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How 3D Configurators Will Change the Way We Buy & Sell Clothes

Online shoppers’ expectations are changing, in part because the way we shop online is changing. In 2019, almost half of online purchases were made from mobile devices (according to Statista); next year, mobile purchases are expected to be the majority.

Customers expect more and better product images, as well as more real-time information about even customizable products (which 49% of Americans want, at least according to Sourcing Journal). When they don’t get these real-time images, they’re likely to either navigate away without buying or make a purchase that they send back — and online apparel purchases are already the kind most likely to be returned, reported Fortune.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: 3D configurators, once used mainly to create special effects in Hollywood movies and video games, are now widely available for e-commerce applications. In a fashion retail setting, this technology can help merchants deliver the quality and quantity of imagery shoppers expect, offer real-time visualizations of customized products, reduce returns and even enable real-time concept testing. Here’s a look at how.

Reduce Photography Costs

We live in an increasingly visual world. We not only have the ability to view virtually anything with a simple Google search, we’re also bombarded by images from advertisers on social media, and we stream more videos every year, according to the latest Ericsson Mobility Report. This has changed our expectations as shoppers.

In 2016, the average online shopper expected three to five images to accompany an online product listing. Last year, the expectation had jumped to five to eight images per product, reported Salsify.

For e-commerce fashion retailers, the implications are costly: a catalog of just 100 products with three color variations each would have required 2,400 images to meet customer expectations in 2019. And that number will no doubt increase as we all view more and more visual content.

As customers expect more images, the prospect of creating them with traditional product photography quickly becomes cost prohibitive.

Enter 3D configurators. Because they generate product images via software algorithms and rely on 3D files, retailers can create far more images in far less time — and for much less money. They can also digitally introduce variations in color and pattern instantly, saving entire photo shoots retailers would otherwise have to pay for.

What’s more, 3D configurators offer some breathing room for keeping up with evolving customer expectations; instead of a series of still images, they give customers a chance to view a product from every angle. Adding this technology to a fashion retail site, then, translates to a kind of future-proofing.

3D configurators aren’t just a linear step forward from still product photos, though; they offer a whole new world of capabilities that can help fashion retailers boost revenue.

Real-Time Customization Imagery

One key function 3D configurators offer that still photography simply doesn’t is the ability to view product customizations in real time. That’s something fashion retailers in 2020 should care about. In 2015, according to Deloitte, just 36% of customers were “interested” in customized goods, but by last year, Salesforce reported that 79% were actually willing to share personal information in order to receive more personalized communications, shopping experiences and offers.

The demand for customized products is particularly strong in fashion: half of Americans have expressed interest in buying customized fashion pieces, and most are willing to pay a premium for them, Sourcing Journal said.

With 3D configurators on your site, you can tap into this revenue stream by showing shoppers product customization in real time, as they make feature selections.

Again, that would be all but impossible with traditional photography. If you let shoppers customize 16 elements of a sneaker, say, and offer 20 to 30 potential options for each element (as is the case with Nike’s Air Max by You), you’d be making it possible to create 102,400 unique sneaker designs.

Actually creating and photographing that many pairs of sneakers would be absurd and far too expensive, but using a 3D configurator makes it possible to show shoppers exactly what their creation would look like as they make modifications.

What’s more, shoppers could interact with the image of their custom sneaker by rotating it and zooming in — both of which have been shown to increase trust in online shopping settings. As we all know, increased trust translates to increased likelihood to buy.

The takeaway for online apparel retailers: customers are willing to pay more for customized goods and are more likely to buy such goods when they can visualize them before committing to a purchase. 3D configurators make that possible.

Accurate Product Images

In addition to boosting topline sales, 3D configurators can help online fashion retailers reduce returns. This could be transformative for those selling apparel online. In brick-and-mortar retail, returns hover at between 8% to 10%, but online they’re much higher, at 20% to 40%.

What’s more, half of American shoppers avoid buying from online vendors that don’t make returns free, reported Digital Commerce 360, which is expensive for retailers. Returned items don’t always find their way back to virtual shelves, which is one reason that handling returns can account for as much as 20% to 65% of a business’ cost of goods sold, according to Motley Fool.

Compounding matters in the apparel industry is the fact that sizing conventions are anything but standard. To ensure that they get a garment that fits, as many as 56% of Americans admit to “bracketing,” or buying several sizes with the intention of sending back the ones that don’t fit, according to Narvar.

Based on Shopify’s estimates, $360 billion worth of goods were returned in the United States in 2017; industry analysts expect that number to reach $550 billion this year. One way apparel retailers can address the issue is with detailed size charts and information about a model’s measurements and which size garments they’re wearing.

But sizing precision isn’t the only thing causing clothing returns.

Today, 64% of product returns happen because the product that arrives looks different from the online image a customer saw (according to Statista) — and if you offer customizable products, it’s possible that your customers aren’t seeing any image of what they’re ordering before they click “buy.” Introducing a 3D configurator can ease the problem of returns by giving customers a clearer idea of what they’re ordering before it arrives in the mail.

More to the point, though, e-commerce visuals that show a 360-degree view of a product have been shown to reduce returns by 35%, based on a report from Snap36.

The economic case for adding a 3D configurator to reduce returns is compelling, but it’s not even the whole story. A recent study conducted with the Harris Poll found that a whopping 82% of Americans think retailers have a responsibility to do all they can to reduce returns because of the outsize impact e-commerce returns have on the environment.

This is a fairly new development in customer expectations, but it’s not entirely unexpected. A spate of news pieces published during last year’s holiday season highlighted the high carbon footprint online returns have. These pieces were just the latest indicator that consumer attitudes about carbon emissions and climate change are shifting and that more people expect companies of all types to be proactive about limiting emissions.

In reducing returns, 3D configurators can also help online apparel brands to improve customers’ perception of their work as global citizens.

Real-Time Concept Testing

Even for retailers that aren’t interested in introducing any additional functionality on their website, 3D configurators can improve current functionalities and make them more profitable. But because they’re also an entirely new technology for most online apparel brands, they also enable apparel retailers to try new strategies that have the power to transform a business’s operations.

One of the most exciting examples is real-time concept testing. Today, apparel brands have to gamble on what shoppers’ tastes will be in the coming seasons. Guesses that miss lead to heavily discounted or unsold garments and lost opportunities. And when a retailer fails to predict a hot trend, they can miss out on major sales.

With a 3D configurator, apparel retailers can offer customers the opportunity to create and customize their own garments and order only those that generate customer interest. The power lies in the ability to create realistic renderings of clothes without having to manufacture them.

Admittedly, shifting to such a model would necessitate changes in supply chain logistics, but given that customers are willing to wait longer for customized merchandise, this could be a worthwhile avenue for apparel retailers to test.

Online Shopping Is Changing

The way we shop online has changed and will continue to evolve. 3D configurators can empower retailers to not only meet the needs and expectations of today’s customers, but also position themselves to thrive as online shoppers grow ever more sophisticated.

From reduced upfront product photography costs and increased top-line sales to reduced returns and improved brand perception among increasingly eco-conscious customers, 3D configurators will change the face of online apparel retail. The only unknown is which brands will recognize these benefits and adopt this transformative technology first.

John Kim is the senior vice president of sales at Threekit, a product visualization software platform used by the world’s top brands and retailers to create, manage and scale interactive e-commerce experiences. Prior to Threekit, John held leadership roles at Salesforce, SteelBrick and Oracle.

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