What Volumetric Foot Scanning System Can Teach Retail – Sourcing Journal
Fashion may not be rocket science, but this rocket scientist has a lot to teach the industry.
Alper Aydemir, co-founder and CEO of Volumental, a leading in-store foot scanning company, explains how the technology, now available in 46 countries and with 35 million foot scans to its credit, is improving the fit, customer loyalty and retail assortment strategies.
Sourcing Journal: You entered the fashion industry via NASA and Google, so quite a technological pedigree. What made you move into retail?
Alper Aydemir: I did my PhD on machine learning, computer vision and AI at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory leading the computer vision group. I had worked on many 3D scanning and measurement projects, such as autonomous cars and robots, and was part of the first team of Google’s Tango project, which evolved into the toolkit of AR augmented reality comes with every Android phone. But I decided to ditch this world of Silicon Valley tech/machine learning robotics and create products that could scale to millions of people and solve problems. The technologies are very intertwined – it’s about how computers see the world in 3D and make sense of it.
Coming from the world of technology, the slower adaptation of fashion to technology must be difficult…
AA: Yes. Our main competition is not from another company, but rather from people trying to understand the technology. The push towards digitization takes time. Many people and teams need to get involved and integrate with our solution. The main challenge we see is the inertia of not wanting to change.
What makes Volumental different from other fit tech brands on the market?
AA: We are not an insole or shoe company trying to make technology. We’re an end-to-end technology company and that’s our DNA. In addition to bringing best practices, we work with over 90 customers in many geographies and have experienced many deployments and usage patterns. We are able to bring these learnings to the wider industry and we work in a consultative manner.
How much more work needs to be done to integrate brands and embed data into their styles so retailers can make shoe recommendations based on analysis of a consumer’s feet?
AA: I really like this question because I have a great answer: they have nothing to do! And that’s one of the things that separates us from other tech brands. We tap into our customers’ purchase transactions and from there we can match scans to purchases.
If you reverse that for any given shoe, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of foot shapes that have purchased that shoe in that size and have not returned it. From this data, our system learns that this shoe is ideal for people with a high arch, or this shoe is ideal for people with a narrow width, etc. It is automatically in the database. So, when it comes to recommendations, our system has already learned that Hoka, for example, is specific to this or that type and is preferred by people of a certain characteristic. Plus, better fits lead to fewer returns, which is costly to business and the environment. On average, we find that stores reduce their returns by around 20%.
What about more nuanced consumer preferences?
AA: Most people are very, very consistent in their fit preferences. I might like a shoe that’s a little more comfortable, but you might want it to be a little roomier, with the average population somewhere in the middle. There is a bell curve, and we can provide a size distribution that says “70% of people with this foot shape prefer a size 7, but the rest prefer a size 6.5”. This way we provide both the store staff and the buyer the ability to reason about it. It really improves the conversation.
What is the granularity of the scanning system? Can it deepen the use, such as running?
AA: 3D scanning provides 80-90% of the information and value. If you want to reach the next 10%, we offer an additional option for dynamic analysis, but keep in mind that this takes longer. And the reality of retail is that not every salesperson can spend 20-30 minutes with every customer when it’s really busy. In fact, that’s one of the things that surprised me about coming to the fashion industry: how demanding a retail environment can be, with the need to deliver to a busy store on Saturday.
Since there are no online sales staff, how does this in-store functionality translate to the online experience?
AA: People use the word omnichannel a lot, but it really is a true omnichannel experience. As a customer, you go to the store, get scanned, and have a great experience. And thanks to this, your online experience is automatically improved. All of these data points and recommendations are passed on to the online world for that brand or retailer.
We’ve talked a lot about how retailers use data and how consumers can use it when shopping online. But how are brands using all this data for future development, like Lululemon’s expansion into women’s running shoes?
AA: Lululemon is one example, but not the only one. Fleet Feet also created a specific racing style based solely on the 3D scans they had done with our solutions. All data generated by our services is available to our partners and customers, so we have APIs and dashboards where their respective teams can make use of it. Additionally, our footwear research team works with product development teams to make sense of the data so customers don’t just take a masculine style and “pink it up and shrink it” to make it for the women.
We provide aggregate statistics which is useful for brands that sell in different parts of the world, as there are differences in Japan, Australia, China, even within different states of the United States. We published an article in Nature magazine about our analysis of 1.2 million foot scans. Adidas featured this article in their latest line of women’s running shoes, and to date, it’s one of Nature.com’s most downloaded articles.
Consumer acquisition costs have increased for retailers. How does in-store foot scanning help retailers build loyalty and create lifetime value?
AA: While the scan is being performed in the store, if a customer creates a profile, we email the scan to the customer. Almost everyone wants to get it because it’s your own unique 3D project. This translates into a huge increase in loyalty program integrations and the creation of that personalized customer profile.
Otherwise, it’s hard to get someone to give out their real email address in a retail store. Most retailers put $20-35 worth of this because they have to offer discounts and free items to entice people to sign up, but with our solution, you essentially get it for free. And people want to get it in their inbox. We see email capture rates of 70% on average, where normal retail is around 10%, and then we see an additional 75% of people click on that email and open the link .
But with this build, you get valuable information about your buyers, their email address, profile information, and the shape of their feet, and you can use it in a variety of ways. This is a powerful loyalty feature. It also helps stores better match merchandise as they learn more about preferences and fit.
Will consumers be able to use their online analytics information with other Volumental partners for recommendations?
AA: This is something we are rolling out and where I see the future. The end game is that you should be able to use your Volumental profile and shop wherever you want and find the things that suit you best.
What else does the future hold for us? What about body scanning for clothing?
AA: Our vision at Volumental is to shape a future without sizes where every body fits – and that is every body, in a nutshell. We have the largest foot analysis database in the world, which allows us to create and train the best AI algorithms and use the latest AI toolkits that Apple and Google put out in their latest phones. So yes, we are working on the latest and greatest in mobile scanning technology.
But we also believe in natural progression. It may come from NASA tradition, but I’m a big believer in “do the primary mission first,” and for us, that’s the shoe.