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Tears aren’t unheard of in the change rooms at Swimco, the 45-year-old swimwear company that has been a summertime staple on the West Coast for decades and is starting to make inroads in Eastern Canada. But not for the reason you would expect. “I have seen customers with tears in their eyes in the fitting room because they never thought that they would feel confident wearing a bathing suit in the way that we made them feel confident,” the company’s president Jacqui Simpson says.

The suits aren’t magical ­– but the company’s dedication to making sure customers find items that fit them well may as well be.

Smart retailers are increasingly focused on fit. Some are making changes in their offerings; according to a 2019 Wall Street Journal article, Walmart is working to “better understand and solve issues related to consistency in size and fit,” while Uniqlo, Lululemon and Nordstrom provide complimentary basic hemming for some of their products. Others, such as Swimco and size-inclusive indie brand Universal Standard, offer one-on-one styling sessions, both online and in real life, to help customers choose the best-fitting items. And thousands of companies are using technology to help customers anticipate whether an item will actually fit the way they want them to. True Fit, a “personalization platform for apparel and footwear,” compares clothing at thousands of retailers to suggest the size it thinks shoppers will be least likely to return. In short, as retailers find themselves increasingly squeezed by a saturated market, a shaky global economy and shoppers’ increased focus on sustainability, they’re courting new customers – and hoping to win back old ones – by ensuring their offerings actually, well, fit.

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Clothes didn’t always fit so poorly. Until the invention of the sewing machine made it possible to mass-produce garments, clothing was custom-made, which meant it always fit perfectly. Of course, that made it very expensive, so most people owned far fewer garments than we do now. But while ready-to-wear clothing was more affordable, it also ushered in a new problem: sizing.

According to a 2014 Time article, prior to the 1940s, clothing sizes were wildly inaccurate. Lynn Boorady, now department head of Design, Housing and Merchandising for Oklahoma State University, told the magazine that sizing for children was based on age – so, a 12-year-old was meant to wear a size 12 – while women bought clothing based on their bust measurements.

When American manufacturers realized incorrect sizing was costing them an estimated US$10-million every year, they called for a standardized sizing system, and the government responded, though their efforts were uneven at best. In 1939, the U.S. Department of Agriculture collected data from 15,000 women to come up with a size chart, one that skewed smaller than the actual population and didn’t take into account differences in body types. The following decade, the Mail-Order Association of America asked what was then called the National Bureau of Standards to reanalyze sizing. They did so using measurements from women who had served in the Air Force, which led to yet another chart that didn’t accurately reflect women who were buying clothing, particularly if they were plus-size. Size USA updated its sizing charts in 2003; one major update was differentiating between “curvy” and “straight” body types, but even that is imperfect.

Part of the problem are the sizes themselves; it’s difficult to apply mathematical formulae to people’s bodies, though that’s exactly what sizing charts attempt to do.

“The way that clothing is sized is through a formula called grading,” says Alexandra Waldman, co-founder and creative director of indie fashion brand Universal Standard. “It’s a mathematical formula that basically says, every time you go up in the size, you increase x by this many inches and y by this many inches. And unfortunately, that’s a rather indifferent way to do it. It’s fine if you’re doing it for a very small part of a range – a zero to an eight, let’s say. But if you’re going above an eight, you’re going to start having problems. ... By the time you get to the larger sizes, it looks nothing like the design intent.”

But the other part of the problem is that retailers are slowly moving away from using the charts at all. “Each brand caters their size systems to who they believe are their core customers, and they do this as a means of competitive advantage,” says Romney Evans, co-founder and chief marketing and product officer at True Fit. “Producing an infinite number of sizes is expensive and challenging. These brands are [saying], ‘These are the people that I think are going to buy our products,’ and then they do their best to distribute 10 or 12 sizes across that customer set.” That means a size 10 pair of pants at American Eagle, which targets 15 year olds to 25 year olds, is going to fit very differently from a size 10 at Reitmans, whose target market is in their 40s and 50s – and while that makes sense for businesses, it can leave customers in the lurch.

The reason fit is important for shoppers might seem obvious: Everyone wants clothes that make them look and feel their best. But there are also other factors at play. Shoppers are savvier and have many more options than they used to, which means they’re less likely to settle for poorly fitting garments. And an increased interest in sustainability means consumers are also more likely to invest in higher-quality clothing that will last longer.

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For businesses, though, Evans says the rise of online shopping is likely the spark that inspired contemporary retailers’ focus on fit. “Some of the pioneers in the business, like Zappos, started offering free shipping on returns, which took away some of the some of the financial hurdles for consumers,” he says. “That brought in the first waves of digital purchasing, and it has caused a lot of pressure on all retailers to adopt similar strategies to stay competitive. But one of the by-products is consumers are conditioned to sample products at home. They’ll often buy multiple sizes of the same style with an expectation that they are going to have to return one or two items.”

