The stay at home orders at the height of the coronavirus outbreak abruptly changed international shopping habits: a slowdown in non-food related purchases alongside a surge in online shopping. The impact was particularly felt by Yael Vizel, the CEO of Israeli startup Zeekit, whose company virtually dresses shoppers and recently, because of Covid-19, also dresses models from a distance.
Zeekit’s platform uses real-time image processing technology and augmented reality to allow its users to virtually try on an article of clothing from an online catalog. The technology is already embedded in websites belonging to Walmart, Macy’s and British retailer Asos.
Zeekit has successfully raised $15 million and is on the road to an additional round amid new partnerships with Adidas and Tommy Hilfiger. On one hand, the platform offers shoppers a virtual fitting room that allows them to see how the clothes they purchase look on them. On the other hand, its clients are major fashion chains that have found themselves in an existential crisis.
So was the outbreak good or bad for your business?
“The answer is ambivalent. People purchased less during this period and the fashion chains suffered. Fashion is unlike food or Netflix content, which flourished during the pandemic. It is one of the sectors that was harmed first since no one was leaving home and therefore had less reason to buy new clothes. But on the flip side, I couldn’t ask for a better disruption for the virtual fitting sector. The market jumped 10 years forward over the course of three months. Fashion companies underwent a revolution in regards to understanding the importance of their online activities relative to their physical stores, and from Zeekit’s perspective, it was a positive development, especially in terms of educating the market. If there were psychological barriers to online clothes shopping, they were shattered because of the circumstances,” Vizel told Calcalist. “At the end of the day, fashion companies are in crisis mode after they suffered a 60% decline in sales in the first quarter, which takes place during the spring and is traditionally a strong one for them. Fashion chains have difficulty signing long-term contracts during crises because they primarily have to worry about their own exit strategy. We are part of that industry.”
Vizel said that during the coronavirus outbreak Zeekit replaced photography studios that were meant to shoot new catalogs, but were forced to cancel because of the restrictions on proximity.
“Asos, for example, sent clothes to 30 photographers across London so they could shoot them on mannequins,” said Vizel. “We received seperate images of the clothed mannequins and the models that were taking part in the catalog and opened up a virtual dressing assembly line, in effect becoming Asos’s studio during the outbreak. You can’t tell by the final product, but every photo that was included in the catalog was made by Zeekit. The models never actually wore the clothes they appear in.”
What does such a virtual fitting room do?
“We receive images of clothing articles and put them through a digitization process. Once digitized, the clothes can then be superimposed on an endless number of models. The process’s result is as good if not better than a studio-produced image,” Vizel said. “It’s a new world of opportunities and user experience.“
Was the idea of virtually dressing models born during the outbreak?
“It’s a product that we always had, but was ranked lower down on our value offer. There is no question that Zeekit’s importance increased as a result of the pandemic. It made us an essential part of the brand rather than merely a customer experience improvement feature. When companies can’t produce images, they can’t sell their products. It took us out of the ‘nice to have’ category and into the ‘must-have’ category, which is a significant shift,” Vizel explained.
It is a very cost-efficient measure, but doesn’t it run the risk of being perceived as fake?
“We discovered that fashion chains run a monstrous, but unnecessary studio operation. The companies realized that (using Zeekit) is far more convenient, with fewer logistics and expenses, and provides them with an added value. The idea is that we allow them the option of showing what a product looks like on a variety of different models, with other measurements and skin tones. If the choice is between one photo that may be irrelevant to me as the shopper or three photos of models with different sizes, skin colors and body shapes, I’m better off with the latter.”
Vizel gained her experience in the imaging world during her military service at a special unit of the Israeli Air Force. “We conducted a topographical mapping of geographical areas and built layers of intelligence mapping on top of them. That is essentially what we are doing now. Every article of clothing is scanned and split into ten thousand small portions that allow our software to fit them perfectly on the model’s body,” she said.
Can the technology change the image to be misleadingly flattering?
“No, it is entirely objective. It doesn’t have the capacity to flatter, narrow, or make you thinner. It was created while drawing many comparisons between the digital product and the real-life one,” explained Vizel. “It is meant to function as a mirror. True there are mirrors that can distort the reflection, but we have no interest in doing that because the technology’s overall goal is to make purchases easier and reduce product returns and exchanges. According to research we conducted with two chains, using Zeekit reduces purchase returns from 38% to just 2%, which is a game-changer for the online shopping market.”
Will the surge in online shopping continue?
“Yes. The chains have also significantly upgraded their services in terms of supply chains, customer support, and product returns.”
It feels like E-commerce in Israel is trailing behind the rest of the world. Is that true?
“I disagree, it’s just that the market is very competitive. There are very powerful foreign players in the market. Another factor that can’t be ignored is that Israel is a very small country with many accessible shopping outlets. When you order an article of clothing online, you may get it within a few hours, but when you have a store that is 10 minutes away and where you can try it on in person, it’s preferable. The distribution of shopping centers in Israel is very good, relative to the population. E-commerce is generally growing in large regions, like North America and Europe, where ready access to brands may be more limited and include a trip to an outlet center that may be an hour’s drive away from home on the highway. Israel’s starting position is better,” Vizel explained.
Does that mean that Zeekit can only grow abroad?
“Without a doubt,” Vizel said. “The convenience of purchase in Israel is very high and at the end of the day customers only change their behavior because of necessity.”