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Consumers Find a Personal Shopper in the Web

August 18, 2006

LOS ANGELES — As increasingly harried consumers grapple with overwhelming fashion choices, inconsistent sizes and expanding waistlines, Web-based companies are casting themselves as personal shoppers, catering to every body type’s special needs.

While shopping for clothes and shoes online is not new, representing nearly $14 billion in annual sales, the more sophisticated sizing metrics offered by the latest wave of Internet apparel companies and Web sites is a selling point that may lure the busy, fed-up or hard-to-fit shopper.

Marketing executive Cathy Kim, 33, considers herself a reasonably easy-to-fit Size 4 who likes to shop. Still, taking up space in her closet is what she calls “useless material,” vestiges of past online shopping forays gone awry.

“I’m definitely one of those people that finds myself returning things,” said the Los Angeles resident. “That’s the one thing about shopping online which is so annoying. It’s hard to see how something on a model is going to look on you.”

Enter an emerging niche of companies attempting to take the guesswork out of sizing. While Landsends.com, among the first to offer custom clothing online, allows shoppers to choose the type of wash for jeans and khakis, as well as details like rise and leg shape, and J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP – news) and J. Crew offer on-line fit guides for bras and swimsuits, new Web sites MyShape.com and Zafu.com are taking sizing precision one step further.

“They’re tapping into the core value of the Internet — helping consumers find products that are most relevant to them,” said Forrester Research analyst Tamara Mendelsohn, who anticipates the launch of even more size-aware Web sites.

MyShape.com, which has signed up nearly 13,000 users, including Kim, in advance of its full launch in September, casts itself as personal shopper for the busy professional. After entering a series of measurements into the MyShape system, the shopper is presented with a shape-appropriate wardrobe from MyShape’s own inventory.

MyShape Chief Executive Louise Wannier sees it as a “major opportunity” geared to women who hate to shop, the ones who are turned off by time wasted at traditional retailers with limited selection and sizes, or those who live in remote areas.

“We’re bringing the elements of a personal shopper to the consumer who doesn’t have the array of stores at their disposal,” Wannier said.

Ever-widening, or extra-slim, waistlines are also increasing the need for special sizing. A recent survey by research group Retail Forward found that more than 20 percent of plus-size U.S. women are turning to the Internet for their wardrobe. But small-frame petites are even more frustrated, with 40 percent saying they struggle to find the right size.

And if online searches for well-fitting skirts or pants have traditionally proven to be hit-or-miss, the prospect of buying jeans online can truly be daunting.

Sizing frustrations, combined with an explosive demand for denim, spurred the recent launch of Zafu.com, which matches users’ shapes with the most flattering cut of jeans.

Zafu has analyzed 200 jeans — from $15.78 Lee’s to a $266 pair by Rock & Republic — and predicts that 94 percent of women can find their perfect fit by plugging their preferences, along with their particulars, into its system. Unlike MyShape, Zafu — a venture of Archetype Solutions headed by a former Levi Strauss & Co. executive — links users to a third-party site that carries the jeans.

Even though these online apparel companies will still have to contend with the shoppers who prefer to see and touch their garments before purchasing, the success and value of Web sites like MyShape and Zafu will come down to how well they deliver on the promise of clothes that truly fit, analysts say.

“The attempt these guys are making could be wildly valuable. The question is, ‘Do they really work?”‘ asked Jupiter Research analyst Patti Freeman Evans. “You can’t really tell that until you go through the whole process and receive the product.”

And, whether the influx of more size-friendly online sites results in better-dressed women remains to be seen, as noted by Nielsen/Net Ratings analyst Heather Dougherty.

“You can tell some people what style is appropriate for them till you’re blue in the face, but they’re still not going to listen,” she said.




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