Given high amount of returns, UPCload uses home webcams to take digital measurements. However, one analyst says that because clothes are very subjective, the company may have a hard time catching on.
For over a decade, online shopping has revolutionized the sale of all kinds of goods, including electronics, books and DVDs. Buying clothes, of course, is not only intensely personal, but most people want to try on their clothes first.
Often, when consumers do buy items online, they get sent back to the retailer. IBI, a research institute affiliated with the University of Regensburg, in southeastern Germany, released a study last year showing that 40 percent of all clothes bought online are returned.
Enter UPCload, a new Berlin-based startup that uses an ordinary webcam - built-in to many laptops and tablets - to scan the individual at home, while wearing tight-fitting dark clothes and a CD to hold up to the camera.
UPCload was recently voted start-up of the year by Deutsche Startups, winning 100,000 euros ($127,000) in prize money and 100,000 euros in government grants. The site is currently only in private beta, meaning it is limited to a small number of testers. But the company says it expects to launch to the public in early 2012, and wants to partner with clothing retailers.
"I think they fit in, in the place that matters most - which is technology that actually has an impact on people's everyday life," said Christoph Räthke, a well-known Berlin startup guru, who says he's impressed by what he's seen so far.
But before any sale can be made, UPCload needs to know - as a digital tailor - what the measurements of a body are.
"We have to] localize the measurement points - for example where is shoulder, where is the wrist, where is the chest and at the end you have to measure accurately and calibrate the measurements and therefore we use a CD," said Sebastian Schulz, one of UPCload's founders.
This Berlin company isn't the only startup trying to solve this problem of how to make online clothes shopping better for consumers and for retailers.
"There are different approaches - companies like Intellifit that have done like body-scanning of people in the past," explained Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst with Forrester Research in the United States.
"There are machines that you stand in and you get measured. There are companies that essentially use a form of augmented reality, where you're using a webcam and putting clothes on top of you."
The idea is that once the software has taken the measurements, it can project various clothes onto a precise representation of that person's body. That way, consumers can be - hopefully - more comfortable with buying online. In Europe, Estonian start-up Fits.Me and Dutch start-up MimicMe have already been working on similar products for years.
Sebastian Schulz, right, is one of UPCload's founders. He's hoping to cash in on online retail shopping.
But Mulpuru says that there are other variables to consider when shopping online for clothes, which may still be tough hurdles for UPCload and their competitors to overcome.
"The challenge is that dimensions are only one portion of fit," she told Deutsche Welle. "I can throw out a bunch of dimensions - whether or not a particular product is going to look good on that person, or whether or not a person is going to feel comfortable wearing that product - they're completely different questions."
That's the problem with buying clothes online - they're intensely personal. Especially for women, who tend to spend a lot more time and money buying clothes than men.
"The biggest pain in apparel e-commerce are the returns," Schulz added. "One return costs about 21 euros ($26.61) and you have an average return rate of 50 percent in Germany. That means every second clothing item is returned back to the retailer and the costs of returns are accumulated to more than 600 million euros ($762 million) in Germany [alone]."
Author: Cinnamon Nippard, Berlin
Editor: Cyrus Farivar