Digital Transformation: T-Shirts

by Dave Michels

I recently wrote about digital transformation on NoJitter, and wanted to post some clarifying examples. See prior post: Digital Transformation and Toasters.

The point I want to emphasize (again) is that every industry is based-on software, and said software can transform the product or experience of even simple, physical goods. In this post, I want to discuss a new custom tailored T-Shirt offering: Amazon Made for You. Software changes everything, even shopping.

I ordered a custom-tailored T-Shirt. It’s a fine shirt. It wasn’t a particularly good value, and isn’t a great fit, but that’s not the point. I very much doubt that Amazon’s master plan is to sell custom T-shirts. I think Amazon’s goal is to digitally transform the process of purchasing clothes online. In that regard, the Made for You T-Shirt is more of a first step than a destination.

Our tried and true traditional approach to buying clothing is inefficient and obsolete.

  1. The “normal” way of buying clothes involves going to a local retailer, selecting items from a rack, trying them on in a little dressing room, and then (if all goes well) purchasing it. The process takes a lot of time, and uses a lot of resources. To create that normal experience, someone had to pave a parking lot; build a store; secure the store; outfit the store with racks and lights, cash registers, etc.; staff the store; fill the store with inventory; allocate space for things like mannequins and dressing rooms; and so on. That’s just the seller’s side. I have to allocate my time, and of course maintain my vehicle in order to get there.
  2. Clothing sizes are surprisingly inconsistent. This is true of all types of clothing. Personally, I wear a few XLs, mostly XXLs, and some XXXLs., an online shoe retailer, tries to address this by adding to each product a description of fit, such as “runs small” or “order a 1/2 size larger.”

Why is this so hard?

Clearly, buying online can be more efficient, but we need to re-invent the process.

The big innovation in retail clothing over the past few decades as been return policies. I attribute this to Nordstrom, but who knows. A generous return policy makes it possible to gift something like a pair of shoes. It allows a place like Costco to sell clothing without dressing rooms. Buy it now, make the decision to purchase later. Generous return policies effectively transfer the responsibility of the dressing room to the customer.

Made for You offers two big benefits:

  1. It reduces the cost of inventory for the retailer. T-shirts come in lots of different sizes, colors, cuts, and materials. That’s a lot of inventory liability.
  2. It reduces the customer’s risk of a poor fit.

If Amazon can nail virtual tailoring, they can sell all kinds of products, and deliver an even better experience than local retailers.

Made for you works by creating a digital double. It asked me a few questions and prompted me to take two selfies in tight clothing (they say the photos are not stored). They use the virtual double primarily to figure out the size of the shirt, but if they can get the digital double reasonably accurate, it becomes possible to virtually try on other items (custom or off the rack).

Making the digital double was easy. I’d say too easy. There were no measurements or measuring involved. It required the photos plus height and weight. The customer only needs to have a smartphone and the Amazon app.

The T-shirt had lots of options: material, color, collar type, sleeve length, and shirt length. I was asked about the desired fit (snugness) and what name I wanted printed on the tag. The shirt takes about two weeks to make (why?), and then shipping time.

They went out of their way to make this simple — too simple. For example, on shirt length I could choose between short, medium, and long. That’s too simple. I ordered medium, but I consider the finished product to be on the short side. It’s probably the shortest T-shirt I own, and I own a lot of shirts. On the sleeves, the options are short or long (I kind of like 3/4, but not available). I get that they don’t want measurements, but I actually know my sleeve length, so why not take it at least as an option?

Creating the digital double is a tough problem to solve, especially without measurements. I think they relied too heavily on the camera and their formulas. Why not ask inquire something like desired shirt length relative to length of the arms? A custom tailored shirt should not be short, medium, or long, and arrive shorter than desired. Curiously, I have never given much though to T-shirt-length before. Nor do I normally try on T-shirts before buying them. Amazon actually created a problem (a concern) that didn’t previously exist.

I’m even more surprised that Amazon doesn’t have a feedback look to improve this. They didn’t ask me about the fit of the finished product. I figure my digital double is a bit thinner and shorter than me. Fine-tuning my digital double (and preferences) seems like a logical priority if they want to see return orders. If I were to purchase another T-shirt now, I’d likely order it from LL Bean. They have all the same options, a comparable price, a better fit, and they ship the next day.

I give Made For You a C+. The product was custom made to my (limited number of ) specifications in a timely and reasonable manner, but the finished product wasn’t better than off-the-shelf. However, I love the idea.

An accurate digital double will revolutionize online clothing purchases. Amazon’s digital double was too simple. I think I will name him Beta. It was faceless and didn’t do much. I can envision a future release that has much more detail and even moves. Like some of the animation in modern games, so realistic it could be film. I want the digital double to be able to stand, sit, run, maybe even swim. I want to try on clothes in more interesting, even exotic locations., And, I should be able to try-on multiple pieces at the same time as we do in stores. Someday, I will order a tailored suit, shirt, tie, belt, and shoes – all to my specifications. The tech, both the digital double and tailoring on-demand are inevitable. And when this day comes, the idea of going to a local store, to deal with their limited selection or buying off-the-rack at all, will seem silly.

Our digital and physical realities used to be very separate, think about arcade games. We are seeing much more overlap now, and this is creating new opportunities. Consider the Peloton bike craze – a stationary bike plus a tablet, plus network are suddenly adventurous, hip, and social. Microsoft Mesh promises to take our blended realities to an even deeper level.

Of course, we should be trying-on physical clothes virtually. Of course we should be tailoring clothes to order. The question is who gets there first? Major clothing companies or Amazon?