March 18, 2005

Company Offers a High-Tech Way to Get Clothes to Fit

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

One of the most frustrating parts of clothes shopping is that manufacturer size numbers are inconsistent, making the purchase of an outfit that fits a gamble, at best.

A Philadelphia startup is trying to use technology to both get a more precise measure of consumers and to match it against a detailed database on what various apparel companies truly mean with their sizes.

In the United States, "the average woman takes 15 pairs of jeans into the dressing room.

The women endure this frustration level because they have to try on a lot of things," said Edward Gribbin, president of the Philadelphia-based Intellifit Corp. "We can direct them to the two or three or four things that are most likely to fit them."

Although it's potentially a nice—and free—service for consumers, the bigger benefit is for Intellifit's retailer customers, including Macy's and David's Bridal.

Beyond the indirect brand marketing (Intellifit can only recommend clothing from companies that provide detailed measurements, which means they are clients), Gribbin argues that there is a more explicit retailer financial benefit.

"When people get their size recommendations, the conversion rate goes up significantly," Gribbin said.

"In other words, the propensity for that person to convert from a shopper into a buyer is much greater."

Here's how it works: a customer walks into an Intellifit scanning box.

There are about 11 such locations today, mostly in shopping malls in California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Virginia and New Jersey.

The customer's body is then subject to an extensive scanning process that uses water in the consumer's skin to collect about 200,000 measurement data points.

The program reconstructs that data to create a 3-D image.

Software measures that image in four-tenths of an inch increments, keeps the 200 most meaningful numbers and then deletes the rest of the numbers as well as the 3-D image itself, Gribbin said.

That scanning and analysis segment takes 10 seconds, Gribbin said, and it needs another 10 seconds to match the results against a list of vendor measurements on file and print out a list of recommendations.

Intellifit maintains that its technology is completely safe, but concedes that some retailers—including Lane Bryant—discourage or prevent the scanning of someone who is pregnant or who has a pacemaker.

Gribbin dismisses those retailers' concerns as just legal protection.

"Our technology is not X-ray. We use low-power radio waves, very similar to cell phones, expect that our radio waves are one-thousandth the power of a cell phone," Gribbin said, adding that "a cell phone is generally next to your head, and we're about 2 feet away from you."

Today, the system's results can only be seen on the computer printouts, but Intellifit plans to have those available to scanned consumers on their Web site in about two weeks, Gribbin said.

After the consumer is scanned, the data is saved in an XML file, and a wireless modem uploads those XML files to a Dell server at Intellifit headquarters once every 24 hours.

The final uploaded XML file is only one or two kilobits, which is a lot less than the original 200,000 data-point 3-D hologram that typically needs about 80 MB of space.

That's how the consumer's measurements are collected. To gather the precise sizing for various garments from many apparel companies, client manufacturers send Intellifit their product specification sheets on garments.

"Every brand has its own fit specification. A 10 from Jones is not the same as a 10 from Liz," Gribbin said.

The only place where there is still margin for error is what the industry dubs sewing tolerances, which can run a half-inch in either direction.

"We're 90 percent (accurate) about the sizes and the styles and the brands that will fit you best."

Gribbin pledges that the identity of consumers will never be revealed, but information will be released in an anonymous, aggregated manner to retail and manufacturing clients.

"They might want a report for women between 35 and 40 years of age in a plus size in certain ZIP codes," he said, and Intellifit would provide tons of sizing specs from its database of matching consumers.