reverts course and the rest of the retailers grudgingly follow, we'll have to rely on expensive, tech-heavy, jingly workarounds.

Luckily, it's America and the year 2011, and we have those in spade. The fairy tale ending, of course, is still on the rack.

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