- Returned items have traditionally hit the fashion industry hard (half of US shoppers are currently over-purchasing). That number could be much higher in China as retailers offer free or generous returns policies.
- For many international brands entering the market, working closely with TPs is a must, so they select the right size ratios for their fans — especially for lingerie brands that specifically rely on perfect fits to keep consumers on board.
- Livestreaming offers an interactive space for consumers to ask presenters and hosts questions that often relate to size. As viewers are used to telling the seller their height/weight, smart-sizing tools tend to fall short in China.
Imagine this scene: A courier arrives laden down with shopping bags, but instead of taking in the goods, the receiver asks the courier to wait around as they try on the items. Afterward, the garments that don’t fit simply get handed back as returns. This scenario is common enough across China (and other countries, too) but is a costly concept for brands to accommodate.
“They’re called Bracketers, ordering larger amounts more frequently and sending back what they don’t want. They can be a brand’s most loyal clients outside China. But in China, they may ‘bounce’ to the next best deal,” explains Josh Gardner, the CEO of Kung Fu Data and a trade partner who works with brands.
Given that online shopping is second-nature to Mainlanders (where one in four purchases are digital), it follows that returning goods is as well. He continues: “They treat the living room as the new showroom and expect white-glove service. Chinese consumers always order more than one size, especially from foreign brands, and with local Chinese brands, higher returns may be driven by issues of trust or quality.”
Returned items have traditionally hit the fashion industry hard (half of US shoppers are over-purchasing, according to a global study). That number could be much higher in China as retailers offer free or generous returns policies. The top reasons for sending items back are the wrong size, fit, or color.
Some Western retailers have been attempting to resolve fit issues by investing in tech, particularly since the lockdown boosted online sales by cutting consumers off from physical fitting rooms. The German startup Fit Analytics has worked with Asos, North Face, Puma, Patagonia, and Calvin Klein, and Marks & Spencer recently invested in specialist fitting technology by Texel to cut down returns.
Other active companies in the sector include Switzerland’s Meepl, which helps the e-tailer Zalando match consumer body measurements with off-the-rack garment data. And this month, the US-based company 3DLOOK raked in $6.5 million in investments for its instant human body measuring technology.
Yet, China’s advanced technology conglomerates have been slow to address the issue in an expensive wilderness for brands that aren’t adequately localizing their sizes in China. Here, Jing Daily looks at what brands can do to address this issue.
Working with trader partners
Given that mainstream platforms in China are not addressing the sizing issue beyond AI-selection preferences, Gardner suggests that trade partners can help ensure sizes are communicated transparently to consumers. Truthfully, you can never do too much in this area. But these directives must be correctly applied before a brand launches in the market.
He states that size/fit, price point, and quality are the three top worries for brands in China, and “sizing/fit is the main issue.” Gross return rates for brands could average around 30 percent, with many seeing as much as 60 percent, depending on the price range — especially if no other local initiatives are launched.
“We do this as part of onboarding,” he says. “We test product sizes and materials claims with our operations team and have clients send samples of their full range to measure fit. Also, we always have a sizing chart that matches Western sizes to Asian equivalents. Typically, an S from Italy is an M. Or an American M is often an XL.”
Then, it’s about “over-publishing” your data, so consumers understand your fit as much as possible online, with assistant shoppers and advisers making sure browsers understand what they are buying. “We try to catch as many people making mistakes as possible before they put goods into the cart.”
How brands are coping
For many international brands entering the market, working closely with TPs is a must, so they select the right size ratios for their fans — especially for lingerie brands that specifically rely on perfect fits to keep consumers on board. British lingerie retailer Agent Provocateur tells Jing Daily it works closely with its partner for sales: “But we also review feedback received across the channels we trade on to ensure we are meeting customer demands.”
Not only does it sell on a wide number of online platforms, including Tmall, Little Red Book, and WeChat — while also launching on JD.com and Poizon this year — but it also has offline access to customers through Lane Crawford. Moreover, there are steps in the design process that can ensure a better fit.
