Improved technologies for online fit prediction, virtual try-on, mass customisation and customer relationship management are giving apparel brands and retailers increased opportunities to maximise both their online and brick-and-mortar sales. Bobbin spoke recently with several industry executives at information technology firms about various online and virtual tools available for retailers to better service their customers. Here's what they had to say.

Improved technologies for online fit prediction, virtual try-on, mass customisation and customer relationship management are giving apparel brands and retailers increased opportunities to maximise both their online and brick-and-mortar sales.

The struggle to stay competitive - which means surviving sluggish economies, mergers and acquisitions, global trade and market fluctuations and customer whimsy - finds apparel brands and retailers looking for improved technologies and solutions to capture and retain customer loyalty.

With an eye on the fast-growing Internet as a vehicle for bringing in increased apparel sales, retailers are focused on bringing the benefits of new web and other technologies to bear on all aspects of their businesses. In other words, they are focused on total channel integration, or marketing and making their products available everywhere, all the time, through e-commerce web sites, online portals, wireless devices, in-store kiosks, catalogues, traditional brick-and-mortar stores and even at point-of-sale checkouts.

Bobbin spoke recently with several industry executives at information technology firms about various online and virtual tools available for retailers to better service their customers. The following firms represent many of these new technologies - some already on the market and some in the development stages - including sizing and fit tools, virtual dressing rooms, mass customisation, customer relationship management tools and even body scanning.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the companies offering such solutions, but it is a glimpse into a wide range of increasingly popular tools for improving online retail sales and overall sales in general.

FitMe.Com - Size Genie offers sizing solutions
Established in 1999, primarily through angel investment, FitMe.Com is working on a suite of "smart" solutions for the apparel industry to focus on mass customised products and services. Its first commercially available product - released last November - is Size Genie, a powerful web-based software application that allows individual consumers to determine their fit and optimal sizes across hundreds of brands of clothing.

Ram Srinivasan, co-founder, president and CEO, notes that while web sales of apparel have increased tremendously, year after year, even doing well in the current difficult economy, fit problems are still the biggest reason for hesitation in buying apparel online and also account for the majority of returns.

While retailers have always dealt with returns, the web has brought a much higher awareness of the problem, says Srinivasan. With margins getting squeezed by the day, "if it costs $10 or $15 to handle a garment return, that's a very big number eating into your bottom line," he remarks.

Size Genie addresses the fit issue by using a consumer's specific measurements to recommend the most appropriate sizes of a particular garment. The application is easy to use and very accurate, he says.

"The FitMe.Com site currently holds size information on about 300 brands of clothing"
The FitMe.Com site currently holds size information on about 300 brands of clothing, allowing a consumer to choose from a large variety of garments and brand names.

Feedback provided to the consumer by Size Genie "is as if the designer is looking at your body measurements and recommending a size," says Srinivasan. Even so, personal preferences may favour slightly loose or slightly tight clothing, so Size Genie provides information on the two adjacent sizes, enabling the consumer to choose according to his or her preferences.

While the fashion side of fit is very subjective, the size is not, explains Dinesh Sawal, director of business development. "Size Genie is in effect giving you a common language, across brands, that you can use to compare your body size, or a friend's."

The Size Genie application is available in a consumer version, which can be accessed at, and in a retailer version, which integrates with a retailer's web site or in-store web kiosk. A wireless offering also is available.

While the Internet has seen sales increases each year, the ultimate direction is toward total channel integration, says Srinivasan. Consumers also are increasingly demanding that retailers accommodate plus sizes, petite sizes and other special needs.

Accordingly, the company is actively seeking strategic partnerships with retailers, says Srinivasan, who envisions Size Genie available on the shop-floor kiosks of multi-brand retailers, for example, where consumers will be able to enter their FitMe passwords and have at their fingertips information on the correct sizes for the particular brands they seek.

"The nice thing about it is, you are presenting the information that is needed, right at the time when the consumer is trying to make a decision. It increases the chances of selling tremendously," he says.

Confronting the virtual try-on challenge
Size Genie is just the beginning of a comprehensive suite of solutions FitMe is developing. In line with its goal of offering mass customisation solutions to the industry, the company has partnered with Japan-based Hamamatsu, building a kiosk around that company's body scanner.

