BusinessApril 11, 2019

What’s my size? How StrutFit is taking the guesswork out of buying shoes online


Auckland-based tech company StrutFit allows shoppers to virtually ‘try on’ shoes. So how does it work? And what does that mean for retailers?

For eight months, I had my eye on a pair of black, patent leather boots – big, chunky, great for stomping around in. The other week, I finally plucked up the courage to hit ‘buy’, and five-to-10 business days later, they arrived at my front door. I slit open the packaging, lifted the lid, and unwrapped the leathery beauties to find… that they didn’t fit.

Oh well then, off they go, back to the retailer with return form attached. I didn’t ask for an exchange: just retrieval of my hard-earned money. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, right?

More people than ever are buying clothes and shoes online, and for good reason: it’s quicker, cheaper, and there’s more to choose from. It used to be that wanting to try things on first was a major obstacle to people purchasing on the internet. But like most things born out of convenience, people got used to it. I know I did – nowadays, I do almost 70% of my shopping online.

A lot of companies over the years have tried to fix that last hurdle with things like blended-reality and 3D body-scanning mirrors that let shoppers ‘virtually’ try on clothes. But with shoes, that same hi-tech focus has been somewhat lacking, something which Auckland-based tech company StrutFit is now looking to dramatically change.

Born out of the University of Auckland’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, StrutFit allows shoppers to virtually ‘try-on’ shoes by analysing a photo of your foot which you can take using your smartphone camera. The tech then uses deep learning (a subset of machine learning that’s often used for image recognition) to measure the length of your foot and tell you what size you should buy.

“When I first started out, it was just me wanting to try on clothes before buying them online,” says Ang Nayyar, CEO and co-founder of StrutFit. “But scanning clothes had already been done and technically, it’s actually really difficult… we [also] found some competitors who’d raised like $50 million so we thought ‘right, let’s pivot to something else’.”

Several iterations later (focusing on men’s shoes, making custom shoes at scale etc.), Strutfit pivoted to become a software platform that existing shoe retailers could use online. Currently, StrutFit is used by just a handful of brands, including longtime kids shoe makers Bobux where Nayyar actually worked at for about a year. Sam Burton, design and innovation manager at Bobux, says that having something like StrutFit helps in terms of growing the brand’s online presence.

“Web is really important for us. With web, we can get a lot more data about who’s buying what,” says Burton. “[For customers], it removes a lot of that uncertainty about fitting… and it’s worked really well so far, particularly with larger sizes, reducing our returns by a huge amount.”

“The biggest proportion of returns is because the customer bought the wrong size. Particularly with kids’ feet growing all the time, it’s actually a hard thing to do. People know their own foot size really well but when you’re buying for someone else, it becomes quite difficult.”

‘Deep learning’, but feet.

“We provide value [to retailers] on two fronts,” Nayyar adds. “We increase sales and we decrease returns, because the main reason why people are hesitant to make an online purchase is because they’re not sure if it’s going fit, and the main reason people make returns is because they don’t fit.”

“Then there’s the customer experience… often, when a customer gets a shoe and they have to return it, they’ll end up never shopping with them again.”

It’s an explanation that certainly applies to my own personal experience buying (and sadly, returning) my leather boots. But the question still remains: does StrutFit really work? Judging by my brief experiment trying the tech out myself (all you need is a smartphone and a plain white A4 sheet of paper to test it out) StrutFit was able to correctly guess that I was a European size 40, aka a New Zealand size nine. I also tried it out with a few of my colleagues (after much convincing that this wasn’t some weird foot fetish thing) with similarly impressive results.

But Nayyar insists that StrutFit, as we know it now, isn’t actually the final product.

For months, he and his co-founder Nishij Nimmagadda have been working to raise capital to fund StrutFit 2.0 – a more hi-tech version of the product which he insists will be a “first in the world”.

Rather than just measuring the length of your foot from a top-down photo, StrutFit 2.0 will actually take a video to get various measurements (length, width etc.) and turn it into a 3D model. It’ll then match that up to a 3D model of the inside of the shoe generated by the ‘In-Shoe Scanner’.

“Essentially, it’ll be like you’re trying on the shoe in-store,” says Nayyar. “We’ll tell you exactly what’s tight, what’s loose, and what’s going to be most comfortable. Because it’s not just about fit – it’s about comfort.”

“What we have now is brand level sizing, so we can tell you with a high degree of confidence what your size is in a Nike vs. Adidas. But what we’re building is something that will be able to tell your size in any given shoe because those shoes will be individually scanned. Not only that style of shoe, but every size in that style. So it’s like you’re trying on shoes, but imagine you can try on like a thousand shoes an hour.”

StrutFit co-founders Nishij Nimmagadda (left) and Ang Nayyar (Photo: Supplied)

“You think the Adidases and the Nikes of the world are really hi-tech, but they’re not. They send PDF files with drawings to their factories. So there’s pretty much no tech in the footwear industry. The fashion industry in general, but also the footwear industry specifically is just so low tech that they’re almost begging for someone to come in and bring it into the future.”

So far, StrutFit has raised more than $260,000 from investors like UniServices, K1W1, and even Nayyar’s own sister (“I don’t want to lose my money, but I definitely don’t want to lose hers”) to help build the new In-Shoe Scanner and make the tech commercially viable. Currently, there are four brands looking to partner with StrutFit for their initial launch, which Nayyar hints at being “the four largest footwear groups in Australasia”.

“We’ll just go with the one who can move the fastest,” he says. “The tech is in development now. We know what it’s going to look like and we know that it works. It’s just making it more robust, simple and cheap.”

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