Fashion might not be rocket science, but this rocket scientist has plenty to teach the industry.
Alper Aydemir, co-founder and CEO of leading in-store 3D foot-scanning company Volumental, explains how the technology—now available in 46 countries and with 35 million foot scans to its name—boosts fit, customer loyalty and retail assortment strategies.
Sourcing Journal: You came into the fashion industry via NASA and Google, so quite the tech pedigree. What made you transition into and retail?
Alper Aydemir: I got my PhD on machine learning, computer vision and AI at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology and worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory running the computer vision group. I had worked on a lot of 3D scanning and 3D measurement projects like self-driving cars and robots and was part of the early team in Google’s Project Tango, which evolved into the augmented reality AR toolkit shipped with every Android phone. But I decided to drop out of that Silicon Valley tech/machine learning robotics world and build products that could scale to millions of people and solve problems. The technologies are very much related to each other—it’s about how computers see the world in 3D and make sense of it.
Coming from the tech world, fashion’s slower adaption of technology must be challenging…
AA: Yes. Our main competition doesn’t come from another company, but rather people trying to wrap their heads around technology. The push toward digitalization takes time. A lot of people and teams need to be involved and get onboarded to our solution. The main challenge we see is inertia of not wanting to change.
What differentiates Volumental from other fit tech brands on the market?
AA: We are not an insole or footwear company trying to do tech. We are a tech company through and through and it’s our DNA. In addition to bringing best practices, we work with 90-plus customers in so many geographies and we have been through so many deployments and usage patterns. We’re able to bring these learnings to the entire industry and we work in a consultative way.
How much extra work must be done to onboard brands and embed data into their styles so retailers can make shoe recommendations based on a consumer’s foot scan?
AA: I really like this question because I have a great answer: They don’t need to do anything! And that’s one of the things that separates us from the other tech brands. We tap into our customers’ purchase transactions, and from that, we can match scans to purchases.
If you inverse that for a given shoe, we have hundreds, maybe thousands, of foot shapes that have bought that shoe in that size and haven’t returned it. From that data, our system learns that this shoe is great for people with high arches, or that shoe is great for people with narrow width, and so on—it’s automatically in the database. So, when it comes to recommendations, our system already learned that Hoka, for example, is specific to this or that type and is preferred by people of a certain characteristic. Additionally, better fits lead to fewer returns, which are costly for companies and the environment. On average, we see that stores cut their returns around 20 percent.
What about more nuanced consumer preferences?
AA: Most people are very, very consistent in their fit preferences. I may like a shoe a bit more snug but you might want it bit more roomy, with the average population somewhere in the middle. There’s a bell curve, and we can provide a size distribution that says, “70 percent of the people with this foot shape preferred a size 7, but the rest preferred 6.5,” and that way we provide both the store staff and the shopper the ability to reason about this. It really enhances the conversation.
How granular can the scanning system get? Can it drill deeper into usage, like running?
AA: The 3D scan delivers 80 to 90 percent of the insights and value. If you want to go the next 10 percent, we do offer an extra option for a dynamic analysis, but bear in mind that it takes more time. And the reality of retail is that not every salesperson can spend 20 to 30 minutes with each customer when it gets really busy. Actually, that was one of the things that surprised me about coming to the fashion industry: How demanding an environment retail can be, with the necessity to deliver on a busy shop floor on a Saturday.
Since there isn’t sales staff online, how does this in-store functionality translate to the online experience?
AA: People use the word omnichannel a lot, but this really is a true omnichannel experience. As a customer, you go to the store, get scanned and get the great experience. And by virtue of that, your online experience gets enhanced automatically. All those data points and recommendations carry to the online world for that brand or retailer.
We’ve talked a lot about how retailers are using the data, and how consumers can use it when they shop 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, but not the only, example. Fleet Feet also built a specific running style just based on the 3D scans that they had done with our solutions. All the data generated through our services are available to our partners and customers, so we have APIs and dashboards where their respective teams can make use of it. Plus, our footwear research team works with product development teams to make sense of the data so clients don’t just take a men’s style and “pink and shrink it” to make it for women.
We provide aggregate statistics, which is helpful for brands that sell in different parts of the world, as there are differences in Japan, Australia, China, even within different states in the United States. We published a paper in Nature magazine about our analysis on 1.2 million foot scans. Adidas cited that paper in their latest woman’s running shoe line, and to this day, it is one of Nature.com’s most downloaded papers.
Consumer acquisition costs have gone up for retailers. How does in-store foot scanning help retailers build loyalty and lifetime value?
AA: While the scan is made in the store, if a customer creates a profile, then we email the scan to the shopper. Almost everybody wants to get that because it’s about your own unique 3D project. This results in is a huge uplift in loyalty program onboardings and building that customer custom profile.
Otherwise, it’s hard to get somebody to give out their real email address on a retail floor. Most retailers put like a $20 to $35 value on that because they have to give discounts and free items to get 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 on average 70 percent email capture rates, whereas regular retail is like 10 percent, and then we see that another 75 percent of people actually click on that email and open the link.
But by virtue of doing this build, you get valuable information on your shoppers, their email address, their profile information and the shape of their feet, and you can use that in so many different ways. It’s a powerful loyalty building feature. It also helps the stores assort merchandise better as they learn more about preference and fit.
Will consumers be able to use their scan information online with other Volumental partners to get recommendations?
AA: This is something we are rolling out and where I see the future. The end game is you should be able to use your Volumental profile and shop wherever you want and find the things that fit you best.
What else does the future hold? What about body scanning for apparel?
AA: Our vision at Volumental is to shape a future free from sizes where every body fits—and that’s every body, two words. We have the world’s largest foot scan database, and that allows us to build and train the best AI algorithms and use the latest AI toolkits that Apple and Google are putting in their latest phones. So yes, we are working on the latest and greatest of what technology can offer when it comes to mobile scanning.
But we’re also believers in the natural progression. Maybe it comes from NASA tradition, but I’m a big believer in “get the primary mission done first,” and for us, that is footwear.