Getting the size right when selling clothes online is a big challenge, and can be more so with women's clothing. Furthermore, brands tend to mix up sizes which aren't universal, so that a size in one brand doesn't fit the same women as the same size in a different brand. As a result, return rates for online sales of women's apparel are high, which costs retailers both directly (because they pay for the shipping and repackaging), and indirectly (because customer satisfaction is diminished).

Purely online merchants have tried to reduce the return rate by modeling clothes online. A good example of such a company is UK-based Knickerpicker, whose website features women with different body types showing off underwear.

Merchants with both a store and an online presence have taken a different approach - one that has kicked off one of the biggest trends in retail clothing: blending online sales with in-store sales.

Brick and clicks, as this second group of retailers are frequently called, are working to provide customers with three ways of mixing online and in-store shopping.

  • The first is to allow customers to shop online and then come into the store to pick up the products.
  • The second is to let customers select clothes online and then come into the store to try them on.
  • The third is for customers to try clothes on in the store and then buy them (or similar items) online.

A good example of a brick and click company that is working hard to overcome the technical challenges of blending customer experiences is US-based Chico's FAS, with four brands of women's clothing: Chico's, White House | Black Market, Soma Intimates, and Boston Proper.

Chico's FAS CIO Eric Singleton says they are now deploying a solution to their 20,000 sales associates, and it's based on iPad mini. According to Singleton: "It's a very robust customer relationship management solution that reaches into the cloud infrastructure that we've engineered, so that when a customer walks into the store, we have at our fingertips a myriad of information that our associates can see about her to initiate a discussion. This gives the associate a better opportunity to provide what we call, 'Most Amazing Personal Service'."

The Chico's solution requires just the right device. One could never ask a sales person to walk around all day holding a larger, heavier computer that would probably cause physical stress. On the other hand, the device must have enough screen real estate to entice customers to turn their attention away from the clothes in front of them in the store and look instead at pictures of clothes on the device. Finally, both the hardware and the operating system need to be easy to use.

Singleton said: "We had data that told us the adoption rate by the associates would be significantly higher with iPad mini than it would be with another device, such as the iPad air for instance. The mini is smaller, lighter, and more cozy to have with you all day. Other devices are larger, heavier, and a bit more of an effort."

Of course the iPad mini is not the be all and end all of mobile devices. A whole new generation of small computers - and even wearables - will be out before we know it. We might also see a tighter link between the consumer's own mobile device and in-store computer equipment.

Change happens fast. Today's leaders need to keep a close eye on the newest technology and what it might do to change their industry. Not one to skirt a challenge, Singleton says: "Keep an eye on what we're doing in the second half of this year. We have a lot of very exciting stuff on our release schedule."