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Retailer Perceptions on Apparel Sizing Issues and customer satisfaction

Ravi Balasubramanian, Janet Webster, Massey University, New Zealand




Abstract
The relevance of size and fit of apparel has not been investigated from a retail marketing
perspective. An exploratory qualitative study was undertaken to gain an insight into its
relevance. The issues explored were: 1) Do retailers perceive size and fit of apparel relevant
to their function in meeting the customer requirements? 2) Does knowledge of fit related
issues contribute to their success as a salesperson? The main finding was that fit related issues
played a key role in their functioning and thus warrants further validation through a
quantitative study.
Keywords: Retailer Perceptions, Apparel Sizing, Qualitative Investigations, Customer
Satisfaction.

Introduction

Consumer satisfaction is a desirable outcome for apparel manufacturers and retailers since
satisfied customers can lead to increased store patronage, repeat purchase and brand loyalty
(Otieno, 2000a). However, dissatisfaction of men and women with fit of available sizes in
clothes has been identified in numerous countries, including New Zealand and one of the
reasons for this could be the changing dimensions of the body over time, not accommodated
by commensurate changes in apparel sizes (Winks, 1997; Goldsberry, Shim and Reich, 1996;
Ashdown, 1998). This could point to the need for sizing surveys of the population that help to
create appropriate sizing systems for manufacturers, although other reasons such as
inconsistencies in size labels or the information provided upon them could be contributing
factors (Chun-Yoon and J asper, 1995). Approaches adopted to reduce consumer
dissatisfaction include adaptation of technology for mass customisation of clothes or
collection of dimensions for more up-to-date sizing standards. For sizing standards, several
countries have implemented sizing surveys, and specific technology such as 3D body
scanning has been employed to create appropriate sizing systems for manufacturers. SizeUK,
size USA and more recently the SCALE project in Australia provide examples of this
approach to the problem of creating apparel that fits the general population
(http://www.sizeUSA.com; http://www.shapeanalysis.com/sizeUK%20statistics.htm;
Australasian Textiles and Fashion, 2005). New Zealand does not currently have national
sizing standards for men's and women's clothing; these were withdrawn in October 1998, and
not replaced. The technology option or updating the sizing systems may be unviable options
in the short term due to relative size of the market in New Zealand. This raises the question as
to how sizing issues are being resolved.

The impact of the lack of size standards may be examined from the perspective of each of the
participants in the chain viz. the apparel manufacturer, retailer and the consumer. The
manufacturers decisions on sizing are influenced by the intended look and target market.
Some manufacturers have also considered the psychological aspects of the consumer, through
vanity sizing which has been researched ( for example: Lenda J o, 2002) and also reported in
the press ( for example: Martin, 2006).Thus decisions by various manufacturers to change
size dimensions has resulted in significant variations for the same size label. From the
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consumers perspective the dissatisfaction regarding size and fit of clothes has been
researched, as indicated above. Despite the attempt of some researchers highlighting the need
for retailers to help consumers in selection of apparel through advise on fit during the
selection process (Eckman, Damhorst and Kadolph ,1990) and through stocking of
appropriate sizes (Otieno, 2000 ), very little research exists on the retailers perspective
regarding size and fit and processes adopted to meet the consumers requirements. Research
in this area may contribute to a better understanding of size and fit related issues in apparel
industry.

Research Question:

How does the variation in dimensions of apparel clothing sizes impact retailers ability to
meet consumers need for clothing that fit?

This research examines retailers perspectives with a focus on the extent to which knowledge
of fit and fit issues impact their ability to provide customer satisfaction.


Literature review

Consumer perceptions of apparel fit- implications for apparel retailing

The role apparel fit plays in the customers satisfaction with apparel purchase seems to have
differing mechanisms for evaluation depending on end use of purchase. In shopping for
childrens clothes, Norum (1995) found that fit was significantly related to consumer
satisfaction and with perceptions regarding product quality. This facet was again highlighted
in another study where fit and size was cited as the aspects that parents shopping for children
complained about the most (Otieno, 2000b). Fit and size issues cited were mismatch in
dimensions across chest, arm, shoulder, waist and incorrect labelling. However, for their own
use Labat and Delong (1990) found apparel fit satisfaction related to body cathexis(
consumers evaluation of self and body), with fit satisfaction being lower for hip and waist as
compared to other body sites. This evaluation of fit would vary according to the shopper
profile and could provide some opportunity for the retailer to play a role.

