5 Tips for Designing Apparel That Minimizes Online Returns

We live in an increasingly digital society and with that, more and more shopping is happening online. Translating the tactile and personal nature of fashion to online selling has its challenges for fashion brands. One of the biggest challenges is how do you keep returns low when customers don’t have the opportunity to touch, feel, and try on the clothes before they buy? Good marketing images, thorough product descriptions, and great customer service can help mitigate this challenge on the sales and marketing side, but there are things even on the design side that can help as well. Here are five tips for designing apparel to sell online that will keep your return rates low.

Choose materials that feel even better in person than they look online

We’ve all ordered that garment on the internet that looked really nice and comfy only to find that the fabric feels cheap, thin, or not soft when it arrives. It is disappointing and the garment usually ends up going right back into the shipping envelope to be returned. True, it is hard to describe the feel of a fabric in words on a webpage, but put yourself in the customers’ shoes when you are selecting fabrics and other materials for your designs. Would you be pleasantly surprised by the fabric feel and quality if you pulled the finished garment out of a package? Do the product photos accurately convey what type of fabric the garment truly is? In addition to designing with quality materials, make sure to wash test your sample fabrics before you make your final decision. If the fabric loses its desired hand feel or shrinks massively on the first wash, this could lead to increased returns as well. 

Implement thorough quality standards

Since online customers aren’t able to touch and see the garment in person before purchasing, looking at the price is one of the only ways they can gauge the quality of the garment. Just like with the material quality, you don’t want your customers to expect one thing and receive something different. The tidiness of the construction, stitching, and presentation should match the expectation that your prices and product photos on your site set. Throughout your design, development, and production processes, implementing quality standards will help you control the quality of the products you ship out to make sure that every customer is happy. These standards can include things like stitch quality, the type of construction used to sew the garment, the tolerance for size specifications, and notion placement as well as final inspection for things like pressing, packaging, or loose threads.

Create consistent sizing

Without a fitting room at their disposal, online customers will have to go off of your brand’s size chart to decide what size they should order. Even if you provide a thorough size chart, choosing the right size online is difficult or confusing for many people. One way to help with this is to create consistent fit and sizing across your whole brand. That way if a customer fits a size large in one of your designs, they will fit a large in other styles that you offer. This is not to say that you can’t have some styles that are supposed to be more fitted or more boxy, but that the fit and sizing is consistent between styles for the intended look. This can take some of the guesswork out of choosing the proper size online as well reduce the likelihood of a customer ordering multiple sizes of the same garment to try on at home.

Make sure the fit is spot on

If you’ve been around me for a while, you know that good fit is something I talk about a lot. I think it is so important to the success of a garment as well as the success of your fashion brand. No matter how beautiful a design is on a hanger or model, if it doesn’t fit your customer, it’s going to be returned. Working with a good patternmaker on the development of your designs is crucial to making them fit like a glove. In addition, nailing the fit is another good reason to really know your customer base well. If you don’t know who you are designing for, your patternmaker will not know who the garment is supposed to fit. Being super clear about who your target customer is will help hone the fit of your designs as well as help you craft marketing messaging that speaks to that perfect customer – making it more likely that when they order your product, it will be a perfect fit they want to keep.

Design for easy alterations

Depending on the price point and type of clothing you are designing, it may make sense for you to design it in such a way that makes it easy to alter. Dressier, more expensive garments like blazers, dress pants, formal gowns, etc. commonly need alterations. No two bodies are alike, so even if your fit is good, there will still be some people that require alterations for a tailored fit. Designing with alterations in mind can make alterations more cost-effective for your customer  – hopefully convincing them to keep the garment instead of just returning it. 

Being successful selling online is becoming more of a necessity for fashion brands – and keeping returns down is part of that success. With these tips, you’ll be able to design with online selling in mind.


Debra Siemens

5:36 am November 20, 2020

I enjoyed the details of this article and found it a useful reference in helping to refine my line. My question to you is: How do you design for possible future alterations?


11:37 am November 24, 2020

Hi Debra, Great question! It depends on the garment itself, but it can be things like including seams where common alteration areas are or sewing seams in a different order to make it easier to alter. For example, a common alteration for pants is to take in the center back. If you design the pant with a center back seam on the waistband, it makes that alteration much easier than on a pant with no center back waistband seam. Another commonly needed alteration is to shorten the waist/rise on a jumpsuit. On a jumpsuit with no waist seam, this can be very tricky or impossible. If there is a waist seam where the pant part attaches to the bodice, it is much easier. Even something like the placement of a zipper on a skirt, for example, could make a difference in alterations. For width alterations, it is easiest to take in the side seams. If there is a side zipper, though, that can add complexity to the alteration. If the zipper is in the center back, though, you don't have to mess with the zipper at all when doing that width alteration on the sides. In special occasion dresses, it is common to have the side seams and center back seam include a wider seam allowance to allow for bigger alternation adjustments. Also, the side seams may be sewn last to make it easier to take in or let out those side seams. Bridal, bridesmaids, and men's suit pants are a great reference for garments that are made to be altered easily. I hope that helps! It is not an exact science, but more thinking through the end use of the garment and understanding where and how common alterations are done.

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