At MyBestFit, bringing tech-powered intelligence to clothing racks

With the help of a full-body scanning machine and a data-minded startup, mall shoppers may soon see better fitting clothes -- and retailers, fewer returns.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

As a man, buying clothes at the store is blessedly straightfoward: measure body in centimeters, find clothing that matches.

Women, on the other hand, must contend with an ever-shifting measurement "standard" that adheres to no agreed-upon tether to scientific measurement. Thus, a woman who is a size 8 at one store could be a 10, 6 or 4 at another, no weight gain or loss necessary -- nevermind the differences within brands themselves.

But a New York Times profile of Long Beach, Calif.-based startup MyBestFit demonstrates how one company seeks to address the problem, with a little help from technology.

The company is building mall kiosks that offer passersby a free 20-second full-body scan, much like the new machines used by TSA officials in airports. Instead of preserving national security mandates, the machine suggests to the person sizes for certain cuts at different retailers.

Stephanie Clifford reports:

Lauren VanBrackle, 20, a student in Philadelphia, tried MyBestFit when she was shopping last weekend.

"I can be anywhere from a 0 at Ann Taylor to a 6 at American Eagle," she said. "It obviously makes it difficult to shop." This time, the scanner suggested that at American Eagle, she should try a 4 in one style and a 6 in another. Ms. VanBrackle said she tried the jeans on and was impressed: "That machine, in a 30-second scan, it tells you what to do."

The circular machine scans using low-power radio waves that record some 200,000 body measurements, then matches the customer's body type to clothes in its database, such as products from mall staples American Eagle, Old Navy, Eddie Bauer and Talbots.

A printout advises customers what and where to buy. (That's where the business model comes into play: retailers pay a fee when they appear in the results, but they cannot by design pay to be included in the results.)

The company saves the data anonymously, using generated ID numbers rather than names. The value in this: aggregated insights to said retailers.

The company says it's a time-saver for the harried window shopper, but it's really the next step in using data to solve a problem -- here, a better-fitting jean (that doesn't end up back at the returns desk weeks later.)

For now, the company plans to expand operations with 13 more machines along the East and West coasts by 2012.

The challenge: will American consumers begin to understand how clothes should actually fit, or push back on what retailers advise? And how will these recommended standards evolve with style trends, e.g. the baggy jean movement?

Here's a look in a video from Philadelphia local broadcast affiliate CBS3:

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