Choosing a bra: Personal fitter vs. online algorithm

According to Yelp, the best "all-around" bra fitters in San Francisco are at Nordstrom. So I called their corporate office with a proposition: a face-off between their best bra fitter and the algorithm from True&Co., a personalized online bra shop.

They took the challenge and sent me Courtney Kolb. She measured my chest. Then, very discreetly eyeballed my "shape." Not quite sure how an algorithm does that... but Michelle Lam, co-founder of True&Co., has spent a lot of time trying to figure out.

"The very best bra fitters had pattern recognition or a set of unwritten rules that they would use to size women," says Lam, who spent a year studying bra-fitters with True&Co. co-founder Aarthi Ramamurthy.

"So all women fall under four different types. You can either be a round, you can be a side, you can be a bottom or you can be a sides and bottom," says Ramamurthy.

At True&Co.'s website, once you click on the picture that best shows your shape, the site goes on to ask you a dozen more questions. Some of those questions include: Have you gained weight, have you lost weight, have you become pregnant, have you given birth?

"We [also] ask you about your shoulder straps -- a lot of women say they slip off, and other women tell us they dig in," says Lam.

All this information gets fed to the algorithm, which at its most basic is a series of rules that solve a problem. Once the algorithm crunches the data, the website suggests about a dozen bras that are supposed to fit me. I pick three bras; True&Co. chooses two for me. The whole process lasts about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, at Nordstrom, I asked bra fitter Courtney Kolb if she has any non-underwire bras.

"Yes, I actually brought you a selection because you weren't wearing a bra with underwire and then I did bring you two others," she said.

That's something an algorithm wouldn't have noticed.

"Totally, based on what I knew from talking to you about what you liked, what your style was, those weren't things you said to me," said Kolb.

I bought one she brought me called the Natori Feathers bra because it was stylish, but not too girly. And I bought two others.

Back at home, about a week later, I received a package from True&Co. They sent me five bras. I chose three and they chose two. Only one came without an underwire -- but it was the most comfortable bra of them all. I bought it and a frilly red one, just to mix things up.

So the final tally is Nordstrom: 3, True&Co:2.

And I'm out $250.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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