Returns are undoubtably one of fashion’s main pain points. In the UK, the top  3 categories of online purchases returned were all fashion related, with 34% of consumers reporting that they have returned clothing in the last 12 months, along with 16% who’d returned shoes, and 10% who sent back bags and accessories in the same timeframe.

Collectively, returns account for a multi-billion-dollar hole in fashion’s balance sheet: over 5 billion pounds of waste is generated through returns each year. And that damage to the environment is just part of the picture, since every return has a significant impact on logistics, operations, inventory allocation, planning, and bottom-line profit.

Being such a substantial and costly issue, many fashion retailers have prioritised investing in solutions in an attempt to solve it. Some are simple but effective policies, such as not offering free returns – although the impact this has on consumer perception of the brand are difficult to quantify, since free returns have become so ingrained in shopping culture. Others include technology-based solutions such as AR try-ons, 3D body scanning, and personalised size recommendations based on consumers weight, height, and other body measurements.

Often it feels as though these different solutions have benefits that are heavily weighted towards the brand. So, in this article I want to consider how the experience of 3D body scanning, on an individual basis rather than at a size-survey level, can improve or detract from the experience for the consumer.

Here at The Interline, we have already looked into the made-to-measure business model where Sanne Schoenmaker, the co-founder of Tech Tailors – a fashion tech company dedicated to eliminating waste and perfecting fit in the fashion industry – argued that mass tailoring has the potential to be far more profitable than brands may realise. In their research, Tech Tailors found that even with a 30% higher production cost, made-to-measure clothing can be offered to consumers at the same price point as ready-to-wear – ensuring affordability and size-inclusivity for all customers.

This article takes that profitability into account, and presupposes that brands want to meet their consumers’ demand for better-fitting garments through some degree of personalised fit – whether it’s at the simple size-matching and recommendation level, or true customisation.

image courtesy of 3dlook

With modern 3D body scanning technologies, the previously-laborious task of taking body measurements can be done in a matter of seconds, by consumers themselves at home using their smartphones. A front and profile photo are synthesised into an accurate 3D model, and the resulting data can then be sent to the retailers to produce garment to consumers’ specific body measurements, before later becoming an anonymous part of an aggregated dataset that can inform the next cycle of design and development. There are currently several companies who offer this technology such as Vitronic  and 3DLOOK – the latter of which The Interline collaborated with back in 2020 to examine the importance of body data – and brands have, unsurprisingly, leapt to embrace them.

As an avid and regular fashion shopper myself, as well as a researcher in consumer behaviour, there are a few key points that I would like to address in this article to explore whether made-to-measure, enabled by at-home body scanning, is currently a viable solution to fashion’s return issue. To gather more insights into this, I spoke to Dr Simeon Gill, senior lecturer in Fashion Technology at the University of Manchester who specialises in body scanning, and the relationships between body dimensions and patterns/garments, and Tamsin Hoque, senior associate at Lewis Silkin law firm who specialises in data privacy and commercial law.

First, looking at one of the main advantages of 3D body scanning for consumers, Dr Simeon Gill believes that “the most effective use of scanning in the short term would be to help people make more informed decisions about products that are currently available. So, a better filtering mechanism for buying garments. For instance, using scan data, you can predict what your most likely fit dissatisfactions could be”. However, he points out that “most people don’t know what to do with scan data and how to apply it meaningfully. It’s incredibly complex, so they tend to give up”. Hence, it can be argued that equipping consumers with the knowledge and tools to read and interpret scan data is key.

Now, let’s look at the reasons why consumers worldwide return clothes purchased online. In the diagram below, the main reasons cited are that “items don’t fit well” and “I didn’t intend to keep everything (I bought multiple sizes)”. These account for 38% and 6% of returns, respectively.

image courtesy of foresight factory

In theory, made-to-measure clothing would help reduce returns significantly, as consumers will not face any fit or sizing issues. Not only that, but as made-to-measure clothes will also be made-to-order, this will help reduce/prevent issues regarding inventory management and excess stock. Furthermore, this could be the answer to another one of fashion’s issues: size inclusivity. Using 3D body scanning to create made-to-measure clothing will mean that all consumers, regardless of their body shape, will be able to find and purchase clothing that fits them well.

