May 24, 2021 at 01:21AM

Whether its Amazon Prime Wardrobe, Walmart’s acquisition of Zeekit or some of the countless other players in between, everywhere you turn these days, it seems retailers are sizing up virtual fitting as a way to woo online customers.

This as tech-savvy shoppers have not only shown a preference for eCommerce shopping, but a willingness to try out new functions and features like digital try-on that stand to make the overall process better.

It’s all part of an emerging shopping-fitting-sharing trend that Walmart characterized as a game changer.

“Virtual try-on is a game-changer and solves what has historically been one of the most difficult things to replicate online: understanding fit and how an item will actually look on you,” said Denise Incandela, executive vice president of apparel and private brands at Walmart U.S.

Walmart was not bashful about its intentions for Zeekit, saying the goal of the acquisition is to boost its eCommerce fashion efforts with an eye toward expanding its assortment and meeting the needs of its increasingly online clientele.

In announcing the deal, Walmart said Zeekit and its virtual try-on technology will help Walmart deliver a better online apparel shopping experience that is more inclusive, immersive and personalized to customers’ needs.

Try-On Is Gaining Speed

Although Amazon has offered “try before you buy” tech to all Prime members since 2018, the pace of other retailers embracing the take has been modest — at least until recently.

However, PYMNTS’ How We Will Pay research from last year revealed that there was a soft spot for this type of eCommerce tech, particularly amongst bridge millennials and so-called superconnected consumers, who were shown to be significantly more open and interested in trying new types of connected commerce experiences than typical consumers.

And just last week, Paytonix Co-Founder and CEO Andrew Robbins told Karen Webster the virtual fitting trend reflects a big shift — not just for Walmart — but in the entire retail landscape in regard to consumer familiarity and comfort with this type of tech.

“We are really going to start seeing the art of the possible because you have the need, and then you need to figure out how to approach it differently,” Robbins said. “Consumers are asking, ‘What could be different? Maybe I really can try that thing at home.’”

Robbins said as retailers are being forced to think differently about their stores, they need to be more creative in how they use these physical spaces within the overall browsing, buying and returning cycle, and noted that Walmart’s entry is a reflection of the ongoing shift toward omnichannel selling and meeting customers wherever they are.

“The 32- to 43-year-old consumer has found [virtual try-on] to be quite appealing and interesting,” Webster said. “Along with lots of other changes in behavior, this is obviously something that consumers are now thinking about. Can I do this in the comfort of my own home? Do I want to go into a fitting room? Do I want to put on clothes that someone else has tried on before me? There’s just a lot of things now that consumers think about that they never thought about before.”

The Return Problem

Moreover, with consumers increasingly buying clothes online and trying them on for the first time after they’ve been delivered, there is also a lot that retailers have to think about now that they’ve never had to really consider before in terms of how to handle mass returns coming in.

Returns have ballooned into a $9 billion problem that involves nearly 40 percent of online footwear and apparel orders as consumers have come to expect free shipping and free returns when they buy online. In fact, this no-cost shipping option has caused many shoppers to engage in order bracketing — buying orders of identical items in multiple sizes, perfecting the fit at home and returning the test for free.

It’s a good, or at least workable, solution for consumers perhaps, but a margin buster for merchants in rather desperate need of something better. Free returns as a model has become completely unsustainable, MySize Founder and CEO Ronen Luzon told PYMNTS — and one that desperately needs to be replaced with something less costly for merchants and the planet as a whole.

The MySize solution is a variation on the virtual fitting room, which uses tech to simplify the sizing issue for clothes and shoes (among other things). Sensors already built into smartphones, as well as machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, ingest manufacturers’ aspirational sizing charts along actual customer feedback to provide customers with hyper-accurate clothing sizes that make it easier to buy the right size the first time, leading to fewer returns.

It’s a different attack plan than virtual fitting rooms, leveraging different technology to address the same problem: incorrect or unknown sizing leading to a margin-crushing, heavily-polluting epidemic of mis-sized clothing. For apparel merchants, Luzon noted, the market is moving to a place where it is nearing sizing tech or bust.

“Retailers know it can make the difference between a sale that’s profitable and a return that’s damaging to the bottom line,” Luzon said. “A retailer that’s not reexamining their approach to returns is a retailer that’s bleeding money. It’s such a massive issue and such a make-or-break profitability factor for these businesses, that online apparel retailers have no choice but to clamp down.”

Finding novel solutions to the fitting room problem is key as apparel commerce increasingly has shifted to digital channels over the course of the pandemic and shows no immediate signs of transferring back anytime in the immediate future. Walmart’s upping of its digital apparel game comes as PYMNTS data demonstrates it attempted to close a widening gap between itself and Amazon in the apparel market. Walmart held the lead until 2018 when Amazon officially pulled ahead and has been broadening its lead over Walmart in the domestic clothing category every quarter since, finishing 2020 with an almost 2-to-1 margin (or 15.7 percent versus 8.4 percent share of the market).

And Amazon Prime Wardrobe has simply built around the retail returns problem, bullying a try-before-you-buy period for shoppers that allows them to sample, for no charge, several items before keeping what they want and returning what they don’t. They’ve also been experimenting with virtual reality try-ons with things like cosmetics since at least 2018.

But Walmart’s efforts at prying back some of that lost market share have been myriad of late, including hosting TikTok shopping events, and its move to virtual reality (VR) fitting rooms is certainly pushing the envelope further.

Whether virtual fighting can live up to the billing — and actually substitute well for being there in person — remains to be proven.

Virtual Fitting Features Win Support Of Consumers And Retailers …

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