Consumers find a personal shopper in the Web

Consumers find a personal shopper in the Web

Posted 8/20/2006 9:22 PM ET

LOS ANGELES — As increasingly harried consumers grapple with overwhelming fashion choices, inconsistent sizes and expanding waistlines, Web-based companies are casting themselves as personal shoppers, catering to every body type’s special needs.

While shopping for clothes and shoes online is not new, representing nearly $14 billion in annual sales, the more sophisticated sizing metrics offered by the latest wave of Internet apparel companies and websites is a selling point that may lure the busy, fed-up or hard-to-fit shopper.

Marketing executive Cathy Kim, 33, considers herself a reasonably easy-to-fit Size 4 who likes to shop. Still, taking up space in her closet is what she calls "useless material," vestiges of past online shopping forays gone awry.

"I’m definitely one of those people that finds
myself returning things," said the Los Angeles resident. "That’s the
one thing about shopping online which is so annoying. It’s hard to see
how something on a model is going to look on you."

Enter an emerging niche of companies attempting to take the guesswork out of sizing. While Landsends.com,
among the first to offer custom clothing online, allows shoppers to
choose the type of wash for jeans and khakis, as well as details like
rise and leg shape, and J.C. Penney and J. Crew offer online fit guides
for bras and swimsuits, new websites MyShape.com and Zafu.com are taking sizing precision one step further.

"They’re
tapping into the core value of the Internet — helping consumers find
products that are most relevant to them," said Forrester Research
analyst Tamara Mendelsohn, who anticipates the launch of even more
size-aware websites.

MyShape.com, which has
signed up nearly 13,000 users, including Kim, in advance of its full
launch in September, casts itself as personal shopper for the busy
professional. After entering a series of measurements into the MyShape
system, the shopper is presented with a shape-appropriate wardrobe from
MyShape’s own inventory.

MyShape Chief
Executive Louise Wannier sees it as a "major opportunity" geared to
women who hate to shop, the ones who are turned off by time wasted at
traditional retailers with limited selection and sizes, or those who
live in remote areas.

"We’re bringing the
elements of a personal shopper to the consumer who doesn’t have the
array of stores at their disposal," Wannier said.

Ever-widening,
or extra-slim, waistlines are also increasing the need for special
sizing. A recent survey by research group Retail Forward found that
more than 20% of plus-size U.S. women are turning to the Internet for
their wardrobe. But small-frame petites are even more frustrated, with
40% saying they struggle to find the right size.

And
if online searches for well-fitting skirts or pants have traditionally
proven to be hit-or-miss, the prospect of buying jeans online can truly
be daunting.

Sizing frustrations, combined
with an explosive demand for denim, spurred the recent launch of
Zafu.com, which matches users’ shapes with the most flattering cut of
jeans.

Zafu has analyzed 200 jeans — from
$15.78 Lee’s to a $266 pair by Rock & Republic — and predicts that
94% of women can find their perfect fit by plugging their preferences,
along with their particulars, into its system. Unlike MyShape, Zafu — a
venture of Archetype Solutions headed by a former Levi Strauss &
Co. executive — links users to a third-party site that carries the
jeans.

Even though these online apparel
companies will still have to contend with the shoppers who prefer to
see and touch their garments before purchasing, the success and value
of websites like MyShape and Zafu will come down to how well they
deliver on the promise of clothes that truly fit, analysts say.

"The
attempt these guys are making could be wildly valuable. The question
is, ‘Do they really work?"’ asked Jupiter Research analyst Patti
Freeman Evans. "You can’t really tell that until you go through the
whole process and receive the product."

And,
whether the influx of more size-friendly online sites results in
better-dressed women remains to be seen, as noted by Nielsen/Net
Ratings analyst Heather Dougherty.

"You can
tell some people what style is appropriate for them till you’re blue in
the face, but they’re still not going to listen," she said.

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