The brand has an “AP global customer in mind” when designing collections, but special fit and size efforts are being made to address different consumer frames. “We are expanding our ranges to suit the China market, from an increased offering of A-cups and smaller back sizes to more padded styles of demi bras and introducing shorts into nightwear.”
Local intimates disruptor Neiwai outlined the parameters for its sizing, too. They include: “the structural characteristics of the steel-rimless bra, the current sizing demands of the Chinese underwear market, and the needs and feedback of our customers,” a senior designer states, adding that they are constantly updated.
Neiwai’s Zero-Sensitive collection and its “half-size system,” which interchanges top and bottom sizes, both cater to China’s growing and diverse consumer base. “Our non-sized bras have allowed us to see a new entry point in the bra size system since last year,” the brand adds. “The use of highly-stretchable fabrics to accommodate different sizes and figures resolved consumers’ concerns in size selections.”
The role retailers and tech plays
Known for its pioneering tech, AI, and facial scanning, China has been slower to tackle returns issues. Shenzhen-based Tozi Technology, an AI body-measure platform, has teamed up with a Japanese textile conglomerate to tackle sizing (despite Japan’s 3D Zozosuit measuring suit having failed to go mainstream). Identifying how a consumer wants clothes to fit is not straightforward, and knowing that might not be immediately profitable.
Yet, both Alibaba and JD.com offer customers seven days right-of-return but charge additional fees from brands when returns are processed (there’s often a transaction fee on both the front and back end.) The China-based arm of Canadian retailer SSENSE insists that customers in China pay for their own returns, and despite this having a positive environmental uplift, it has felt netizens’ wrath via negative comments on platforms like Little Red Book.
“Lower return rates mean less revenue for these platforms,” Gardner notes. “If you have to sell a product twice because of a high return rate, they can double their transaction fees and take rates on a single store. What is better for the brand and the buyer is often not better for these platforms.”
Companies adopted livestreaming long before the COVID-19 outbreak, offering an interactive space for consumers to ask presenters and hosts questions that often relate to size. As viewers are used to telling the seller their height/weight and asking for the right size, smart-sizing tools tend to fall short in China.
For Gardner, correct sizing increases loyalty — a luxury necessity — and he acknowledges that livestreaming is pivotal in resolving this issue: “We do a lot of in-house livestreaming, since we want return rates to be as low as possible. The goal is to show as many dimensions of fit as we can and lower returns. Brands are highly incentivized to do this.”
Sizing issues on China’s social
China’s social platforms have offered respite where consumers can vent about incorrect sizing issues. Recently, many KOCs (Key Opinion Consumers) have addressed how they size themselves by posting informative videos on Weibo and Little Red Book, showing shoppers exactly how to avoid incorrect sizing online.
Rises in sportswear and “drop” frequency for products like sneakers make them especially prone to returns, thanks to variances in sizing and fit across brands (even within a brand’s collections). This issue has trended on Little Red Book, where you can find 150,000 UGCs on the key phrase “shoes: which size?” International names most associated with this theme include Adidas, Nike, and Vans, among others.
Chanel’s “weird sizing” has been raised on the platform, while UGCs complaining about how Max Mara doesn’t have a size XS for its Teddy bear coats can often be found on the site. Smaller sizing can have its advantages, though, and some consumers have found savings by purchasing children’s clothing. While this has obvious health concerns for some, luxury leader Moncler’s name has popped up here and is favored by naturally slimmer consumers who can fit into less expensive winter coats from kids ranges.
COVID-19 has upended brand strategies, complicated potential store openings, and turned homes into fitting rooms. For brands that want to go purely digital or new DTC start-ups, correct sizing will come into play even more than before, and there will be plenty of room for tech and AI developments. Until the day that Tmall can send out a suit for at-home measuring, China, like elsewhere, has to grapple with returns. But for the sake of the environment alone, it is time for the sector to make some serious investments in sizing.