The competition between providers of apparel customisation tools may appear great, but a closer look reveals that each one is actually a little different from the next. By Mona Frastaci.

This is the second article from a series of two reviews of different customisation offerings available in the industry. Part I addressed products providing customisation tools without the use of a visual model. The following article, Part II, examines some of the products that take a different approach to customisation, providing visualisation as a key component.

Visualisation techniques
At Montreal, Canada-based My Virtual Model Inc, the belief is that by providing the customer with a visual experience the company can increase consumer interest and provide a more effective, more pleasurable and more personalised shopping experience. "Customers feel a sense of friendship with their model," says Louise Guay, president and CEO of My Virtual Model.

The virtual model, with which customers can "try on" clothes and receive advice about the items that would suit them best, was first created in a two-dimensional format. Two years ago it was upgraded and launched with the company's first customer, Lands' End. "When we started with Lands' End it was with a three-dimensional model and it was a real novelty for them," Guay explains. "The company was equipped with the infrastructure and fulfilment because of its catalogue business. The model was a nice personalisation approach for them."

Since its implementation with Lands' End and other clients including JCPenney, Fubu, Galeries Lafayette, American Eagle and Disney, the company has seen the effect the model has had on consumers. "From the early stages of the product, people were pleased with what it could do for them," Guay says. "Even if it was primitive, the model was a virtual person and there was an understanding that it would evolve." Customers have expressed that the model has made shopping easier for them and has allowed them to make choices more closely aligned with their personal taste.

My virtual model lets consumers build an online image of themselves.

Enhancing functionality
Although My Virtual Model has had no sizing tool as part of its function, the company is preparing to launch one soon. "People expect a lot of possibilities," Guay explains. "The model is their ambassador, a representative of who they are. With it, customers can try on garments they otherwise might be shy to try, and they can become more knowledgeable."

Guay's intent for the product is that it be affordable and scalable. "If the industry wants to use it, it will affect the production of garments," she says. Retailers and designers have begun asking for the product. "Designers would like to use our program to create a garment in 3D, market it from a 3D form, and then go to production," Guay continues.

The company's first focus, though, was on the customer. It is these customers that now want to take their virtual model to other websites they're shopping on, including sites outside of apparel such as dating services and weight loss services.

For a merchant, using the model is easy. "They just host the model," Guay explains. "It comes to their site but resides on ours so it's very light and free and is not a burden." Customers make demands though, and My Virtual Model Inc is constantly improving the model. "At the beginning it was more fragmented," Guay says. "Customers want integration, they want it to be user friendly and fluid."

The retailer's side
"For us it's been a very big help," says Gail Jackson, JCPenney women's wear merchandise director. JCPenney utilises My Virtual Model at its online special-size sites, having first started with the company's plus-size site in April 1999 and then expanding to the petite and tall sites in June 2000.

"It's great to have a tool for the special sized customer because they have a hard time finding a broad enough assortment of clothes and figuring out what the clothes would look like on them. For them it's more of a need than bells and whistles," Jackson says. The company will soon launch a maternity site that will also use My Virtual Model.

In addition to offering the model online, JCPenney has in-store kiosks in its special size departments, and the company is interested in incorporating the virtual model with its catalogue. "We'd like to go forward with that in some manner where the representative can help people over the phone," Jackson says.

JCPenney uses My Virtual Model at its online special size sites.

Customer feedback
Since the incorporation of My Virtual Model, JCPenney has received notes of thanks from customers in regard to convenience, selection and personalised attention. "Once they find this they're very loyal to our site," Jackson says. "We get the best letters here. I've been with JCPenney for 15 years, in a number of different divisions, and we receive better letters here than anywhere else."

Customers in other size departments such as juniors are requesting use of the model, and customers are also asking for increased photo-realism in terms of the model and the garments. "With the upcoming relaunch, all of the sites' customers will be able to customise even more," Jackson explains. "If it's a nubby fabric you'll be able to see the texture in it - in fact it's hard to tell the difference between a clothing photograph and the 3D rendering."

JCPenney has made sure its customers are comfortable with the use of the model. "We were afraid of asking for too much information and making them feel like we were invading their privacy, but the opposite has happened," Jackson says. "People are sending letters giving more of their measurements and asking if we can add those to their model - they feel a friendship with us and are glad to tell us even more about themselves than we asked for."

