Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the fashion technology landscape. We provide our take on what matters, and why. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
Body scanning is about to become the next big battleground.
It’s no secret that fit is big business. Two years ago, the return rate for online purchases – i.e. those that customers do not get to try on physically prior to purchase – was predicted to rise by close to 30% by 2023, accounting for nearly £6 billion in value in the UK alone. And there are indications to suggest that this trend has only accelerated recently, with clothing returns being the major culprit.
While some clothing is, no doubt, returned for other reasons – colour accuracy, quality, and general consumer whims – one of the most prominent justifications that shoppers give for returning garments is that they don’t fit properly.
This is not news to readers of The Interline, since our collaboration with body data platform 3DLOOK earlier this year delved deep into the importance of fit. But for a more general audience, this is still headline news: this week the BBC ran an article on the problem of poor fit and identified the potential of 3D body scanning using consumer technology as one part of the solution.
But the fact that it’s grabbing less specialist attention isn’t the major development in body scanning and body data this week.
Yesterday, Amazon revealed it was entering the health tracking space with its new Halo wearable and accompanying app. And like a lot of things Amazon does, what’s on the surface is likely to be something of a Trojan horse for yet another move to dominate the world of fashion retail.
Let’s explain. At first glance, Halo is totally non-threatening for retailers. The band tracks activity and sleep through the usual combination of gyroscopes and accelerometers that power other fitness trackers. It also tracks the tone of your voice to determine patterns of stress – something that, depending on your perspective on privacy, is either useful information or a whole new arena of privacy intrusion.
The part that matters for our purposes is that the accompanying Halo app also offers some level of 3D body scanning. It’s not immediately clear whether this is being done with a homegrown solution, or whether Amazon has partnered with an existing scanning tool, but what is clear is that it works the same way a lot of off-the-shelf smartphone scanning apps do. It takes a front photo and profile photo from the phone’s camera, then extrapolates these into a 3D model of the user’s body.
This is by no means new tech. Nearly every body scanning solution has used the same approach at one time or another – to varying degrees of accuracy. The crucial difference between those and Amazon’s approach, though, is availability. While most other body scanning and body platforms need to partner with retailers in order to reach consumers, Amazon is both the technology provider and the retailer.
As of today, the body scanning application is confined to Halo users, and it’s being pitched as a tool for assessing body fat. Indeed, the app offers a slider that allows users to picture themselves with either more or less weight – presumably as a way of setting fitness goals.
But surely nobody familiar with Amazon’s attitude to retail domination could conclude that this narrow application is going to be where this ends. The Interline would be shocked if Amazon had not repurposed this body scanning technology for its fashion business by this time next year. And when it does, it will have a significant data pool to draw from: scans of Amazon customers around the world, which can be aggregated and anonymised, then correlated with other Amazon shopping behaviours. Amazon claims these scans will be deleted from its servers, but this does not necessarily mean that the key data points from them won’t be fed into a machine learning model. And the output of this could give Amazon’s own brands a detailed picture of target demographics for potentially every category of fashion.
Ideally, that data would then be offered as a service to companies that sell through Amazon’s marketplace, but Amazon’s recent track record of anti-competitive actions casts a shadow there.
It’s worth noting that this week also saw strong rumours that Amazon’s luxury fashion portal could be launching next month, suggestions that its Just Walk Out cashier-less technology could be deployed in Whole Foods stores early next year, as well as confirmation that Jeff Bezos has just become the richest person there has ever been – at least in modern times.
All of these are indicators that Amazon fully intends to dominate both online and, eventually, brick and mortar retail by leveraging its position as both a storefront and the owner of the infrastructure and technology that’s going to power the next wave of shopping.
Consider Amazon’s current advantage in distribution. Using its Prime network, Amazon’s fashion brands – of which there are more than ever – can find their way to consumers faster than almost any of the competition. This model has irrevocably changed people’s expectations – to the extent that even next-day shipping is starting to look antiquated compared to same-day fulfilment.
It seems likely that Amazon intends to do the same for fit – not just redefining the shopping experience through its marketplaces, but also potentially slashing its own return rates and dramatically improving profitability.
This is, to be clear, an area where existing scanning solutions and body data platforms have first-mover advantage. By partnering with companies like these, other retailers are already able to offer eCommerce applets that allow shoppers to scan their bodies and receive size recommendations, and those retailers can also tap into the resulting data to improve the fit of their products over time. But given this week’s news, it certainly seems as though Amazon intends to take the fight to them, making investment in those solutions – especially as part of a digital product creation workflow – a real priority.
The lines between retail and big tech continue to blur.
If there has been one consistent theme throughout what is now half a years’ worth of these roundups, it’s that it’s becoming harder to see where retail ends and technology begins. Given the founding principle of The Interline – to tell stories from the fold between fashion and technology – this is no bad thing, but it’s interesting to see just how rapidly technology players are revolutionising retail, as well as the appetite among retailers to become tech companies themselves.
One of the more surprising recent manifestations of this was yesterday’s news that Walmart was casting its hat into the ring, alongside Microsoft, to buy the US operations of TikTok.
We have written several times over the last few months about the rise of social commerce as the next big retail channel, and Walmart clearly agrees; this bid is more than likely intended to provide the US retail giant with a new route to market, and it represents a bet on the probability that an America-controlled TikTok can hold its own as a shopping destination against other homegrown channels such as Instagram Shopping.
In a very short span of time, the frontlines of retail competition have moved from the street to social media and eCommerce. And if we need an even stronger sign of just how intertwined retail and technology have now become, this week’s announcement that Ant Group (the technology arm of Alibaba) has become possibly the largest ever IPO should suffice.
The Interline expects much more cross-pollination to come.