Chief technology officer Jim Downing explains how Metail is helping shoppers to see how the clothes they’re viewing on a website will fit them in real life.
Returning unwanted items costs the online retail industry £20b a year and the problem looks likely to get larger.
Chief technology officer Jim Downing and his colleagues at scale-up Metail may have come up with the answer. The company has developed technology that allows customers to see how clothes being sold on websites will fit their body shape.
The firm takes photographs of thousands of garments from six angles and then uploads the information to the cloud. Shoppers then type their dimensions – into a retailer’s website and then Metail’s software produces an image that shows how the item in question would fit.
Founder Tom Adeyoola came up with the idea for Metail in 2008 and teamed up with Duncan Robertson to test whether there was a commercial demand for the concept, filing their first patent in 2009. Downing joined in 2010 and the team spent the following two years developing its software.
Tesco’s F&F fashion brand became the first paying customer in 2012 and the company has been going from strength-to-strength ever since. The firm now has 60 members of staff.
As well as its technology office in Cambridge, the company has a base in London and offices in Singapore and Seoul in South Korea. Metail also outsources some of its work to a partner based at Bangalore in India, giving it scale beyond its size.
Some of its biggest customers include Abof in India and Adayroi in Vietnam, along with clients in Singapore and Taiwan.
Opening a base in South Korea will allow the firm to expand into another fashion-conscious market.
“There are some interesting differences when it comes to doing business in Asia,” Downing explains. “The position in which our technology normally sits on a UK webpage is one of the prime advertising positions in Asia, which retailers can’t give away, so we’ve had to adapt to that.
“There are also issues when it comes to gathering data. Customers in India, for example, won’t know their western bra size, so we ask for an over-clothes bust measurement instead.
“Asia isn’t just one market, so there are technical differences too. In South Korea, many shoppers have the very latest high-end handsets and access to internet speeds of 150Mb/s on their mobile phones – but in India, many people will only have very basic entry-level Android phones and so their experiences are completely different.
“Languages are also a hurdle. We need to rewrite the instructions, but make sure they cater for any cultural subtleties.
Metail is using Amazon Web Services, which helps to make its technology available more quickly around the world. A service location has been established in Singapore, with the option of taking space in Tokyo too.
If the company starts working with a retailer in a new location then it can have access up and running within about six hours. Next on the international expansion hit list are Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
Further improvements to the technology itself are also under development. “At the moment, we offer what you could call 2.5-dimensional images,” says Downing. “The next step is to offer three-dimensional images by taking more photos of the garments. That will allow us to offer complete 360-degree views of the clothes.
“I’m very lucky as CTO because I can ring-fence money for research and development (R&D). Intellectual property (IP) and innovation are at the heart of the business and Tom and the rest of the board recognise that, which makes it much easier for me.
“Having spent the first two years with the company investing heavily in R&D, it’s become an important part of our model.
“Along the way, we’ve also won a number of grants from the old Technology Strategy Board and then later Innovate UK. We’ve also made good use of the R&D tax credits system.”
He was working as a software officer at the University of Cambridge before joining Metail. “I had worked for a tech start-up after graduating from university,” he explains. “I’d wanted to get back into that space.
“Duncan and I knew each other from windsurfing together. Metail felt like the right company because I trusted the founders, I could see the commercial demand for their product and the technology is truly innovative and has many applications.”
As well as honing its technology, Metail also has plans to develop the vast amounts of data that it has created. “The data analytics that we’ve carried out could be used by retailers to improve their marketing to customers and the designs for their ranges,” Jim points out. “Ultimately, the data about measurements could also help retailers to adjust the sizes of their clothes so they fit their customers better. That’s an exciting possibility.”
A further development could come around helping retailers to capture more data about returns. “When I took those trousers back to the shop to return them, I gave the shop assistant a very detailed description about why they didn’t fit, so that they could feed it back to the company,” Jim explains.
“When I asked to see what they’d inputted into the computer system, they said that all they’d done was tick the box that said ‘Unwanted item’ because that’s what they did for all returned clothing. All that very rich and detailed data on why items are returned is being lost.
“We’re starting to work with shops and third parties to begin to capture that information, which should help to improve the whole process. We can use machine learning to help spot patterns. There’s a real ecosystem growing up around how companies can be smart in the way in which they handle data.”
One of the more unusual applications of Metail’s technology came on the television programme Good Morning back in 2013.
“That was one of my favourite projects,” smiles Jim. “It was a feature called ‘Takeover the makeover’. Good Morning selected one of its viewers to come to the studio and have a makeover.
“We scanned 30 or 40 items of clothing so we could use split screen technology to show viewers at home what the person in the studio would look like wearing those clothes. In the days running up to the programme, viewers at home had to suggest which outfits might suit the person and then on the day the person had to choose what they liked best – the clothes chosen by the fashion expert in the studio or those chosen by the other viewers at home.”
A quick look around the offices of most tech companies will prove that they live up to the stereotype of their staff wearing jeans and T-shirts. So, has working with so many fashion retailers improved Jim’s dress sense?
“If anything, I’ve got more casual since joining Metail,” he laughs. “Working for a tech start-up is all-consuming, so it doesn’t leave much time to think about buying fashionable clothes.”
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