However, with (free) returns being an important purchase criteria for the majority of consumers, the question that arises here is how willing consumers would be to purchase a garment knowing that they most probably will not be able to return it.  A personalised product is personal, after all, and while the fitting process seems, on the surface, less destructive than actual artistic customisation (one person’s colour, material, and embellishment choices may not be for everyone) they still represent a garment that is bespoke, and therefore a garment that brands may not want returned other than for objective quality reasons.

I have to admit, I have never customised any of my online purchases, precisely because I knew I would not be able to return them. It is a gamble I am not willing to take – particularly if I am ordering from an online-only retailer where I do not get the chance to examine the product myself in real life. With made-to-measure clothing being specifically designed and produced to customers’ body measurements, customers will most likely not be able to return the garments, which could negatively impact their willingness to purchase. After all, sizing and fit are not the only reasons why consumers return their purchases; as shown in the diagram, they only account for 44% of the reason why consumers return their purchases. So, the question is: what if the garment fits the customer perfectly, but the quality or colour is not what they were expecting? Can they return it for a full refund, or a store credit? And if so, what can the retailer do with that customised garment? Well, according to Dr Simeon Gill, “You can always sell bespoke garments on to somebody else that they may fit which you can determine through scan data. The idea then that that garment that is made-to-measure for a particular consumer would not fit anybody else is novel. Somebody else could still wear that item, it’s not made to fit them, but it wouldn’t be different to our current experience of ready-to-wear, which is made to fit somebody other than the consumer”.

Another issue with made-to-measure clothing is what happens to the items after the customer no longer wishes to keep that product. Can they resell is as easily as they can sell a product with standardised sizing? How will they list their item on resell platforms such as eBay, Vestiaire Collective, and Vinted who all use standardised sizing for discovery and recommendations? Can they find a customer with exact or similar body measurements and fit preferences as them? The huge number of different size permutations in personalised fit make it unlikely.

The same issues can be applied to renting. With rental platforms being on the rise, and many customers looking to rent and lease clothing, doing so with made-to-measure clothing can be more difficult compared to clothing with standardised sizing.

Next, let’s look at issues regarding accuracy. Assuming that the apps and software used for body scanning provide accurate measurements, consumers also have the responsibility to ensure accuracy of results. They must wear tight-fitting clothing when getting their body scanned. However, if they fail to do so, will the clothes they get made-to-measure specifically for them, fit them as expected?

In addition, human bodies change a lot during the day. Whilst consumers are getting their body scanned, they may breathe in and out, move, or change their posture – all which may reduce the accuracy of the scan. In fact, according to 3DLOOK, “no means of body measuring – be it a mobile body scanning app, a 3D booth, or a measuring tape – can guarantee the numbers to be 100% accurate and always remain the same, because the human body does not”. Hence, they argue that more research and development is required to overcome the lack of standards of parameters, anatomical site , posture, phase of respiration, and other factors contributing to measurement errors.

Lastly, looking to privacy and security issues, there is much to be explored.  From fashion retailers’ ownership of customers’ data and the security measures to protect it, to the different regulations in countries regarding use of this information. Tamsin Hoque argues that, “data security should be at the forefront of all retailer data privacy programmes, especially where large amounts of consumer data are being handled. You can have all the compliance measures in place, but this must be underpinned by robust technical and organisational security measures.”

Additionally, a key question to consider here is: how comfortable are consumers with having their body scanned and data collected by the third-party tech companies and fashion retailers? Tamsin Hague points out that, “a key area for retailers to focus on is transparency. How likely are consumers to understand how their body measurement data will be used and shared? Will retailers be doing anything else with this data, for example building profiles? If consumers have a clear understanding of what’s happening with their data, this will go a long way to reassure them and build trust.”

There are clearly many pros and cons of using 3D body scanning to offer consumers made-to-measure clothing. And there are a lot more than could be included in this article. Whilst I pointed out several potential pain points for customers to use 3D body scanning to purchase made-to-measure clothing, the intention of this article is not to argue that this business model is not profitable, and not a viable solution to solve fashion’s return problem. It simply aimed to shed light on several aspects from the consumers’ perspective that will need to be taken into consideration if 3D body scanning for the purpose of creating made-to-measure clothing is to become a more mainstream, popular amongst consumers and commercially viable solution. To this end, Dr Simeon Gill argues that: “government support for using technology more effectively to empower consumers, and to introduce change incrementally would be extremely helpful to create a positive substantial change in the fashion industry”.