What do cheerleading and augmented reality (AR) have to do with each other? At first blush, it might appear not much. Like so many industries today, however, cheerleading is finding ways to go high-tech. In particular, the manufacturing and sale of cheerleading uniforms represents a very specific niche retail business in which technology can deliver distinct benefits for fitting.
Cheerleading uniforms are far from the only apparel subcategory that could benefit from more accurate sizing. Apparel retail in general, especially retail conducted online, could remove a lot of friction and even drive greater online conversions if customers felt they could trust the garments' fit. As any avid shopper knows, though, a medium at H&M is not a medium at Old Navy. Even within a single department store, such as Nordstrom, each designer will have its own, slightly different sizing scale.
That's annoying in brick-and-mortar settings. It either means that customers must call a sales associate to the fitting room to go locate a different size, or get dressed and go find it themselves, then come back to the fitting room to try it on.
Online, however, sizing variations are a deal-breaker. Receiving a garment that doesn’t fit means packing it back up, sending it back to the merchant, paying a restocking fee and waiting for the replacement to arrive — and that the fit of the replacement will be just as much of a gamble.
As many as 20 percent of online apparel purchases end up being returned or exchanged, according to Karen Noseff Aldridge, president of Rebel Athletic. Anxiety around this type of experience can be a huge driver of cart abandonment in eCommerce stores.
Aldridge said challenges are even further compounded in a niche like cheerleading uniforms. Sizing at Rebel Athletic, which sells custom-fitted uniforms for dance and cheerleading squads, isn’t as simple as small, medium and large. There are specific fits such as “double small, minus three,” which means sleeves and hems must be tailored three inches shorter than the standard.
Platforms and capabilities created by other retailers and tech companies have fallen short of the specificity needed in this category, Aldridge explained. That’s why she dreamed of making her own platform for Rebel Athletic — one that could quickly and accurately scan a cheerleader’s body, bypassing the expense and hassle of producing, distributing and trying on “fit kits” to determine the proper size.
Two years ago, the idea of using AR to take measurements was far-fetched, Aldridge added, especially for a company that needed granular details like whether to extend or crop the sleeves and hems. Even one year ago, when Rebel Athletic joined forces with tech company Seven Tablets to begin developing such a capability for mobile devices, a plugin would have been needed to power the experience the partners envisioned.
It was only with the latest generation of smartphones — the iPhones 8 and X, and the Samsung Galaxy S9 — that the native capabilities reached a level that was sufficient to support an accurate AR fitting experience without a plugin. Now that it’s here, Aldridge thinks it could find a home beyond the cheerleading uniform niche. Retailers could integrate it into their mobile apps, enabling shoppers to get an accurate fit right from their living rooms just by scanning their bodies. Even brick-and-mortar merchants could leverage it to help live shoppers select the proper size the first time, before they make it into the fitting room.
But the tech is also still very young. For Fit Freedom, the mobile app created by Rebel Athletic and Seven Tablets, the fitting experience is still a two-person process in which one person must hold the phone and guide the scanner to recognize key measurements, such as the narrowest point of the waist and the widest point of the bust.
One day, the measurement experience will be done alone in one’s apartment simply by propping the smartphone on a table or shelf, Aldridge said, and key points could be automatically identified by the program, without any manual calibration. It will take time for the machine learning algorithms to figure out how to do this, but the time isn’t far off when it could be possible — a matter of months, not years.
Removing the human element entirely will drive the greatest possible accuracy, she said, and that’s when a technology like this could start to move into more mainstream usage. Imagine customers being able to get a perfect measurement for, say, a bathing suit, which is an item that many women may feel uncomfortable (and unsanitary) trying on. If a perfectly accurate fit can be determined with a smartphone, then there won’t be any need to go through that experience.
By increasing customer confidence, merchants can drive greater conversions, according to Aldridge. Isn’t that every retailer’s goal?