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Eoin Cambay

The ritual of the fitting room

How long have fitting rooms existed in clothing stores, do you think? About 140 years; they are mentioned by an author named Émile Zola, in an 1883 novel named Au Bonheur des Dames.

This is significant because it means that every shopper alive today has grown up with fitting rooms in almost every physical store – as did their parents and, in all probability, their grandparents. In-store fitting rooms are part of the fabric of society; they are part of the ritual of clothes shopping. Many children will have early memories of being packed off to a fitting room by their parents, while the parents themselves waited outside for the ‘parade’!

That in-store fitting rooms have long been and remain a critical part of in-store clothes shopping is unsurprising. It is, literally, the room where it happens – ‘it’ being the final decision to complete the purchase. (It’s worth remembering that even the decision to try something on is a strong indicator of buying intent.) And that ‘it’ happens far more often when customers use a fitting room.

Let’s consider the outcomes first:

  • Online, about a quarter of purchases are returned. However, in bricks-and-mortar stores, fewer than one in 10 customers return purchases.
  • Shoppers who use in-store fitting rooms are seven times more likely to make a purchase than browsers who do not.

Little wonder, then, that the in-store fitting room is one of the most significant advantages brick-and-mortar retailers have over online retailers. Given the clear conversions/returns-related benefits provided by in-store fitting room, it is far more pertinent to wonder why on earth you haven’t yet provided the same experience online, advantageous and beneficial as it is for both you and your customers. Truthfully, the reason is that it hasn’t always been that easy, as we explored in this earlier post. It is much easier now.

But, we believe, there is now an equally pressing reasons for online retailers to get with the beat where fitting rooms are concerned: to avoid being too late. Here’s why.

The first fashion e-commerce site of note was boo.com – in 1998. In the UK (for example) this means that the 29% of the population under 25 has, since birth, become perfectly accustomed to buying clothes, online, without using a fitting room. An additional 20% of the population were under 14 in 1998, so have – since they became likely to buy their own clothes – also become habituated to buying clothes online, also without a fitting room.

That is to say: almost half of the UK population, clothes shopping by or for much of which takes place online, has grown up buying clothes online without verifying (or being able to verify) the correct size for them. This is, of course, exactly why online return rates are so much higher.

Not through any malicious intent on the part of customers, it has simply become entirely normal online behaviour to bracket-buy, i.e., to buy two or even three sizes of the same garment, up/down from the size the customer expects most likely to fit. This results in the inevitable return of at least one, often two, or perhaps even all three garments – with all the hits to revenue, profitability and sustainability that returns incur.

The risk to fashion retailers is that the ritual of using a fitting room to check that the item is the right size is at grave risk of terminal decline – simply because it is widely unavailable to online shoppers, who form an ever-increasing proportion of the shopping population, and do an increasing proportion of their clothes shopping online.

If the habit of checking sizes before buying ceases to be part of the clothes-buying ritual – because a critical mass of shoppers becomes accustomed to buying online from a critical mass of retailers who don’t provide a fitting room experience – then fashion retailers will become permanently stuck with high levels of returns: bracketing, with all of its costs, will become entrenched, default shopping behaviour that it will be very difficult and costly for retailers to change back.

So is the preservation of the fitting room ritual an argument for all online fashion retailers to have a virtual fitting room? Well, in all probability, yes – but this is no plea for a concerted effort.

As the organic spread of in-store fitting rooms – from French department stores in 1883 to every type and size of fashion retailers thereafter – proved, the ritual of the fitting room has always been appreciated by shoppers. The same will be true for virtual fitting rooms: as online fashion retailers realise that their own lack of a virtual fitting room risks the permanent entrenchment of highly sub-optimal, profit-destroying shopping behaviour by their customers (bracketing and returning) – and mitigate against that by deploying virtual fitting rooms – then the conversion-improving, returns-reducing benefits of the in-store fitting room will transfer to, spread and endure online.

But, right now, providing an AI fitting room to your shoppers remains an opportunity for you to gain a commercial edge. Explore our site to find out more.