The company's goal is to create a global network of these scanners, says Srinivasan, and its focus is in deriving accurate measurements from the 3-D model, which is not an easy thing to do.

"Many people have underestimated the magnitude of this problem," he says. "FitMe's specialty and power lies in being able to derive measurements from the scanned model in a much more accurate way - measurements that are expected by the retailer," he says.

He notes that because body scanning has been on the industry's radar for 10 years, "it makes people jump to conclusions that somehow it is very, very easy. Once you have the body scanned - boom - you get the measurements," he says. That is simply not true, he explains, likening the process of body scanning to placing a document on a flatbed scanner: "What you get is a picture of the document. You don't get the document in the Microsoft Word format."

To translate the pictures of words into actual words requires a complex process called OCR technology. It is this same sort of complex translation process that FitMe is developing for the body scanning arena.

The company is also working on a 3-D model that can be generated in real time, and on solutions for custom tailoring, to enable production of one-to-one custom garments. Furthermore,

"FitMe is working on techniques in apparel simulation for virtual try-on technologies"
FitMe is working on techniques in apparel simulation for virtual try-on technologies. To that end, it has an exclusive relationship with the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), which "has risen to the forefront of that technology," says Sawal.

Clarifying further, he notes that most of the different techniques for apparel simulation have been developed in academia, but that some work has been done by animated studios such as Pixar and Disney to simulate the flow of apparel on a cartoon character, for example. Unlike apparel industry applications, the latter is developed for high-resolution frames on a movie, and doesn't have to be fast, real-time technology.

To be able to simply click on a garment, place it onto a 3-D avatar and make the avatar move is "tricky business," Sawal says, and Cal Tech's technology is "billed as the only real-time apparel simulation technology."

Indeed, there is a distinct difference between true apparel simulation and the basic plot simulation offered by some current products on the market, says Sawal.

Such products actually have a picture of a garment that is simply superimposed on top of the 3-D avatar, which is a pregenerated model and only the closest available approximation of the consumer. While this is "a good start" and people enjoy the novelty of it, these applications do not offer a real representation of the person's body or the appearance of the clothing.

"It does not really show you, when you put on a shirt, where it will be loose or tight, where you will have wrinkles showing up on your shirt if you move your arm, would it flow with your body or hang off your hips. It doesn't do that. It does not take into account the physical properties of the garment. [For example,] the exact same shirt, made out of silk, would act much different on a body than that shirt made out of cotton," he remarks.

FitMe is working to address some of the challenges to creating such a real-time model, which include the "reality" of the model, the aspect of modelling in real-time and the quality of the simulation itself, all of which are very difficult hurdles to leap. Nevertheless, Srinivasan says he believes that his company's knowledge and expertise, combined with what Cal Tech has developed in the area, can produce a virtual try-on application of this calibre in the near future.

Blue Martini - improving sales by enhancing customer relationships
A provider of customer relationship management (CRM) solutions, Blue Martini has more than 100 customers on four continents, including such retailers as Belk's, Saks Fifth Avenue, UK-based Debenhams, France-based Carréfour, Gymboree, Men's Wearhouse, Kohl's and Benetton, just to name a few.

Blue Martini has made several recent enhancements to its suite of approximately 30 modules, and also is now running on IBM, as well as Sun and Oracle, says Catharine B Harding, director, retail solutions.

Now, modules can be licensed separately or in bundles, which include Blue Martini Marketing, Blue Martini Commerce, Blue Martini Channels and Blue Martini Service.

In other new developments, Blue Martini Commerce, which provides for strong integrated content and product management and promotions, has been extended with the ability to expose the visibility of in-store inventory. This is an advantage for retailers, who are constantly struggling with the issue of how to reduce the number of lost sales in the store because of stock-out situations, says Harding.

With this new module,

"A consumer can find a product online, enter his or her zip/post code, receive information about whether the garment is in stock and if it is available in a nearby store"
a consumer can find a product online, enter his or her zip/post code, receive information about whether the garment is in stock and if it is available in a nearby store. Blue Martini can do this for every SKU in a company's e-commerce site by integrating with the retailer's legacy inventory systems.

Already implemented at Saks' Pirie Scott stores and being rolled out to its other divisions, the solution is also going into kiosks on the company's shop floors, allowing customers to check inventory availability while reducing the number of sales associates required to call other stores.

