June 3, 2012

Many (un)happy returns

Online clothing retailers seek a solution to their biggest headache: Poor fit.

By FARHAD MANJOO Slate magazine

Sometimes in the middle of the night, when the toddler wakes me up and I can't get back to sleep, I go online to look for pants. Pants are my fashion Waterloo.

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I've got a slight waist and short legs, a dimensional no-pants-land that's ill-served by most retail stores. (This is one of the reasons I like wearing pajamas.) I've come across a few expensive brands of jeans, chinos and dress pants that fit me somewhat well, and my strategy has been to buy up as many of them as possible. But this isn't easy -- the stores never have more than one pair in my size -- and it's sartorially boring, not to mention expensive. That's why, in my weaker sleepless moments, I can't resist the lure of shopping online.

From afar, the Web looks like a trouser treasure trove -- there are so many styles, they're all available in every size, and they're often cheaper than in stores. What could go wrong?

But then my pants arrive and they're a disaster. Even though they're in my size, they don't really fit. Depending on the brand and the style, a given waist and inseam length fits differently from a supposedly identically sized pair in another brand.

Bad fit is a common problem in online apparel sales, perhaps the main reason that shopping for clothes online hasn't taken off in the same way that shopping for everything else has. Most successful online apparel retailers suffer excruciatingly high rates of returned merchandise. Customers return about 35 percent of the shoes purchased from Zappos, for instance, and the store's best customers (those who spend the most money) return half of what they buy.

This suggests that a lot of people are buying stuff to try it on and send it back. Some of the returns are likely a matter of taste -- those sandals don't look as good on your feet as they did on your laptop -- but many retailers say poor fit is their biggest headache.

Over the last few months, Amazon.com has pushed aggressively into the apparel game. The company -- which also owns Zappos and the flash-sales clothing discount site MyHabit -- has signed on hundreds of designer brands, and it has invested heavily in improving how it lists clothes on its site.

Among other things, according to The New York Times, the firm is shooting 3,000 fashion photos a day to post online, and it has hired three women to try on and review shoes full time. As an Amazon devotee, I was happy to hear about all this. If Amazon can make it as easy to buy clothes as it has everything else, I might finally be able stop searching the world for nice pants.

But then, at 3 a.m. the other night, I logged on to Amazon and started searching for pants. Things didn't go well. I loved the wide selection at Amazon's clothing store, and I found several pairs of jeans and khakis that I liked. Reviews on the items, though, suggested that they weren't "true to size," and I'd have to choose a bigger or smaller size to get a good fit. But how much bigger or smaller? It was a guessing game. When the pants arrived -- in a stylish white envelope rather than Amazon's standard smiley-face cardboard box -- it was clear that I'd guessed wrong. The pants were all either just too tight or loose.

If Amazon really wants to revolutionize online clothing sales, it would do well to come up with a fix for the size problem. When I buy a pair of pants or any other clothes online I'd like to know that they'll fit. If Amazon can give me that certainty, it will make a killing in clothes.

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