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(Corrects Greg Pulsifer's name in the seventh paragraph.)
For Asaf Moses, the most embarrassing part about buying clothing online is wearing ill-fitting purchases out of a sense of guilt. “You’re not satisfied, and you don’t look right, but you try and make the clothes work because you paid for them,” says the 29-year-old Israeli, who estimates only 1 in 10 online purchases fit the way he expects. A few years ago, Moses piled his hallway full of failed acquisitions, free for the taking. “My friends left looking stylish and happy,” he says. “But I felt very frustrated.”
Moses, who graduated from the economics program at Germany’s Humboldt University of Berlin in 2009, decided something needed to be done. Together with his graduate school buddy Sebastian Schulze, he founded UPcload, a Berlin startup that allows shoppers to take precise body measurements using a webcam. “The measurements are on average more accurate than those taken by a professional tailor,” says Moses, who plans to launch the service early next year.
UPcload—the name is a mashup of the words “upload” and “clothes”—is part of a wave of companies trying to help online shoppers find flattering clothes without using a dressing room. Potentially it’s an enormous market. U.S. online retail sales last year increased by 12.6 percent, and the industry is expected to grow to $279 billion by 2015 from $176 billion in 2010, according to Forrester Research (FORR). Customer reluctance, however, remains an impediment. Of those who don’t buy clothes online, 72 percent say they’re afraid they won’t get a good fit, according to market research firm YouGov. About 20 percent of clothing bought online is returned, usually because of size issues.
In pursuit of the perfect fit, some companies such as eyewear manufacturer Warby Parker allow customers to upload photos and virtually try on merchandise. Clothes Horse, a New York startup, assists users by correlating sizing across retailers. “If you’re shopping for Bonobos and you know your favorite size in J.Crew (JCG), you can give us that information and we’ll tell you what Bonobos size will be best,” says Clothes Horse co-founder David Whittemore. “We’re solving for the fact that a size 6 is not a size 6 across brands.”
UPcload’s solution is more high-tech. To use the software, would-be shoppers dress in tight dark clothing and pose for four photos in front of a white wall, holding a CD. The standard size of the CD allows UPcload’s photo recognition software to determine the person’s distance from the webcam and make calculations accordingly. One problem: Normal webcam software isn’t sophisticated enough to distinguish between subtle differences in shading. “Much of the Western world has lighter skin than me, and the majority of walls are also light,” says Moses. UPcload uses image-analysis algorithms developed for the military and semiconductor industries by the Israeli company Imagu, which traded its technology for a quarter of UPcload’s shares. Imagu analyzes images at the subpixel level, making it more precise than standard object recognition software. UPcload has raised €200,000 ($268,000), half from the German government.
To tailor the software, the 14-person startup collected body statistics from 500 Berliners. “One advantage of Berlin is that you have a lot of people who aren’t rich and need to make money,” says Schulze, 24, who took charge of the data collection. The company paid subjects €20 an hour to get measured using UPcload’s algorithm, a 3D scanner, and a professional tailor, then calibrated the software until the difference between the three was negligible. In Bloomberg Businessweek’s own test, the results were spot-on: UPcload’s measurements were within 1.5 centimeters of a professional tailor’s.
The next step is striking deals with major brands. Users will discover UPcload through retailers’ websites, where they’ll be able to click a button, go through the measurement process, and then receive sizing recommendations. They’ll be able to apply their profiles across all brands that use UPcload. A handful of companies have signed on, including The North Face, which will begin testing the software before the end of the year. “No one else in the world is doing what UPcload is doing,” says Greg Pulsifer, general manager of e-commerce at the outdoor apparel brand. The North Face plans to use the software to help customers buy online and also to find out if the company’s sizing models need to be adjusted. Both companies stress they don’t keep the webcam pictures, which are deleted after generating measurements.
Some industry insiders are skeptical. “Fit isn’t a matter of what objectively fits you but what you like and are comfortable in,” says retail analyst Sucharita Mulpuru of Forrester Research. “[UPcload] doesn’t tell you how an item looks on someone—nothing does yet.” Moses counters that UPcload could be combined with virtual fitting-room technology from companies such as Fits.me to provide effective representations.
The startup plans to charge e-tailers a few cents each time a shopper uses UPcload measurements and is also cooperating with companies that specialize in custom-fit clothing ordered online. “For them, it’s the perfect solution,” says Schulze. “Normally, people have to measure themselves.”
Moses and Schulze hope to eventually expand their service to measuring feet as well. Moses says he once used EBay (EBAY) to buy a pair of the same Nikes worn by George Costanza, a character from Seinfeld, one of his favorite sitcoms. They were so small they gave him leg pains. “The doctor told me to stop wearing them,” he says.
The bottom line: Retailers including The North Face plan to use UPcload’s webcam measurements to make shoppers comfortable buying online.