Additionally, Blue Martini's multi-channel gift registry, which features hand-held wireless devices for scanning items into a real-time registry that can be accessed on the web, has been enhanced with automatic e-mail capabilities for campaign management. For example, if the number of gifts between $50 and $100 goes to zero, the system can send the registrant an e-mail alerting them that it's time to add more gifts in this category, says Harding.

Of the four modules, the biggest additions have been made to Blue Martini Marketing, which deals with data warehousing and analytics. Support has been added for OLAP (on-line analytic processing), a data analysis tool used by retailers to create "cubes" of data which can be used to report sales in various "what-if" scenarios, depending on which way the cube is "turned." Sales can be called out by geography, size, etc for quick analysis that is less in-depth but also less time-consuming than traditional data mining, says Harding.

Also enhanced are some of the features for promotional campaign management. For example, in addition to tracking the open and click-through rates on specific images or links within e-mail and the ultimate conversion rate, the software now has the capability of tracking the e-mail even after it has been forwarded. This so-called "viral marketing" enables a company to capture the open rate of forwarded e-mails and when that viral (pass-along) recipient opened it.

Tackling point-of-sale marketing
"We see the future being very much about connecting the marketing capability with other channels besides just electronics," says Harding, adding: "We're really excited about bringing our capabilities and strengths in one-to-one customer personalisation and data collection into the store."

As such, Blue Martini has designed a number of transactions to market to consumers at the point of sale (POS). The new customer scorecard transaction will permit the POS software, at checkout, to access a centralised customer repository and bring down a scorecard on that particular customer. Information could include anything a store considers important to keep in its database.

Customers could be classified by "levels," for example, which could "help associates make decisions about how to treat the customer - whether to take that return that's nine months old or not," quips Harding.

It basically allows associates to know whom they're talking to and also allows them to communicate special privileges to different customers, such as free gift wrap or free engraving. It may even be a simple notification of an upcoming event that might be of interest to that customer, such as an in-store Santa Claus appearance, explains Harding.

Another new extension to the product line is a "clientelling" module, which will serve as the modern version of sales associates' "little black books" used to track customer information such as name, size, favourite designers, etc. This is most often done at high-end department stores, where the associates work on commission and go the extra mile to find desirable merchandise for their customers, explains Harding.

An early version of the system helps the associate track the customers' purchase preferences, and look up their purchase history. The clientelling solution takes it a step further, using an engine to match customers and their attributes with different events, such as an in-store trunk show, a designer appearance or a sale event.

For example, a sale on Liz Claiborne merchandise would bring up store customers whose files show a "high score" for this designer, explains Harding. When this happens, the sales associate receives an online list of customers to contact for any particular event, and then has the option of e-mailing or calling the customer. Additionally, for retailers who want to do this automatically, the clientelling module can be integrated with the campaign management module for mass e-mailing.

According to Saks, customers with a clientelling relationship spend $2,000 more per year at Saks than customers who don't have that sort of relationship with a sales associate, so "it's big dollars for retailers to grow the number of those kind of relationships they have," concludes Harding.

My Virtual Model - virtual dressing rooms and fit recommendations capture customer interest
My Virtual Model (MVM), so far the most commercially successful try-on technology, offers My Virtual Model Dressing Room and My Virtual Model Fit, which enable users to "try on" clothes as well as receive size and fit recommendations.

The company launched the third generation of its technology in August 2001, which features a higher level of photo-realism, says Mark Lowe, senior manager, communications.

The Dressing Room model "gives you a very clear sense of mix and match," whereas the Fit model is much more technical, explains Lowe. It takes measurements, cross references them against the specifications of an actual item of clothing and makes a size recommendation for the user.

While there are other players that have products and technologies similar to those of MVM, Lowe says: "What set us apart is we can actually point to revenue-generating partnerships with at least eight leading retailers."

Indeed, MVM is now running live on sites including flagship client Lands' End; Nutri/System; Lane Bryant; Crossing Pointe; Kenneth Cole;; Orvis; and FUBU. It is currently in development with several others, including Maxim Online, the online version of the men's magazine;, a portal that has relationships with about 40 different retailers; and Sympatico/Lycos, a Canadian portal.

