How to Use Data to Buy Pants

I hate buying pants, and it’s not just because I’m getting fatter.

The problem is that one company’s 33 waist is different than another’s. Furthermore, sticking to the same brand, or even the same model, doesn’t always guarantee consistent sizing. Whether it’s a different cut, or subtle variances in the manufacturing process, no two pairs of pants are ever quite the same. On top of that, a 33-inch waist isn’t actually 33 inches. It’s usually more like 35 or 36, due to what the fashion industry calls “vanity sizing.”

I like buying clothes online. I prefer the convenience and selection that online shopping offers, but when it comes to pants, I find myself schlepping over to the mall. Not because I want to, but because it’s the only way to be sure they’ll fit. Ordering pants online often results in returns, exchanges, and alterations. In other words, it results in a bad experience, for the customer and the retailer. It wastes time, shipping, and plenty of other resources. Clothing isn’t like a stereo or a bottle of shampoo. You can’t just order it and know that it will do what you want it to do. It needs to fit your body, and without trying something on, your best bet is to compare measurements, or hope that you guessed the right size.

In order to combat this, and make it easier to order clothes online, a number of companies are working on ways to measure your body. Some use photos, some use measurements that the user reports, and others use 3D body-scanning tools not unlike the Xbox Kinect. Beyond a pair of pants that fit, this data could serve incredibly useful for retailers and clothing brands alike. Much of the ordering and pattern-making in the fashion industry depends on educated guesses about who’s buying clothes. With more reliable data, a company can know how many size mediums to make. Furthermore, they can know specifically what a size medium should fit like. If a customer doesn’t fall within a standard size, the company can offer something custom, or direct them towards a product that will fit better.

This data is already out there, but most companies are limited in their ability to gather and share it with their supplier partners. As technologies like body scanning get more sophisticated and more widespread, the data will become richer and more representative of a company’s customer base. It’s a good example of customer data that consumers are usually happy to give away, especially when it saves them a trip to the mall.