For years, it was thought that apparel, if not an eCommerce-proof area of retail, was at least an eCommerce-resistant one. For ultra-casual clothing, where fit isn’t a hugely important consideration and the price point is low enough, buying online was viewed as a reasonable option. But for apparel that costs more and needs to look nice, the conventional wisdom was that consumers wouldn’t be as willing to make a blind buy. They wanted to see it in person, touch it and try it on.
But in the last few years, that viewpoint has been shifting, as digital apparel sellers have been modifying their tactics to take a lot of the uncertainty out of online clothing purchases. Free returns and more generous return windows have taken a lot of the sting out of the process. Try-before-you-buy programs have exploded across a wide variety of retail sites in a number of variations, but all of them break down to the same general concept: The consumer receives some number of potential purchases to try on, keeps what they like, sends back what they don’t and is only charged for those items they ultimately kept (usually with a discount if they keep more than a certain number of items).
For Chennai, India-based women’s fashion brand eShakti Founder BG Krishnan, making it easier for customers to rectify fashion purchase errors – or avoid them in the first place – is a good start, but at this point, it is also mostly table stakes in the race to bring apparel retail online. Better use of digital technology shouldn’t just recreate an in-store experience in an online context – it should actually use the digital toolbox to provide things consumers can’t get in stores at all.
For eShakti, that means making it possible for consumers to order their clothing pre-tailored to their actual measurements, as opposed to the stand sizing systems.
The company didn’t start in customization – it was initially a fairly standard online apparel brand – but Krishnan realized early on that there were some pretty large and unaddressed holes in the market, particularly around sizing. About half of all U.S. women don’t conform to the “hourglass figure” standard around which most clothing is designed. Over two-thirds of all American women are plus-sized. And about 40 percent fall outside the “standard” height ranges. To Krishnan, that looked like a lot of untapped real estate in the $116 billion apparel market.
“Looking her best is what the customer expects each time she shops for clothes anywhere. But styling preference is often not met, and finding the right size is very difficult with ready-made clothes,” he noted. “It is a very strongly felt need that we meet. We do customization on scale. Nobody else does it.”
Customers can still choose a standard size on the eShakti website and can purchase almost anything they see in the exact form in which it is presented. Or they can modify items to suit their needs for no additional cost. They can include their specific measurements (the site offers instructions on how to take them) as well as height and weight information. The customer can then make modifications to a garment’s neckline, sleeves and length to better match their preferences. There is a limit to the modifications that can be made, and some types of dresses offer more options for customization than others.
And while it might seem that offering customization for every item would be a costly way of doing business, Krishnan pointed out that their on-demand model is actually a more cost-efficient way to play in the fashion industry, because there is not a lot of waste inventory. eShakti does not hold any inventory or associated costs.
Being zero inventory does have some expenses, however – the company has to make every item it sells from scratch, which means delivery can take up to 14 days. That is often cut down to about 10 days – but in a U.S. market where consumers are trained to expect two-day or even one-day shipping, two weeks can seem like a really long wait.
But, as eShakti points out, when their products arrive, the customer knows they will fit, as long as they were accurate with their measurements. There is no sifting through what to keep and what to send back, and no disappointment when something that looked great online turns out to be a few inches too long or too short.
And eShakti turns up the volume on choice, Krishnan noted, because it can constantly change up its offering in the style of fast fashion while offering quality, customized products.
“We are faster in introducing newer products than a brand like Zara, the Spanish clothing and accessories retailer,” he said. “We can bring new products to the market in three days, while others launch products at the start of the season, make them six months ahead and bear the risk of not being able to stay in tune with emerging trends.”
Being in tune with those trends, of course, is usually the difference between success and failure in fashion retail. And if a brand can’t be the one forging the trends, being equipped to instantly follow them isn’t a bad position to be in.