Two clients it lost during the past year are JCPenney and Limited Too. The former "had some pretty profound structural changes in how they wanted to manage their e-commerce," and the latter had a "repositioning of their online business," but Lowe asserts that the company maintains good relationships with both companies and anticipates that they may do business with them again in the future.

Speaking to online apparel sales, Lowe remarks that

"While retailing has taken a lot of hits lately, sales on the Internet have been growing rapidly"
while retailing has taken "a lot of hits lately," sales on the Internet have been growing rapidly. Accordingly, retailers are looking for ways to enhance their online sales, and MVM products add value to an online site by making the experience fun for the user, explains Lowe. "The more they enjoy it, the more time they'll spend using it, the more likely they are to complete a transaction," he notes.

Retailers are using MVM technologies in different ways, he reports. For example, instead of using its technology to sell apparel online, Nutri/System is using it as part of a weight loss program. Users can "visualise how their body is going to change and improve over time as they execute, or follow, a program of progressive weight loss," he explains.

At plus-sized women's clothing retailer Lane Bryant, the company is using MVM technology, not as an e-commerce application, but as a marketing device to drive customers "away from their computers" to any of its 650 brick-and-mortar stores around the United States. One of the ways they are doing this is with an online coupon, says Lowe, to which they have been able to attribute "rewarding" sales growth.

Going forward, the vision for MVM is to connect all of its customers together, which will create added value for all partners and make the shopping experience simpler for the end user, explains Lowe. Specifically, a user will be able to create a model at any site hosting MVM software, and then "trot that same profile around to a network of different stores." This would enable the user "to buy a shirt at retailer X and then a pair of pants at Y, and it's all part of the same shopping experience," says Lowe, who likens it to a traditional trip to the shops.

As for maintaining its competitive edge, Lowe states: "We've been very strategic and aggressive in many respects in the goal of establishing ourselves as the standard, the first one out of the gate, to achieve critical mass and to create a standard in the industry. … People are using our technology live. And the more that grows, the more it becomes a barrier to competition for other players who are trying to get on to the field," he concludes.

Lectra Systems - Creating customised garments with FitNet
Lectra Systems' FitNet product, now in version 4.0, cuts to the heart of the mass customisation issue by offering users choices of styles and fabrics and adapting them to the customer's measurements. At the point of sale, customers can view available materials for their particular style on screen, and then create combinations of materials, colours and prints to design the style of their choice, according to what is available from a particular retailer.

To customise the fit, the tailor can take measurements, or the customer can be body scanned, says John Robinson, vice president and business unit manager. "However you collect the data, it doesn't matter," he says, adding that the Lectra body scanner (Lectra has an exclusive partnership with body scanner producer Tecmath) does integrate with FitNet, although the integrated solution is not yet being used by a customer.

Once the measurements have been entered, the pattern is altered automatically with FitNet, and the information can be sent to a factory for production. "From the point the measurements are taken to the point that the knife cuts the fabric, it can literally be five minutes," says Robinson.

FitNet is being used by hundreds of clients globally, particularly in Asia, where the made-to-measure clothing market is huge and very competitive and "there are made-to-measure houses all over the place," says Robinson.

FitNet customers include Red Collar Men's Suit Co, which produces 400 suits per day; SanMao Men's Suit Co, which produces 240 customised suits per day; high-end manufacturer Ike Behar; and Martin Greenfield, who is "famous for being the tailor to the president," says Robinson.

Made-to-measure at Martin Greenfield
Indeed, Martin Greenfield has made suits for every US president since Eisenhower (except Carter), and counts Colin Powell among his close personal friends. If you hang around the Brooklyn-based facility long enough, you might catch a glimpse of Powell stopping by for a fitting, says Jay Greenfield, Martin's son and vice president of Martin Greenfield Clothiers.

Martin Greenfield came to the United States as a Holocaust concentration camp survivor and worked his way up from a floor boy carrying bundles at the factory, then called 3-G Clothes, to heading and eventually owning the business, explains Jay Greenfield.

The company, even in its 3-G days, was known for making the highest quality tailored men's clothing, says Greenfield. "While many companies have used technology in a way to make clothing faster and cheaper, [Martin Greenfield] has always held the belief that clothing should be made to the highest possible quality. We will use technology only when it helps to improve or at least maintain the quality," he adds.

