Tech Tackles the Fitting Room

Published April 19, 2017
By Poornima Apte

Smart dressing rooms and digital mirrors are coming to make trying stuff on less of a hassle.

You’re out shopping and you’ve spotted a dress you like. You wander on over to the fitting room to try it on — only to find that it doesn’t quite fit. What do you do now? Will you slip into your old clothes, get back out there on the floor, pick the right size, and try it on again? Michelle Tinsley, director of mobility and secure payments in the retail solutions division at Intel, predicts that unless you’re really in love with that dress, those chances are pretty slim.

The numbers back her up. Intel’s internal research found that a whopping 73 percent of the time, consumers browse online but then buy in store. “When you take that effort, you go into the store, you actually want to complete [the transaction], so you’re going to be irritated or mad if you drove all the way to the store only to be forced back online,” Tinsley says. “We found that people only go into a dressing room once and get undressed once. If they can’t get the right size and the right fit and they leave the dressing room, it’s very hard to get them to go back into the dressing room a second time.” This, for retailers, is a problem — one they’re increasingly looking to solve with technology.

“We found that people only go into a dressing room once and get undressed once... it’s very hard to get them to go back into the dressing room a second time.”

Sure, there are fitting rooms with call buttons you can push for sales help, but even such solutions are not the fix that many are looking for. Enter: the smart fitting room.

When you walk into the fitting room of the future, Tinsley explains, expect to see a mirror that will recognize the dress you bring in. The mirror will display your item, overlaying it on the screen, which would work almost like a virtual dashboard. If the dress doesn’t fit, make a request on the mirror’s interactive display for a different size or even a different color. When you do so, the sales associate on the floor will be alerted: “Nancy’s in dressing room three, she needs a size up in this dress, in this color; bring it to her now.” Even better, that call to action is moved up the queue to become the highest-priority task for the associate. The result? A new size delivered to you while you’re still likely to try it on.

How does this work? Essentially, that dress you bring into the smart fitting room is fitted with what is known as an RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag. An RFID tag reader in the fitting room scans this tag, much like a barcode. Coded into the tag is a whole host of variables, including colors and sizes, which is why the mirror shows you not just the size you picked but all the additional sizes and colors you can choose from in the store.

While these solutions are still being worked on so they can be scaled up and deployed on a large scale, luxury-space retailers like Neiman Marcus have tactics implemented today that are improving the customer experience in fitting rooms and on the store floor.

How many times have you shared a dressing room selfie with friends to get their opinions? Now, says Scott Emmons, head of Neiman Marcus’s Innovation Lab, there is a better way. With a push of a button, a smart digital mirror in a Neiman Marcus fitting room can record how you look with a 360-degree view. No more awkward questions to ask about how your... cough... derriere looks in an outfit — simply check out the video and see for yourself. You can also use this mirror to record multiple try-ons of an outfit and then stack them alongside each other to see which one you like best. Neiman Marcus uses proprietary technology from tech company Memomi for its digital mirrors.

Also possible: Try on a red dress and it shows up in the mirror as another available color — green, for instance. This magic is made possible by the power of augmented reality, which essentially superimposes data on an existing model. In this case, the color green would be transposed on the image of the dress you’re wearing to make it look green.

Neiman Marcus is gradually leveraging Memomi’s digital-mirror technology in additional ways. Looking to try on sunglasses? Especially if you’re a prescription glasses wearer, that can be a challenge: After all, how can you tell how you look in something if you don’t have your glasses on? Neiman Marcus’s countertop version of the digital mirror records your reflection in various sunglasses and plays them back so you can pick the one you like best. Essentially, it’s a series of selfies, but all stacked next to each other so you can compare and contrast. Makeup stations at Neiman are also using these digital mirrors to record applications upon customer request. If you choose to, artists can now record a makeup tutorial on the digital mirror, even breaking it down into segments — cheeks, eyes, etc. — and email you the recording to refer to at home.

Tinsley sees three important technologies as converging to enhance your in-store experience even further: RFID tags and readers, e-commerce, and artificial intelligence as applied to big data.

