Given the wide array of size labelling in garments, consumers are often left feeling confused about their actual size, and frustrated by inconsistent fit. But help is at hand for apparel companies to deliver better fitting garments and grow their business in the process - with JC Penney and Jockey among those who have benefited, as Natalie Weathers reports.

In the midst of the autumn 2007 fashion shows this past February, one of the most popular sidebar discussions revolved around the anorexic-looking models strutting down the runway.

When, journalists asked, would the fashion industry begin to mandate a healthier looking beauty standard among models?

This was a valid question for the sake of the models and for the sake of the average female customer who increasingly cannot relate to the images of women that designers select to showcase their clothing.

When indeed? This question gets to the heart of a vicious cycle perpetrated by some mass retailers who succumb to vanity sizing.

The cycle is as follows: the media delivers regular doses of narrow images of beauty; the size 14 female consumer develops a guilty conscience that she does not measure up (or down, as the case would have it); the retailers appease that conscience by resorting to vanity sizing and re-labelling the size 14, a size 8; the media images become justified; and so the cycle continues.

The American Society for Testing and Materials' (ASTM) size standards reveal that the average American woman is a size 16. However, vanity sizing has become the norm among mass-market retailers, resulting in a random range of size labelling within and across product categories.

Given the wide array of size labelling in garments, the consumer often leaves a shopping experience confused about her actual size, and frustrated by inconsistent fit.

Consistent sizing tool
In the midst of vanity sizing and a competitive marketplace, body-scanning technology becomes useful to ensure accurate and consistent sizing of garments.

The vicious cycle described earlier has negative ramifications for retailers. One result is that inconsistency of fit within a brand and between brands - due to vanity sizing - become more common than not. Inconsistency of fit can be expensive from the standpoint of returned merchandise and lost customer sales.

Fortunately, there are organisations working with apparel retailers to help them address fit consistency issues so that they can deliver a better fitting garment to their customers, develop a loyal customer base, and grow their business in the process.

In the heart of North Carolina's Research Triangle region resides a dynamo apparel organisation with a critical mission - TC]², the Textile/Clothing Technology Corporation.

Based in Cary, North Carolina, this apparel technology research and education organisation is funded by the United States Department of Commerce and by private firms in the soft goods industry.

It serves the international apparel industry on issues of supply chain strategy, body scanning technology, mass customisation business models, establishment of fit criteria, and improved technologies for pattern making and digital fabric printing.

History of US body scanning
A government-sponsored body scanning technology study was first done in the late 1990s. Called CAESAR (Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource), the study was conceived by the US Air Force and was an international survey of body sizes and shapes of people between ages 18-65.

The results of the CAESAR study were used by the American defence and commercial industries. The CAESAR study preceded [TC]²'s SizeUSA study, which was completed in 2004.

The SizeUSA study used a sample size of 10,000 men and women selected from major cities across the United States. The SizeUSA study mirrored the statistical profile conducted by the Center for Disease Control in one of their National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. It also modelled a similar study conducted in the United Kingdom, named SizeUK.

According to Dr David Bruner, vice president of technology development, and Jim Lovejoy, director of industry programs, [TC]²'s SizeUSA study has been used by more than 50 companies - including Victoria's Secret, Jockey, Chico's and JC Penney.

Both the US and UK studies have caught on around the world and there are now Size Thailand and Size Mexico surveys underway. Additionally, the UK Ministry of Defence, India, Brazil and Australia are interested in conducting their own sizing surveys.

[TC]² scanning technology
The [TC]² body scanners utilise white light technology, which simulates the triangulation of laser beams, but at a lower cost. According to Dr Bruner, [TC]² has been the volume leader in body scanner shipments for the last two years.

The [TC]² scanners with measurement extraction software cost $40,000 and have gone through several generations. The latest version, the Fifth Generation Scanner, is approximately four-by-five feet and can fit into most stores' existing dressing rooms.

This new, smaller scanner captures 600,000 to 1 million data points of a user's image and then compiles those points into a three-dimensional representation of the body.

The compact size of this scanner is significant because retailers are very particular about reserving the majority of square footage for the selling floor. Therefore, anything that takes away from the merchandising of clothing is viewed as a detriment.

The fact that the [TC]² scanners have gone from a five by thirteen foot dimension to a scanner that can fit into an existing dressing room is a huge motivator for retailers to purchase it.

Delivering results for JC Penney…
The beauty of body scanning technology is that it can be used by apparel brands to gather data to formulate a size specification profile for their specific group of customers.