Customers are likely to select stores for apparel purchase based on their perception or
experience regarding the range, sizes and fit of apparel offerings. Specialised niche stores and
store image was found to be related to customer demographic variables such as race, income
and marital status (Gagliano and Hathcote, 1994). Demographic characteristics have been
found to influence fashion attitudes and store patronage.

Role of size and fit in Consumers apparel purchase decision making process.

Eckman, Damhorst and Kadolph (1990) proposed a three stage decision-making process for
apparel consisting of interest phase, trial phase and decision phase. The interest phase in a
garment was influenced by factors such as colour, styling and fabric, but the trial phase was
influenced by fit, styling and appearance. When the purchase decision was positive, reasons
provided were fit and appearance, but when an apparel item was rejected the reasons provided
were, fit, styling and appearance. As observed by the authors, fit may be strongly related to
aesthetic criteria in that fit affects perception of line, shape and appearance on the body. Thus
fit and its influence upon appearance seem to play an important role in the decision making
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process of the consumer. Eckman, Damhorst and Kadolph (1990) recommend that sales
personnel may require training to help them positively reinforce and service clients on these
criteria and to provide influential product information at the appropriate stages of the
purchase decision making process. However, this facet remains unexplored from the retailers
perspective.

Role of size and fit skills in apparel retailing

The relevance of various selling skills for apparel retailers was investigated by Garner and
Buckley (1988) and they found that skills relating to fashion merchandising knowledge,
including salesmanship, consumer behaviour and communication were rated above textiles
and product knowledge. However, knowledge of ready to wear sizing and knowledge of
garment fitting and alteration were also perceived as important. Fair, Hamilton and Norum
(1990) suggest that while there has been a shift away from requirements for specific product
knowledge, the ability to communicate product knowledge is seen as important.

The relevance of skills in fit assessment needs to be examined in the context of selling skills
identified in personal selling literature where research has been done on factors contributing
to selling effectiveness. Selling skills has been viewed as comprising of three distinct
components: Interpersonal skills such as knowing how to cope with and resolve conflicts;
salesmanship skills such as how to make a presentation and close a sale; and technical skills
such as knowledge of product features, benefits and procedures required by the company
(Ford et al., 1987; cited in Rentz et al., 2002). Rentz et al. (2002) found that self-ranking on
sales and quota performance were correlated with high levels of score on the three skill
components. Highest factor loadings were reported for knowledge of product line under
technical knowledge, ability to present the message and close the sale under salesmanship
skills and awareness and understanding of the nonverbal communication of others under
interpersonal skills. Extending this model to the apparel context, it could be postulated that
knowledge of fit assessment and product line could be one of the key components of technical
and salesmanship skills and could be expected to play a key role on the perceived
performance by the retail sales person.

Thus there appears to be an information gap on the relevance and contribution of size and fit
assessment skills towards a sales persons effectiveness.

Based on the literature review cited above, the following questions were formulated for
further investigation: 1) what are the actions of retailers in providing a size range to satisfy
customer needs for clothing? 2) Do consumers ask retail sales person for advice on fit and do
they follow the advice given? 3) Are size and fit assessment skills important for retail sales
persons sales performance?


Methodology

A series of in-depth interviews were undertaken with six medium to small retailers of
womens apparel in the Wellington region. Large national chains catering to the mass market
did not accede to requests for an interview.
The owner/ manager of each store was interviewed as they were actively involved in the
selling process and played a key role in setting norms for other employees. An outline of
questions was used to initiate discussions into the areas to be explored (Malhotra, Hall, Shaw
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and Oppenheim, 2002). The interviews were transcribed and key themes identified. The
findings from each interview were used to explore areas of agreement and variation in
subsequent interviews.