"It's not good enough for something just to do something faster or cheaper; it has to do it better," says Greenfield, who relates that the shop is still very Old World, with most garments still hand-made, "because those things show in the quality of a product."

Most of the company's manufacturing is done for high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Brooks Brothers and custom shops throughout the United States. Greenfield makes about 35,000 garments a year in its 40,000-square-foot facility, including suits, sport coats, top coats, tuxedos and some slacks.

About 15 years ago the company began using Lectra for pattern making and sketching, and adopted FitNet about three years ago. The company receives measurement information from its retail customers either by fax, electronically over the web or, in the case of Brooks Brothers only, from a body scanner. In this latter case, Martin Greenfield is one of only two companies equipped to manufacture for Brooks Brothers from the scanner information, and it makes the firm's higher-priced suits.

The company has worked with The Textile/Clothing Technology Corp., the manufacturer of the body scanner on location at Brooks Brothers' Madison Avenue store in Manhattan, to develop software to translate the scan into useful measurements, says Greenfield.

Browzwear - C-Me allows shoppers to dress their own image
Browzwear's C-Me virtual fit application was launched commercially in 2001 with the XOXO site, and allows customers to "try-on" clothes over the Internet or on an in-store kiosk, says Yanir Farber, president.

The model looks very "human" and the garments also look very realistic, he says, adding that it is the only application that is truly 3-D and allows the user to rotate, zoom in and zoom out and view from various angles, clearly and easily. The application works quickly and also preserves the privacy of the user, whose "body" is created on the user's own computer, not on the server.

While Farber expects C-Me to take off in the future, the company is currently focused on its V-Stitcher, which is more in demand in the current economic environment because it reduces design and product development cycle time and cost, says Farber. While this application is currently available only as a B2B tool, this type of

"Cutting-edge technology is likely to cross over to the B2C world sometime in the future and revolutionise the virtual dressing room"
cutting-edge technology is likely to cross over to the B2C world sometime in the future and revolutionise the virtual dressing room.

V-Stitcher, launched commercially in 2001 with Benetton, is an advanced fashion design tool for true-to-life modelling, which is driven by Browzwear's 3-D engine. It enables designs draped on 3-D models to be transformed into 2-D patterns and, conversely, allows 2-D patterns to be made into 3-D representations, which allow the designer to see exactly how the garment will look without having to create a physical sample, says Farber.

V-Stitcher allows for real-time collaborative design over the Internet, where different parties in remote locations can communicate and modify designs in real-time, see results immediately and eliminate the arduous process of creating multiple physical samples. "V-Stitcher keeps the design process digital further into the cycle than it used to be," says Farber.

While there are a few companies that claim to have a 3-D application, Farber says that V-Stitcher is the only application being used commercially and that no other application has moved beyond the pilot stage. V-Stitcher employs a parametric avatar, which can be modified using more than 30 parameters to create a "very accurate and realistic avatar," says Farber.

Changes can be made to the hips, thighs, butt, underbust, overseam, inseam, etc, and the application can take into account posture, stance and so forth, says Farber.

Moreover, the fabric can be simulated based on these physical attributes, or parameters. Fabric can be "created" on the figure, and will behave differently according to the type of fabric (spandex vs cotton vs polyester, etc) designated. It is very easy to enter the figures for the fabric, says Farber, who adds: "You don't have to be a scientist." As for the draping, every detail is shown, from the buttons, to the print, to the texture.

Farber says he believes Browzwear is the only company that has developed and has ownership of all the technology, which enables further development down the road.

In terms of figures, Farber says V-Stitcher might reduce the design and product development cycle time about 30 per cent and the cost of product development and cycle time by 25 per cent. This would give an overall boost to the bottom line of between one per cent and two per cent, "which is a lot, in terms of profit," he says.

The latest enhancement to the product is an application for underwear and swimwear, which is being used by Israel-based underwear manufacturer Delta Galil. Going forward, Browzwear is working with Santoni, a manufacturer of circular knitting machines for seamless garments, on a complicated application that takes into account the various tensions produced in a garment by a Santoni machine.

The company is also working on some customer-requested features, such as simulating alterations to a body based on changes from garments that reshape the body, such as a bra cup that lifts the breast, concludes Farber.

Jordan K Speer is senior editor of Bobbin.