This has real financial consequences. Last year, David Sobie, co-founder and CEO of Happy Returns, told CNBC that customers return between 15 per cent and 40 per cent of their online purchases. In the United States, that translated to US$400-billion worth of inventory in 2018 – and analysts say it’s likely that number will continue to grow. Buying what amount to samples and returning what doesn’t work is also hard on the environment; companies are using additional packaging materials and fuel to ship and return unwanted products, trips that shouldn’t be necessary.

But, Evans says, when a shopper has a successful experience related to fit, they are 81 per cent more likely to purchase from that brand or retailer again. With that in mind, it’s no wonder there’s a whole spectrum of innovations happening in the retail world, starting with an increased focus on traditional methods of customer service. At Swimco, and other retailers, trained change-room attendants help customers select the right styles and sizes, something that Simpson says engenders real loyalty.

Free alterations, such as hemming pant legs or blazer sleeves, is another meaningful offering. “Luxury retailers have been offering tailoring to their customers forever, some of it free of cost,” says Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner at retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group. “But I think one of the shifts we started to see recently was that [mass market] retailers were offering tailoring to their customers. It’s becoming more of an expectation.” She points to Lululemon, which offers tailoring on any clothing it has made, even if you bought it used or don’t have the price tags anymore.

Then there are the companies that have actually changed what’s on offer; Universal Standard’s focus on craftsmanship is game-changing, especially for plus-size consumers. The company has invented what it calls “micro-grading,” which means its designers pay close attention to the changes required between every single size. That allows them to ensure that a skirt that stops at the knee on a double zero will also do so on a size 40. “It won’t become a gown, which is what an indifferent formula would dictate,” Waldman says.

Other companies are leveraging technology. Fit predictive technology seems to be the application with the most potential. Thousands of retailers are now utilizing True Fit’s platform to help shoppers estimate how well an item of clothing will fit based on how its measurements compare to similar products sold by other companies.

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Perhaps the area with the most room to grow, though, is customization. According to Hutcheson, this is an increasingly important trend for retailers. “When you think about food and cars, there’s been much more customization. But on the fashion side of it, [adoption] has been a little bit slower because of challenges in supply chain. And retailers as a whole typically do things en masse,” she says.

But companies such as Pandora and Nike are increasingly offering personalization to their customers and technological advances are making it easier to offer customization. Take Indochino, the Vancouver-based menswear retailer. It’s now the largest custom apparel company in the world, with much of its success driven by its custom suit business. Customers can log onto the company’s website and design their own bespoke suit, choosing the style of lapel and pocket they prefer, the number of buttons, the colour of the lining, even the number of pleats. More importantly, customers populate their profiles with detailed measurements, from the length of their torsos to the circumference of their wrists, so their personalized suits should also fit them perfectly.

That encourages customer loyalty and drives down costly return rates, says Indochino CEO Drew Green. “Other retailers might have a return rate of 15, 20, 25 or even 30 per cent. If you’re a retailer, and you’re taking back 25 to 50 per cent of your inventory because it didn’t fit the customer that ordered it, that impacts your profit and loss statement in a negative way. Our return rate is less than one per cent.”

Green believes custom is the future of apparel. But it’s not a perfect solution yet; Indochino keeps consumers’ costs relatively low, thanks to several factors, chief among them the fact that the suits are not technically custom-made; the company has “hundreds” of customizable patterns that are tweaked slightly based on each customer’s measurements. This means the design depends on the customer’s ability to measure themselves accurately. Indochino’s incredibly low reported return rates indicate this hasn’t been a barrier, but reviews for other similar retailers, such as eShakti, an online retailer that offers women’s clothing in sizes zero to 36, have been mixed. And not everyone can benefit from this trend; customization is more readily available for men’s wear than women’s wear. Partially, this is because there is more diversity in clothing silhouettes for women and trends in women’s clothing shift more frequently than in men’s – but there are also technical challenges. Green says there’s much more variation in women’s bodies than men’s, which makes perfecting fit difficult.

Still, a laser focus on fit can only benefit customers. In November, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh spoke at CNBC’s Evolve summit in Los Angeles, where he told audiences that “sizes will go out the window 10 years from now.” Instead, retailers will use body scanners and cameras to allow customers to buy clothing that fits them exactly, so it won’t matter how Gap’s size 10 fits versus Artizia’s. Few retailers are that optimistic about the timeline for widespread customization – but at the very least, it looks like ill-fitting swimsuits, and change-room tears, will soon be a thing of the past.

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