Personalization as a more scalable alternative to mass customization?
Many women I know share this experience: Looking frustrated at thousands of jeans listed on a search engine, or carrying a pile of denim into a changing room – just still to find not the jean that really fits. ZAFU.com. a new venture by Archetype-Solution's Rob Holloway, wants to provide help – and is the perfect example of an application riding the long tail.
Remember (see post from July 28) that the idea of the now bestselling "The Long Tail" book by Chris Anderson is that today there are (a) unlimited choice and variety, (b) more consumers that want to utilize this variety to find a better fitting product, (c) large profit opportunities for companies not focusing on a few large blockbusters or hit products but on helping customer to explore this variety.
Anderson's book focused on long-tail-applications in the digital sphere, music, books, and movies. But zafu.com brings this into the world of apparel.
CNN described in a press coverage Zafu's concept quite well:
"Sizing jeans to the myriad shapes of women is a challenge even in a department store dressing room, let alone online. Zafu.com, launched this week, arrives as the industry shifts from years of marketing baggy or flare-cut jeans to a skinny silhouette that is much harder to size and wear. "We've taken the trouble to actually measure and check the jean and try it on people to see how it really fits," Chief Executive Rob Holloway told Reuters. "We are the friend in the dressing room, I guess."
Zafu asks women shoppers 11 questions about how they prefer jeans to sit on their hips or waist to create a body profile. That alone is a departure from the incongruous body-type descriptions of "pears" or "triangles" found in fashion magazines and retail catalogues.
The results are used to match the user with as many jeans as could suit them from a database of hundreds of styles, from broadly marketed Gap to pricey Seven, then link them to a retailer to purchase."
In a recent phone conversation with Rob Holloway, he described the laborious process it took them to set up this fit database. They invited hundreds of women in their offices, each woman hat to try on 32 different jeans, all fits being evaluated by the company's own apparel experts. This gave them both information about women's shapes and figures and information about the cuts and fitting secrets of dozens of different jeans brands. To update this information, Zafu has created a streamlined process so that new models can easily being integrated into their database and assortment.
Correct sizing is one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of online apparel and footwear sales, which are expected to rise in the US to $13.8 billion this year from $11.3 billion a year ago, according to tracking firm Shop.org data. Almost 14 billion sounds a lot, but is only 6 percent of total U.S. apparel and related sales.
The jeans market is an interesting market segment. Market research firm NPD Group reports women's jeans sales reached $7.8 billion for the 12 months through March 2006 -- a 10.8% increase over the $7.04 billion reported during the same period a year ago. This data is on top of a 13.7% growth rate of jean sales between 2004-2005. Much of this growth comes from new jeans models and niche designer brands – offering more choice and options, but making the entire selection process also more difficult for women to navigate.
CNN quotes Ellen Tolley Davis of Shop.org saying "Many consumers still want to touch and feel merchandise before they buy it. When it comes down to particular sizing for shirts and pants, there's still some room for retailers to make improvements."
This is exactly what Zafu does. They also provide a service that you will get not from many retail associates: Zafu's web site will tell you also when there is NO jean at all in their assortment to fit your body – asking you to postpone your purchase.
Zafu will tell the consumer outright and suggest she check in periodically as styles are updated. "We wondered, should we be completely honest here and show someone zero [results] or fiddle a bit," said Holloway.
They decided to be honest – and this is exactly where the value of such an intermediary comes from. But according to their estimations, their assortment of analyzed and databased jeans is already large enough to provide an exact fitting jean for 94% of all consumers. And loosing this 6% of sales (theoretical) is a good price to pay to show to the other users that they are really serious and honest about fit! Early users of the service seem to love it a lot, as this customer review suggests.
Zafu also allows women to save their profile making the process even easier next time they return. This helps them also to inform customers when a new jean is added to their assortment that exactly fits their body style. However, if a user does not want to leave any data, she does not have to do register etc.
And how does Zafu make money?
First, there are provisions for each sale. Zafu does not carry any inventory, but directs customers directly to the web sites of affiliated retailers and gets the usual commissions between 5-20% of each sale.
Second, they will provide in-house fit recommendation services to online and offline retailers, helping the customers of just one brand to navigate the assortment in a store or online shop better.
Third, I believe there is a lot of potential to extend the service to other product categories, becoming the one-stop style adviser for women with regard to fit. This could also provide some nice aggregated market research data, another potential source of revenue. For this, a cooperation between My Virtual Model and Zafu would be a perfect option.
For me Zafu is also an interesting business model as it provides another alternative to real mass customization. Zafu's parent company, Archetype, launched in 2003 a fit consulting business that provides mass customization services to some of the leading apparel retailers and brands in the US, including Land's End's Mass Customization business.
Zafu's personalization service is an alternative model. It may not have the inventory advantages and value prepositions of mass customization, but provides a much more easy to implement and much better scalable system. The future will show where there is more value for customers. I believe that both models will work hand in hand and supplement each other: For most consumers, a better matching service as zafu.com will provide sufficient value. For others, however, the ultimate product will still be the truly custom jean -- providing not only perfect fit, but also all the hedonic satisfaction connected with a custom product.
Updates: "Customized online fashion finally clicks with consumers": A journalist tests zafu.com (and competitor myshape.com) [Thanks to madeforeone.com for this link]
Report on Internet-Retailer (Nov 7, 2006): Shopping.com, a large shopping portal, has partnered with zafu.com to launch a women’s jeans finder on the shopping engine. The new feature, accessible under a link from women’s clothing category pages on Shopping.com, carries shoppers who click on it to a co-branded web site that guides them through the process to yield a selection of jeans and then links to the merchants where they may be purchased. The feature exposes shoppers using it on Shopping.com to brands they might not have previously known about or considered, but which might be a fit for them. “By suggesting new brands, styles and fits for shoppers, Shopping.com can offer them more relevant choices via a recommendation expressly tailored for them,” the company notes.
Update (20 Nov 2006): The New York Times had a good review of Zafu.com. on Nov 20, 2006 While the article in general praises the Zafu service, it remarks that it does not weigh heavily enough a user’s brand preference. But the label of a jeans is a as a big factor as the fit.