But while focusing on the customer's use of the product, My Virtual Model Inc's Guay is also focusing on the competition. "We are in touch with many competitors and are in a position to consolidate the market," Guay says of her business approach. "There are companies that concentrate on one part - like the sizing tool, mathematical models or advice components - and we will be willing to acquire other technologies that are out in the market. We want to make sure the user will have the best product possible."

The issue of draping
Michael Fralix, corporate vice president and director of industry services at TC2, points out ambiguity in terms of the idea of customisation. "There's customised features and there's customised size; there's what customisation means to the consumer - doing customisation on the market and delivery end - and what it means to the manufacturer - customisation on the production end," he explains. "

"True mass customisation goes from the point of sale to the manufacturer and back to the consumer."
True mass customisation goes from the point of sale to the manufacturer and back to the consumer. It's important to distinguish that."

Fralix also points out that while there is now the capability of making a body scan and then draping the clothes: "There is still a lot of development to be done in that area."

With a team of experts in artificial intelligence and visual graphics, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Yourfit has developed software solutions that enable consumers - also with the use of a virtual model - to try clothes on while shopping online. Providing a precise image of the fit and look of clothing items, the company's core solutions include the Virtual Dressing Room (VDR) for online and in-store applications and the Apparel Sizing Engine (ASE) for catalogue and online call centres.

To provide accurate fit descriptions and fit recommendations the company has created a proprietary draping program. "Our draping engine is far superior. For example the way we handle cloth-on-cloth collision - like fabric bunching up in the crotch - we are the only ones that can do it with technology rather than hand touch," says Dan Ross, Yourfit director of sales.

"With our draping engine we're not drawing anything. You create a body and we have the garment in the system and put the two together." The customer then receives a size recommendation based on their body measurements and the style, size and specifications of the garment. "You have to have accurate cloth properties. You have to understand how a garment would lay, taking into consideration what the fabric is," Ross continues. "If you don't have those you can't have accurate sizing on the visualisation side."

The importance of technology
To help customers get the best fit prediction possible, Yourfit takes the manufacturer's specifications of a garment to get its real dimensions. The company gets the measurements of a garment in every size and takes into consideration fabric properties such as elasticity and the fact that a fabric will drape differently where there's a pocket or a button. "The technology that's out there for draping makes it nearly impossible to accommodate those variations in any quick and easy way," says Yourfit CEO Steve Ross, explaining why the company has developed its technology from the ground up. "What makes it so appealing from a business standpoint is that it's seamless and extremely scaleable," he adds.

The Yourfit product also provides a virtual closet where anything a customer purchases - from any site - gets stored. A customer will have a Gap virtual closet, for example. "Every store is going to have its own virtual closet initially, and where that goes later will depend on the retailers," Dan Ross explains.

Yourfit has signed the first two customers and is in negotiations with others. The company will deploy its first application in the next two to three months and deployment of the application for the company's second customer, plus-size online retailer Alight, will take place sometime early next quarter.

The biggest challenge Yourfit faced when creating its products was scalability. "We've already solved it. If you don't use technology, you get to the point where you can't meet the demand from customers. We're using a scalable solution and we have the technology so we don't need to hire more people," Dan Ross says.

With more than 95 per cent accuracy, Your Fit's technology can still be expanded if need be. "The product is designed with the capability of body scanning, but we found that people didn't want to get into that - they didn't want to strip down to bicycle shorts and a sports bra," Dan Ross says. "When the industry gets there, we're ready to support it, but we knew we had to find another way. The body scanning equipment is expensive and we want people to be able to have a solution that's easily done from their home. We've made ours a tool, not a toy."

What lies ahead
TC2's Fralix notes that another challenge of customisation for the apparel industry is the manufacturing processes. "Every garment cut can be different from the previous one, but that can't be managed through the traditional production process. Manufacturers are working on it. There are so many variations in a garment. What does your production operation look like? Is it customised on the order side? It may be customised on the order side but not on the production side - the difference is the processes that are used.

Information technology has made great strides, allowing for customised ordering and getting information where it needs to go. We've begun to see flexible systems and machinery, but a cross-trained, flexible, empowered work force is where work still needs to be done. "They're still trying to drive all these options through with a traditional work force," Fralix says. "Our ultimate vision is that it will take four to five days from the release of the order to ready to deliver."

For customisation, most of the work that lies ahead is in the area of manufacturing.

To read part I click here