Findings

Intended positioning of store and range stocked

Retail outlets interviewed included one small high-fashion boutique catering for wealthy
career women aged 40+(usually single), one designer fashion store targeting 30 to 60 year
old business women with young children offering both fashion and classic styles, one store
targeting fashion conscious professional women 25+stocking fashionable and classic styles,
and three specialist apparel stores forming part of nationwide retail chains. Two of these
stores (specialist apparel) stocked fashionable and classic designs, while the other stocked
distinctive smart casual and classic apparel.
All stores sold garments with traditional numeric size designations 6, 8,10,12,14 etc and five
stores also sold garments, usually knitwear, with the size designation XS, S, M, L, XL etc.
Apparel range stocked, including sizes and styles varied with the intended look and perceived
customer demographics. A trend to extend size ranges by stocking both larger and smaller
garments was identified by 4/6 retailers. Some retailers were upsizing (dropping a size) to
accommodate perceived increases in the sizes of New Zealand women and for vanity reasons.
Stocking generously sized garments was seen as a selling point for the up-market stores.

Retailers supported the manufacturers claims for a need to change their sizing systems due to
perceived changes in ethnic composition of the NZ population and lifestyle changes towards
larger sizing, particularly in the hips and upper body, including arm girth. All retailers stated
that garment sizes were not standard and varied with the label, but welcomed the variety in
labels and size dimensions as it permits accommodation of different sizes and style
preferences in the population.

Sizing and fit issues in meeting customer need

Most retailers said that the customer had to try on the garment in the store, since fashion and
style affect fit. Most retailers placed strong reliance on stocking a mix of sizes and labels to
cater to a wide range of customer needs. This gives an opportunity to assist customers to find
the right size and look, thus enhancing the prospect of a sale. Size variation was therefore
perceived not as an issue but as an opportunity for the retail salesperson to help the customer.

To facilitate the short-listing process the retailers recommend possible sizes to try on. The
recommendations do take into consideration the psychological needs which they attempt to
discern through a process of interaction covering the occasion for which the purchase is being
made, stated preferences and also observing the dress worn for clues on the type of fit that
may be acceptable.

Do the customers expect advice regarding fit from the retailer and do they act on it? Most
retailers believed that most customers expected advice regarding fit, and that they mostly
acted on the advice. However, responses did vary, from the view If you dont want it
(advice) then our store is not a good place to shop to the retailer who greeted and tried to
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provide the customer time to browse and ask for assistance. Some indicated that they did not
offer advice if their perception was that the customer did not want it. This perception also
varied by the store type and target market. The designer store indicated that customers always
expected advice on fit which was provided whereas the other stores indicated a larger
variation in perceived customer expectations. Regular customers were likely to expect advice
on fit and accept the advice.

Sales persons sizing and fit assessment skills

Providing advice on fit to customers were seen to be important for customer satisfaction and
building repeat business. Though the provision of advice is considered an important skill, this
is expected to be gained on the job by the sales person. Formal training tended not to be
given, but information on intended look of the range was sometimes supplied. When
recruiting new sales persons, paradoxically three stores expected them to already have some
experience and skills in assessing fit, but the other three stores cited people skills and a
passion for fashion as more important than fit experience. Overall, personality and people
skills were more highly rated than fit expertise and specific product knowledge.


Implications

The main finding that appears to emerge is that variation in sizes for apparel and consequent
fit related problems for the customer is seen as an opportunity for the retailer to provide a
service to the customer and hence is not seen as a problem. Despite the identification of this
unique role of the retailer, systematic development of the required skills of fit assessment is
not undertaken by the employer but is largely left to the individual. Traditional thinking on
sales people profile and skills are seen to be dominant. The retailer perception is that
customer purchase behaviour seems to vary according to the target market and type of item
purchased. It appears that size and fit assessment in a retail context represents a core issue in
apparel marketing that deserves further investigation.

Future research

The central role of size and fit assessment in the apparel retailing context needs to be
established .This would necessitate the validation of these findings through a quantitative
study. Since the third party to be affected by apparel size designations are the consumers,
additional research on how consumers perceive sizing issues and its impact on purchase
decision making also needs to be investigated.
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