Has Charming Shoppes Really Improved The Accuracy Of Buying Clothes Online?

One of the legendary challenges in selling apparel online has been getting clothes to fit. Sometimes, the fault is that customers can't measure correctly—or perhaps they don't want to measure correctly. Either way, if the clothes don't fit, everyone loses. On Monday (Sept. 12), the 1,989 stores in the Charming Shoppes chains (in 48 states branded as Lane Bryant, Cacique, Fashion Bug, Catherines Plus Sizes and Figi's) announced a survey tactic that replaces sizes and measurements with questions about body perceptions.

Company officials say they expect the system to be—please forgive us—measurably more accurate than any E-Commerce apparel tactic being used elsewhere today.

The process starts with a database of between 80 and 90 questions and asks between 20 and 22 questions of each shopper, with each answer dictating the next question. If all goes well, the entire process should be completed within three minutes and it's often closer to 1.8 minutes, said Rob Holloway, the CEO of Zafu.com, the vendor working with Charming on the project.

The questions ask customers, for example, to describe their buttocks, which is a technique that would probably get many in-store associates an urgent meeting with HR. The idea is that customers—especially plus-sized consumers—might not tell the system accurate numbers, but the questions look for patterns. Often, people lie in the same general manner, giving the software a big hint about the customer's true size.

(Related Story: Charming Shoppes E-Commerce Chief Speaks Of Retailer Social Ignorance)

Psychologically, this process really focuses on two very distinct areas: shapes and attitudes. Shapes gets into sizes and dimensions but approaches them with a much softer perception, a manner that is more accurate than poorly calculated inches. Attitude speaks to how emotionally attached the customer is to clothing in general.

One of the problems with apparel purchase accuracy is that many sites like to use the recommendation systems that work so well for everything else in E-Commerce, in which the system recommends something that was purchased by someone who seems to have similar taste. But with clothing sizing, that simply doesn't work.

If the system works, customers will theoretically come back repeatedly. Given that the retailer retains all of the customer data—so that the customer need not answer the questions again—it can make for a very rich CRM profile. That raises an interesting question. When should the system prompt the customer to answer the questions again, on the theory that, over time, sizes can change?

"When answering questions alone on a computer, customers tend to be more honest than in-person," said Bill Bass, who heads up E-Commerce operations for the Charming Shoppes chains.

Holloway said their system is 94 percent accurate. Although he admitted he had no figures for competing systems, he said "94 percent is so much more accurate than anything else that exists today."

Bass said the 94 percent is the best balance that Charming Shoppes could achieve, in terms of an effort-to-benefit ratio. "Our goal is not to be perfect. How do we make this really easy for the customer and quick? Less than three minutes," Bass said. "We had to come up with a balance. This is the best we can do in less than three minutes."

Holloway agreed. "To get the accuracy up to 97 percent, we'd have to ask you a lot more questions," he said. "We don't want to ask someone to take an SAT exam to buy a pair of jeans."

Come to think of it, I've spent many a weekend afternoon with my 14-year-old daughter and her friends buying jeans. Not so sure that requiring a high score on an SAT before a purchase is made would be such an awful idea.