As e-commerce continues to thrive, one of the last remaining challenges in the industry is replicating the fitting room.
When shopping for clothing, consumers tend to either go to a brick-and-mortar store to try the clothes on first, or with the growing ubiquity of free shipping, they order a bunch of sizes or styles online and return the ones that don't fit.
Neither of these options is a perfect fit for online apparel retailers, but a new solution may be approaching in the not-too-distant future. Technology companies are perfecting 3D body scanners that can create a digital avatar of a consumer and help him or her find the perfect fit without entering a fitting room.
These scanners have been around for a while, but they're finally nearing an advanced enough level where they could actually be implemented on a wider scale.
Back in 2007, Macy's (M) gave the technology a shot with a pop-up scanning booth in partnership with Lori Coulter's swimsuit line. Using [TC]² scanning technology, a consumer could get scanned in-store and then order a personalized bathing suit from Lori Coulter.
Their 3D scan was then saved so that they could order more bathing suits whenever they wanted without having to revisit a physical Macy's store. Macy's offered this experience in about 15 stores, but ended the trial in 2012.
"The economics had changed as far as how the capital buildout and requirements in-store did not justify [having the experience] at that time coming out of the recession," Lori Coulter told TheStreet. "At the time, the scanners were more expensive as well."
Now that the scanning technology costs about the quarter of the price and is more accurate, and a larger portion of consumers are likely interested in spending more for a better fit, it's possible that the timing could be right for body scanners in the retail industry.
Artec's 3D body scanner creates a 3D avatar and turns it into a figurine
There are already a few niche cases, like menswear store Alton Lane, which uses 3D body scanners to design custom-made suits for their customers.
Walmart (WMT) is also testing a 3D scanner from a technology company called Artec, but for now it's just an entertaining experience that creates a 3D avatar and allows customers to print a miniature figurine version of themselves. Right now they have the 3D experience in 15 stores in the UK.
But Artec founder Artyom Yukhin told TheStreet that the company is in talks with Walmart and other large retailers and brands to figure out how to apply the scanning technology in apparel. He sees two different models for how 3D scanning will fit into the fashion world: for tailor-made clothing, or to match off-the-shelf garments that will be the best fit for a customer.
Either way, the implications for e-commerce are huge. Consider that about 49% of retailers offer free return shipping, according to the National Retail Federation. That costs retailers a ton of money, especially in apparel.
According to a report from IHL, preventable returns cost the global retail economy $642.6 billion every year. If retailers could ensure proper fit with the help of 3D scans and digital avatars, that could significantly lower return rates and save retailers a huge amount of money.
It could also help new brands attract customers who aren't yet used to the brand's sizing. Customers often are loyal to brands for which they know exactly what sizes to order. But if they could upload a 3D scan to make sure they got the right size, they could be more easily persuaded to check out a new brand.