Consequently, these brands can deliver garments that are consistent in fit and keep their customers happy. In a saturated market, this fit consistency translates into quality clothing that helps retail brands stay ahead of their competitors.

JC Penney is an example of a retail company that has partnered with [TC]²'s scanning technology for better business results.

Mike Hannaford, global technical design director, explained that JC Penney first collaborated with [TC]² in 2003 to sponsor the SizeUSA research. At that time, SizeUSA was the largest size study since the CAESAR study in the 1990s.

[TC]²'s SizeUSA research included scanning 10,000 people, a third of which took place at two JC Penney stores in Texas. The study prompted JC Penney to think more about proportion.

Previously, JC Penney approached fit issues linearly, with little regard to proportion. But its collaboration with [TC]² on this research made it realise that one formula does not fit all.

The greatest takeaway for JC Penney was that it is as important to fit shape as it is to fit size. That realisation evolved into different fit options for women's pants: The Catherine fit (fitted slightly above the waist), the Audrey fit (more fitted at the waist) and the Marilyn fit (more fitted just below the waist).

JC Penney understood that as body types differ, so too do the ways that women prefer to wear their clothes. The retailer decided to follow up with its own in-house survey focusing on pants and then combined that data with [TC]²'s data.

The survey involved 67 participants, sizes 4 through 16. As a result of this research, JC Penney identified that 43% of its customer base was "pear shaped", 33% was "apple shaped" and 19% was "rectangle shaped". It tweaked the targeted body specs and slightly increased the bust, waist and hip measurements. 

Additionally, with the assistance of the consulting firm Whitaker International, the findings collected via the work with [TC]² prompted JC Penney to collect psychographic information.

The psychographic data helped identify four lifestyle segmentations. Those lifestyle segmentations included:
- Conservative (functional, not influenced by trend and brand loyal);
- Traditional (stylish but classic, expect performance, quality and value);
- Modern (fashion aware, open to change, style driven); and
- Trendy (image conscious and want to be noticed).

What is important about these newfound lifestyle segmentations was that they enriched the way the clothing was merchandised and marketed on a fit level. Thus, a 46-year-old woman and a 27-year-old woman might both fall into the "Modern" lifestyle category and be able to purchase correct fitting pants.

Mr Hannaford explained that another outcome of JC Penney's collaboration with [TC]² was that they decided to work with the Alvanon Body Form company to develop new forms for the women's, men's and children's wear categories.

Developing new body forms turned into a three-year project resulting in mandating that suppliers purchase those particular forms. As Mr. Hannaford put it, "the time and effort to coordinate appropriate body forms was well worth it and has helped maintain better consistency of fit".

Overall, the collaboration with [TC]² resulted in consistency of fit in JC Penney's products, granting purchasing confidence across JC Penney brands. It also expanded the marketing of fit to lifestyle segmentation, and brand equity scores for consistency of fit have improved in consumer surveys.

Mr Hannaford concludes that: "Size USA helped us think more about proportion…[We] began thinking about shape as well as size, and were able to validate the data to support spec changes to solve sizing and grading."

…and Jockey
Brad Beal, Jockey executive vice president of manufacturing and operations, also asserts that "[TC]² has been a valued partner and has contributed a lot to the textile and apparel industry".

Jockey collected data from women and men, then got additional data from body scans. By using the original and additional data, the company altered its patterns to enhance fit in men's briefs and women's panties and bras.

The Size USA data was applied to the Jockey consumer profile to enhance what Jockey delivered. This has been an ongoing project for Jockey since 2005, and it continues to update and analyse incoming data.

The data is used to validate patterns and to determine which fabrication is best suited to which product. As a result, the consumer ended up with appropriate options.

At Jockey, the research collaboration with [TC]² has meant a more innovative product. One of those innovative products is their 3D Silhouettes for men and women's bottoms.

Another innovation is that the company realised it needed to add length to some of its T-shirts. Doing the fabrication research resulted in better knowledge to give the structural support in clothing that different age groups require.

Both JC Penney and Jockey demonstrate the breadth of innovation that can abound when vanity sizing and fit issues are tackled by collaborating with an organisation such as [TC]².

Dr Mike Fralix, president of [TC]², states: "Regardless of the number on the label, we are focused on enabling the manufacturing of garments that fit a much larger percentage of the population."

Given that the challenges to an apparel retailer are not ending anytime soon, [TC]² has valuable work ahead to continue to support an increasingly global supply chain.

Natalie Weathers is associate professor in the Fashion Industry Management Department at Philadelphia University.