Cloud Computing

Body scanning tech could stop retail clothing returns

Reducing online clothing return rates has long been a target for e-tailers burdened with the cost of logistics and management of unwanted products. The problem is of course exacerbated during busy seasonal periods such as Christmas. Last year supply chain consultancy LCP Consulting claimed there would be 30 million returned items over the festive period, a figure which the IMRG suggested was a little conservative. Clearly, returns are still causing headaches.

Interestingly, last year Econsultancy ran a piece on how fashion e-tailers can use tools to help reduce returns by ensuring consumers get the sizing right. A number of e-tailers use sizing tools and guides but the problem, as last Christmas proved, is still with us. This, according to Tom Brooks, head of business development at BodyCloud, is why he believes a technology product used in the medical profession could provide a solution.

Called SizeGenie the technology is essentially a body scanner. Body scanning is of course not new. In 1990 Total Recall used a fictional scanner as part of airport security, something which has become a reality today. In 1989 two academics at Austin University produced a paper looking at body scanning algorithms and their potential for the clothing industry.

So can an infrared scanner from a cardiac hospital really be the answer?

“We are adding sophistication to a world that tends to just measure in small, medium and large,” says Brooks, claiming that SizeGenie can measure accurately and match a shopper’s correct size with all the fashion brands online.

“One of the things we learned from ASOS was that the online retail industry has trained the millennials to buy two or three different sizes and send back the items that don’t fit,” adds Brooks. “Now these retailers have to deal with the burden of this in terms of shipping and return processing costs. Non-millennials are not buying online because they have no confidence in sizing, so they don’t get involved with returns so much.”

The problem says Brooks is that there is no accurate translation of the different sizes, which he says can “vary massively” from brand to brand. This presents a problem when anyone wants to buy clothes for themselves, friends and relatives, he adds.

So how does that work?

“Users could share the scanner with friends or relatives to get their sizes or retailers could even send them out as part of a service or campaign to increase size accuracy.”

Kickstarter

The scanner is foldable; a development which Brooks claims was his contribution to the “shrinking” process of the technology.

“It was originally a full body scanner to get the shape of patient's bodies mostly for research but also for clinical work - measuring body fat and shape and changes over time,” says Brooks. “This evolved into a portable device that could be taken into people's homes. It then shrank further to see if it could be sent through the post. We tuned it further to reduce the size and cost, making it a throwaway or one-time-use item and then finally we made foldable and turned it into a consumer scanner.”

Are there any security or privacy issues here?

“The image is scrambled,” says Brooks, “so we are only transmitting point clouds or depth maps – the information about the scanned object and not a person's face or personal features.” 

BodyCloud has copyright on the foldable aspect of the product (and patent pending requests for tech on the chipset) and hopes that its forthcoming Kickstarter campaign will help it raise funds to take the concept further within retail but also explore new applications for the scanner.

Brooks reckons there are additional benefits for retailers other than just tackling return rates, such as understanding body sizes of customers and marketing them with offers and so on. He also believes there are branding opportunities for the devices themselves, as well as in-store uses.

So is BodyCloud alone in this space?

A quick search around the web found very little in terms of scanners directly targeting the retail industry except for The Human Solutions Group in Germany and Bodymetrics, a spin-off company from research developed at University College London’s 3D Centre.

It doesn’t look a massively competitive area particularly with mobile scanners, something which Brooks feels is down to the complexities of shrinking the tech. BodyCloud, he says, stripped down the necessary resolution to ensure that results were not compromised, while it sought smaller and cheaper components.

While clothing is now a major driver for online shopping it remains to be seen whether a mobile scanner such as SizeGenie is the answer to managing the returns numbers more effectively. If it does succeed, it could revolutionise the online retail clothing industry. But that’s a big ‘if’. Retailers really hold the key for this one.

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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