What size are you? It may seem like a really silly question to answer, but sizing answers tend to be either abstract or unhelpfully specific. “I’m a medium” is a highly culturally dependent way to describe your own sizing. People visiting a culture where the average body size is smaller than their home market may find the local concept of ‘medium’ laughably small.
A Chinese ‘Large’ is an international ‘Medium’ or a ‘10’ in UK sizing. European foot measurements make no sense to people outside Europe. It’s irritating for customers in an increasingly globalised world.
Clothing sizing may seem like a trivial concern but it’s been the hill that many international clothing brands have come to die on. Banana Republic gave UK consumers clothing size options they couldn’t understand and this was cited as one of the reasons the brand’s UK venture failed.
Slim-fit, true-to-size Zara is having trouble breaking into the US market, which is accustomed to roomier clothing and generous sizing. While Marks and Spencer are thought to have offered clothing that was simply too big for smaller Chinese frames when it entered China’s market.
The fact is, Western body types tend to be larger than those in Eastern markets including Korea, Japan and China. A 2008 study by Alvanon found that the average Chinese woman is 5’4″ tall and weighs 8.9 stones (125 pounds). The average American woman was the same height but just over 11 stones (155 pounds). American men were only 1cm taller than Chinese men on average, but over 3 stones (46 pounds) heavier.
But it’s not just about body size, it’s also about shape and proportions. The same study showed a 6-inch difference in the chest and waist measurements between US and Chinese women and a 7-inch difference in the lower hip.
Brands that take existing shapes and patterns into different markets may find their clothes don’t fit new customers as well as they do in home markets. Understanding how to communicate to the customer what size they should pick is an important part of making the clothing acceptable in these new markets.
Vanity sizing just doesn’t work in China’s market. This approach – putting lower clothing sizing on larger clothes to flatter weight-conscious customers – is popular in Western markets where sizing has become much more generous since the mid-seventies.
As body sizes have grown, many US retailers have ceased offering clothing in XS sizing in their home markets. Yet in China, it’s these smaller sizes that are most popular. Western retailers entering the market have to either make their lower sizes smaller or introduce new XXS sizes that Chinese customers may not understand.
Make it simple
The best thing you can do is make clothing sizing understandable to your customer without any need to check sizing, or even think about it. The customer would much prefer to know they are a size M, and always buy clothing in that size everywhere they shop – even whilst on holiday on the other side of the world. But that isn’t a realistic prospect for many retailers.
Brands that are committed to international retail often choose to offer multiple size measurements on their labels covering their major markets. This might include the EU, UK and US sizes in one label format.
When customers shop online, they want to see that information up front on the product page. Make sure that it’s easy for the user to find the size in their preferred format. It’s also important to show them which format you’re using – a Japanese customer might need help understanding that a US size M is actually a larger size for them.
It’s also really important to be internally consistent with your sizing. If you’re lucky enough to have loyal customers that repeatedly buy from you, don’t frustrate them by inconsistencies in the sizing of your clothing.
Investigations into popular high street clothing retailers Zara and H&M found that clothing varied wildly even within that one brand, with people finding they fit a size M in some items but an ‘S’ in others. Inconsistent sizing like this won’t help them order more items from you online and will increase your rate of returns.
Faced with this situation, customers inevitably start buying various sizes online with the aim of returning whichever one doesn’t fit right.
As eCommerce continues to develop, some brands are coming up with innovative approaches to sizing in the hope of reducing size-related returns. Good American, the clothing brand associated with celebrity nonentities the Kardashian family, noticed that it was getting most returns for jeans in sizes 14 and 16. Its solution was to invent a new clothing size, the 15, in the hope of catering to consumers who weren’t sure which they were (and reducing returns).
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The best solution would be for international retailers to agree on a consistent sizing approach. There have even been attempts at implementing this, at least at market level. This summer The Sunday Times announced that clothing retailers had agreed to take part in a study that might standardise sizes.
With online returns a serious problem for all players in the clothing industry, everyone is incentivised to fix this problem once and for all.
It can be helpful to think of sizing as a language. Customers speak one language, and it’s a terrible idea to expect them to adapt to speaking a different one just so they can buy from you. If you really want to stick to your language, you need to provide a translation that customers can understand.
Many brands have made the mistake of expecting customers to put high effort into deciphering their sizing guide. Don’t ever make your customers have to google what your sizing means, or go out and buy a tape measure just so they can understand how you’re communicating with them.
You may need to get creative to overcome the sizing hurdle. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the issue. Many a brand has underestimated how important the sizing issue would be to its success in a new market.