A million or so Japanese are using the firm's "Zozosuit"
One problem plagues the business of selling clothes online-predicting how a garment will fit without trying it on. Behemoths such as ASOS, a British internet platform that sells its own and others' apparel, try to overcome this by allowing people to buy several sizes to try on at home and return items free of charge-at huge cost to them. Enter the body-measurement suit from Start Today, a Japanese firm that runs the "Zozotown" platform in Japan on which clothing companies from around the world sell their wares, as well as its own private label, Zozo.
In the past three months Start Today has distributed to just over 1 million Japanese customers, free of charge, its "Zozosuit", a skin-tight, full-body suit covered in around 350 fiducial markers, small objects that can be used as a point of reference for measurements. Shoppers slip on the suit and slowly rotate as their smartphone takes photos.
The firm uses the images to create a 3D scan of their body, which it can use to offer a range of customised services. Among these are made-to-measure business suits for men from its Zozo brand, which are selling strongly, and jeans and T-shirts that fit most snugly from tens of thousands of pre-cut patterns, also from Zozo. At the most basic level, when customers choose an item from one of the 6,400 brands listed on Zozotown – the core of Start Today's business – the platform uses the Zozosuit data to recommend the right size.
A first, more high-tech version of the suit proved too expensive (it had capacitors holding an electric charge that measured body shape by how much the suit stretched). But its latest version costs the company only ¥1,000 ($9) a piece. Masahiro Ito, a board member who oversees engineering at the firm, says the fashion industry has not yet adapted to meet the needs of a generation accustomed to buying everything online, to their specifications and at their convenience. "We offer exactly that," he says. Other companies are watching closely. Fast Retailing, a giant which owns the Uniqlo brand, is one firm looking at ways to measure the body using smart phones.
How the suit fares is crucial for Start Today's future. The Zozotown platform is the undisputed giant of online fashion retail in Japan. It created and dominates the market for online clothing sales; the second biggest platform, Marui Web Channel, makes only a tenth of its sales. It takes lucrative cuts of up to around 35% from brands it hosts; its founder and boss, Yusaku Maezawa, is now Japan's 18th richest person. But analysts reckon it may be reaching saturation point. The company counts 6% of the country's population as active users (meaning those who have bought something in the past 12 months).
Its share price dipped sharply in July after growth slowed slightly. Bespoke services could attract more customers, especially men, who make up only around 30% of active users, reckons Osamu Yamada, an independent retail analyst. Observers are more circumspect about whether the suit can help Start Today on its other path to growth: expanding abroad. Since July customers in 72 countries have been able to request a body-measurement suit to help them buy clothes from the Zozo label.
An attempt a few years ago to take the Zozotown platform into China, Hong Kong and South Korea (before it came up with the body-measurement suit) failed. Ito notes that Zozotown could not compete then with existing companies offering more or less the same products; for now at least, the suit is a unique service. But the company will still have to work harder than it does at home to persuade people to squeeze into it.