Michelle Bacharach leverages this convergence to solve a common question you might have when you shop: “How do I wear this?” Bacharach is the CEO of FindMine, a New York-based high-tech venture that essentially uses machine-learning algorithms and artificial intelligence to address this dilemma. FindMine is currently used by luxury menswear retailer John Varvatos for its e-commerce platform, and Bacharach says the technology is ripe for expansion to major retailers all over the United States.

FindMine is, in essence, a personal shopper. How would this play out in the store? You’ll be able to interact with a touchscreen display on the shop floor for personalized recommendations, or a sales associate might have this information in a tablet, ready to share.

Place an RFID tag on a garment and you can take it one step further. That smart fitting room can be fitted with a digital screen that lights up and recognizes the blazer you walk in with. To the right, you’ll be presented with an option to “complete the look.” If you press it, the screen shows you shoes, a dress, jewelry, and a scarf that complement your blazer. The options, Bacharach says, will be curated. You can pick the one you want (just swipe right for more choices) and have the entire ensemble — from blazer to scarf to blouse and more — delivered to your fitting room.

Such recommendations are powered by big-data analytics and artificial intelligence. FindMine incorporates a whole slew of parameters from a particular retailer — including the entire product catalog — and analyzes it by color, pattern, titles, description, price, gender, and more. These parameters are supplied by the retailer, and FindMine uses its internal expertise to suggest additional ones. The final set of processing parameters has the retailer’s blessing. Image processing plays a key role in creating look books that retailers want to present. There’s a lot of artificial intelligence and big-data crunching that happens behind the scenes to deliver those options to you.

“We use artificial intelligence, we have analytics, but those are a means to an end,” Bacharach says. “The end that we’re trying to serve is really just to help the retailer give the shopper [more of] what they need.” The end result is what is increasingly being labeled as a “frictionless” shopping experience.

“There’s a very small subset of the population that really enjoys geeking out on that sort of thing, but I think the rest of us really want to just get what we need and move on with our lives.”

There are a fair number of styling apps and startups — such as ClosetSpace, My Dressing, and Stylebook — inspired by the personal-shopping model. But, Bacharach says, the process is usually cumbersome. “You have to fill out a style profile and take a quiz and pick 10 celebrities whose style resonates with you, take a picture of everything in your closet... you have to do all this work,” she says. “There’s a very small subset of the population that really enjoys geeking out on that sort of thing, but I think the rest of us really want to just get what we need and move on with our lives. Shopping is a means to an end for me; it’s not the end in itself.” Using the retail buzzword du jour, “frictionless” is what Bacharach is looking for — and she’s betting you are too.

Andy Hobsbawm, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Evrythng, a tech company that manages data from smart products, says that you, the customer, controls the extent of your interaction with these technologies.

“It would be insane for any brand to do anything with the data without your permission and without explaining to you what they’re doing,” he says. If you do give your permission, you’re essentially buying into a value proposition: Do you want that video recording of the makeup application or a series of dress tryouts enough to share your email address so it can be emailed to you? You, as the customer, have to agree to the recording first and activate it, either through a sales associate — in the case of the makeup application — or with a mere push of a button. Most consumers, retailers are betting, will shake on the deal.

As shoppers become fluent in the language of e-commerce, they’re looking for more retail theater and expect the ease of online shopping to translate to the in-store experience, industry experts say.

Bill Toney, vice president of global RFID market development with Avery Dennison, a technology company that provides RFID solutions, predicts you’ll increasingly see seamless “omnichannel” transactions. “How do you make the in-store experience as convenient as buying online, and how do you add experiences that will be different in the store than online?” he asks. These are the challenges that retailers are looking to solve with technology. Although there’s no consensus on timing, you probably won’t have to wait too long to see these technologies implemented at your favorite retailer. Neiman Marcus has already installed digital mirrors in many stores.

Smart fitting rooms and digital mirrors powered with RFID, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and big-data analytics are all part of that theater, adding some pop to your shopping while making it as painless as possible. It’s what Michael Klein, Adobe’s director of industry strategy and marketing, calls “merchant-tainment.”

“We’re not reinventing retail; we’re just trying to make it better,” Klein says. These digital technologies, he adds, have a way of making that idea much more real and appealing.

Think about that the next time you get stuck with an ill-fitting dress in a fitting room.