E-Commerce Avatars That Match A Consumer's Posture And Smile?

E-Commerce avatars—computer-generated 3-D replicas of consumers with precise measurements to help purchase clothes that fit better—may soon use digital video to incorporate a consumer's posture, facial expressions and smile.

At least that's one goal of Mercedes De Luca, who was a Yahoo VP of Global IT until last November and today serves as the CIO for Myshape.com.

One of the most challenging aspects of apparel E-Commerce is that sizing can be so, well, psychotic. A specific size can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, if not with different garments from the same manufacturer.

But shortly, a consumer will be able to go to almost any major clothing site and use a code from a site that has an avatar of the consumer on file to identify clothes that should be an exact fit. That's another of De Luca's goals.

De Luca's site is based on a premise that vendors have tried to do for years, which is to take extensive measurements of a consumer once and to then use that data to create a highly accurate computer rendition of the consumer to be used in purchasing lots of clothing.

Other Ways To Grab Measurements

A vendor called Intellifit tried to do this three-and-a-half years ago with walkthrough areas—somewhat similar to airport security screening systems—in about a dozen malls and partnered with Macy's and David's Bridal. Their system created a 3-D image after what it described as "an extensive scanning process that uses water in the consumer's skin to collect about 200,000 measurement data points." Their site today has these electronic scans only available at their Pennsylvania offices.

But the trick is not entirely in how to do the scans. The biggest hurdle is getting a lengthy list of manufacturers to provide similarly detailed and precise stats about their apparel so that a good match can be found.

MyShape's approach uses a detailed online survey to gather as much information as it can, but that limits its accuracy to the precision of the user's own measuring skills. But their system creates an avatar that can be applied to a wide of partner Web sites, in theory, to deliver clothes that fit.

Adding In Posture And Smile

A future phase of the system, De Luca said, might include a way to video the consumer to include information beyond body type measurements and eye and hair color, to include such non-traditional items as posture, facial expressions and a consumer's smile (coupled with the anticipation of smile frequency when wearing the outfit).

Smile and posture in an apparel avatar? It might radical, but De Luca argues that those are two huge factors in a consumer not liking an outfit that looked so good on their avatar. Adding such attributes to an E-Commerce avatar is "compelling and interesting."

From a long-range strategic point of view, vendors that successfully collect such detailed consumer information will have a lot of privacy-profit choices to make.

On the one hand, there is no shortage of retailers, apparel manufacturers, food companies, supplement makers (think diet supplements in particular), fitness facilities and tons of others who would pay good money for access to that kind of data, especially when coupled with the consumer's address (or at least their Zip Code) and E-mail address (and IM address and cellphone number).

The Gen Y Factor

But will it be necessary to pledge absolute secrecy to get consumers to divulge that information and to do it honestly? And how will that balancing act change as younger consumers—the so-called Gen Y consumers who are already rewriting many E-Commerce rules—take a larger marketshare and with it, their much more permissive view of privacy?

Amazon.com, with its own extensive—albeit quite different—database of consumer preferences and interests, has been struggling with this balance for years.

"People really want to go in the direction of more personalization," De Luca said, but how far to go is a constant debate. Is overly detailed data too invasive? The answer, De Luca maintains, changes depending on context.

"It isn't creepy if it's actually helpful," she said.

This time of year, gift card sales are a popular retail topic and nowhere is customization and being more helpful—and useful—as important.

If that darned privacy wasn't a factor, think of the gift card and gift suggestion possibilities. Someone could hit an apparel site and say that they want to buy a gift for a certain person. Maybe it's a new gift recipient candidate, such as a yet-to-be-broken-in in-law or a recent romantic connection.

If that person is registered on that site, the gift-giver could ask for their code and have a theoretical guarantee that whatever clothing is given as the gift would fit perfectly. But there's that privacy element getting in the way.

Is Opt-In Alone Sufficient?

What if the apparel site didn't reveal anything, but was given permission by the consumer to at least veto certain objectionable attributes, such as certain colors or clothing styles?

The person whose data is being accessed might say, "If someone tries to give me anything that is purple or green, you have my permission to send the gift-giver a note that a different color might be better. Likewise if they try to give me a bikini, I give you permission to gently tell them those days are now gone."

De Luca says any approaches used would almost certainly have to have an element of opt-in. But where will the line will be drawn four years from now?

It's safe to say that many of the decisions that are made today—based on today's E-Commerce executive sense of privacy and information needs of today's consumer—may be as out-of-style by the next presidential election as my old three-piece suits. (But I'm not giving them up. What other garment welcomes both shirt stains, ties that aren't tied quite right and ample wrinkles? It's a traveling journalist's dream apparel.)