Rethinking, redesigning, reinventing apparel sizing and fit strategies is key, according to Ed Gribbin

Rethinking, redesigning, reinventing apparel sizing and fit strategies is key, according to Ed Gribbin

Fashion brands and retailers need to embrace “radical change” in their apparel sizing and fit strategies if they are to remain competitive in a changing environment. And for Alvanon’s Ed Gribbin, there are lessons to be learned from technology giants like Apple.

“Retail is broken,” according to Ed Gribbin, president at size and fit specialist Alvanon. “We have too many malls, we have too many stores. And it’s not because consumers are all shopping online or on their mobile devices. The market share of mobile and e-commerce is still only 10-11% of overall retail.

“Consumers have more choice than ever before; they can buy what they want, when they want, where they want, how they want...and they can pretty much determine how much they want to pay,” he told delegates at ‘The Fit Factor’ conference organised last week by the ASBCI (Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry).

“Retailers continue to follow a traditional merchandising cycle,” he explained, which means merchandise is on sale so early it is out of synch with the seasons for which it is intended, and ends up being marked down. “We've got to rethink our cycles so that we can get product to consumers when they want it and when they need it.

“We've got to think of a different way to engage the customer”.

Gribbin suggests taking a lead from technology giants like Apple. “Have you ever seen the bin at the back of an Apple store where they have last year's iPhones marked down 50%? Or the 70% off coupons in the mail?” he asked. The answer, a resounding “No.”

Not only is Apple the largest company by value in the world, but it consistently makes 22-23% per quarter in net profit. This compares with net profit margins of just 6% in publicly-held retail companies.

On top of this, apparel conversion rates are about 10% - which means just one in ten shoppers walks out of a store with a piece of apparel. Average full-price sell through is around 34%, and around 40% of items sold online, mobile and in-store are returned due to fit issues. Indeed, figures from the NPD Group suggest just 17% of consumers are happy with fit – which means more than 80% are not.

“What can we learn from companies like Apple?” Gribbin asked. “Apple has created a lifestyle brand we can't live without; created something consumers didn't even know they wanted and didn't even know they needed...a lifeline to information, to other people.

“When was the last time people lined up outside your store to buy the new collection of clothing? 6m iPhone 6s were sold in the first weekend. When was the last time we sold 6m of anything? When was the last time you paid more than retail for any piece of apparel?”

While both apparel and technology firms work to very long lead times, go through many prototypes before reaching a final product, and work to a secretive process that means the consumer is kept in the dark until a product launches, the technology companies stand apart with their very high conversion rates, high sell-throughs, very low returns, very high brand loyalty, and extremely high profitability.

How do they do all those things differently? “They think differently,” according to Gribbin.

“I think the broken-ness starts on the design side. Design to most apparel companies is art; design to Apple - and most of the tech companies, and auto and space companies – is science.

“Apparel has tolerances that are half the distance to the next size. And we don't know when to stop when we go through the product development process.”

The ideal process, he explains, “would be to decide on the aesthetic fit, the aesthetic look, the fit intent of the product, and the merchandising edited, curated line plan that you want to buy...and then get a prototype, have it go to a sourcing office, go to a vendor, be checked out, reviewed and come back for approval.

“We sit in fittings all the time and in most cases it's not a fitting, it's a re-design session or re-merchandising session. We're mashing all of these disciplines together and hoping that good things come out in the end. And the one thing that doesn't change is the delivery date.”

So what would Apple do? “Design is paramount at Apple, but it's not design the way we treat design; it's design as science, it's design as engineering. It's interesting that Apple has brought numerous people from our industry into their company: Angela Ahrendts [its senior vice president of retail and online stores who joined from Burberry], Ben Shaffer [designer of the Nike Flyknit], Paul Deneve [the former CEO at Saint Laurent] – continuing that strategy of building a lifestyle brand that people just can't live without.”

Gribbin set out five rules for reinvention:

  • Don't be greedy; you've got to think outside the box but you've got to know your limits; you can't be all things to all people. Brands that try to reach too far are the brands that fall. And fit is one of those things; when a brand decides they need to reach a different demographic they change their fit – make it skinnier, more modern, frumpier – and whatever they do, it destroys the loyalty of their customer base.
  • Disrupt, shake things up; don't be afraid to fail. At Alvanon we’re testing a single inexpensive scan device in a department store in Hong Kong, that captures the people going in and out of the store. We can report a lot of solid business analytics back to the retailer - the height, weight, body measurements, estimated age and ethnicity of shoppers, and put together reporting to indicate how many sizes should be stocked in this particular store.
  • Go virtual. 3D virtual product development is being used to radically cut time to market.
  • Re-think sourcing, get closer to home. McKinsey calls it 'Next-sourcing', going to that source space that's in proximity but has the maximum amount of innovation. Innovation is key to going forward.
  • In your own companies, reinvent design as engineering. Have a core body standard, a set of grade rules that reflects how people really grow in your target customer base, have a block library that's robustly connected to your PLM and gives people real-time information that's accurate, transparent, and secure.

“Design as engineering is the key to success for so many companies - Nike, Ralph Lauren,” Gribbin concluded.

He also pointed to the success of designer collaborations with high street retailers, such as Target/Missoni, Jil Sander/Uniqlo, and Karl Lagerfeld/H&M. The common denominator? “Great design with the fit of the collection engineered by the retailer.”

Click on the following links for further insight into issues discussed at The Fit Factor conference: