Fitting rooms go high tech
Imagine a fitting room with a "smart" mirror. It can suggest jeans to go with the red shirt you brought in. It snaps a video. The video allows you to compare the image side-by-side with other colorful shirts you try on. It might even show you how the shirt will fit. It will do it without you having to change.
A handful of retailers, including Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, are testing versions of this high-tech fitting room. Experts say most people will be able to try these innovations at more stores in the next few years. It will happen as the technology gets cheaper.
This trend is a way stores aim to catch up to online rivals like Amazon.com. Online, companies are able to gather information. It can tell them which items shoppers browse. The companies can use that information. They can recommend other products. The new technology raises privacy questions. But executives say customers are offered a choice. And their data is protected.
The fitting room is an often-forgotten space in a store. Now retailers are starting to tap into the significant role the fitting room can play. After all, it is where many of us make our purchase decisions.
Just consider these statistics. Thirty-six percent of store browsers wind up buying something. And 71 percent of shoppers who try on clothes in the fitting room become buyers. That is according to Paco Underhill, a retail consultant. Yet the typical fitting room isn't always inviting. Only about 28 percent of shoppers even walk into a dressing room of a typical clothing chain, Underhill says.
"The dressing room experience in many places has been close to miserable," Underhill said. "There's bad lighting. They're dirty. And they have poor service."
Some companies are working to change that impression. Later this year, Big Space, a technology company, plans to test a new mirror. It will recognize the gender of a customer. It can make recommendations based on that. Customers also will be able to request or purchase the items directly from the mirror. They can even have them shipped.
Other technologies are already being tested. In recent years, Bloomingdale's and Top Shop have tested new technology. It enables shoppers to see how they look in an outfit. They can do it without trying it on.
The patented MemoryMirror comes from a Palo Alto, California-based company called MemoMi. It is one of the most advanced in this so-called virtual dressing. This feature is expected to be tested in U.S. stores this year. The mirror is outfitted with sensors. They set off motion-triggered changes of clothing. MemoryMirror uses pixel technology. It captures even small details such as a wrinkle on a skirt as it moves.
For those trying on the clothing, the mirror also doubles as a video camera. It can capture a 360-degree view of what an outfit looks like and make side-by-side comparisons. Shoppers can replay the video. They can also share it with friends.
Earlier this year, Neiman Marcus rolled out the MemoryMirror. It is outside fitting rooms in three of its locations. They are in Walnut Creek, California; San Francisco and the Dallas suburb of Willow Bend. It is considering activating the "virtual dressing" feature.
John Koryl is president of Neiman Marcus stores and online. He said the mirror allows the retailer to have specific information regarding who tried on the dress and bought it for the first time. He said shoppers must register for a unique account with their email address to use the mirror's features. Any data collected on the mirror's usage is anonymous and aggregated, he said.
A division of online seller eBay that's called eBay Enterprise specializes in providing retail technology and service. It also has fitting-room technology that some stores are testing. Designer Rebecca Minkoff's first two stores are in New York and San Francisco. They are testing the new fitting room technology that uses radio frequency identification. It embeds data in clothing tags. It will be rolling out the technology when it opens stores in Chicago and Los Angeles. That will happen later this year, says CEO Uri Minkoff.
This is how it works. A touch screen allows the customer to flip through a catalog. It will indicate which items he or she wants in the dressing room. The customer then inputs their cellphone number. The sales clerk texts when the fitting room is ready. When the shopper walks in the dressing area, the mirror recognizes the items. Then it displays the different clothing on the screen.
Minkoff said the two stores testing this technology are selling the clothing two and a half times faster than expected. Shoppers are increasing the number of items they buy by 30 percent. "We are creating dressing room therapy," said Uri Minkoff.
eBay Enterprise also is working with Nordstrom. It is helping the company understand how the technology performs on a larger scale. Nordstrom uses the mirrors in some fitting rooms in Seattle and in San Jose, California. They work a little differently. Shoppers are equipped with bar code scanning devices. They are able to see what's in stock in the dressing area.
"We will listen to the customer as they use the mirror and see what changes make sense to improve the experience," said Dan Evans. He is a spokesman for Nordstrom.
The new technology has some consumer advocates concerned.
"One assumes that the mirror is not looking back at me. Unless you are in a fairytale," said Nuala O'Connor. She is president & CEO of nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology. "People love new technology as long as they are aware of what is happening to them and have control of their data."
But some customers are embracing it. Wendy DeWald of San Francisco is one. She spent $1,000 on her first trip to the Rebecca Minkoff store.
"I'm pretty blown away," she said. "It's a toy in the dressing room. It enhances the experience."
Critical thinking challenge: Why are tests being conducted at Neiman Marcus instead of Walmart?