Why you should care

There’s Web-connected tech next to where you’re getting undressed. Need we say more?

How’s this for a fresh changing-room experience: whipping off your pants while being surrounded by a panoramic view of mountaintops as the wind howls around you.

It’s just one of the many ideas that clothing companies have hatched as they look to overhaul the staid changing-room experience. In this case, an IT innovation manager at Adidas demonstrated an award-winning concept in Germany — complete with a 3-D environment that automatically places a shopper in a virtual world tied specifically to the product he or she walks into a dressing room with. (Think of a beach-side view as you squeeze into a pair of tight tropical shorts.) And with more than $50 billion in sales on the line during Black Friday last weekend, some stores pulled out all sorts of high-tech stops to bring in customers.

Shoppers at Bloomingdale’s in Palo Alto, for example, who needed a different blouse size could request one via a wall-mounted iPad right inside the fitting room, while visitors to Rebecca Minkoff’s new store in New York used a 122-inch high-def screen to pick new outfits and received text-message alerts when changing rooms became available. Meanwhile, Diesel is experimenting with new social media features, including one that lets shoppers share photos of what they look like — live from the fitting room — so that their fashion-forward friends can weigh in. (No bulge shots, guys, please.)

Of course, whether or not any of this ultimately makes a purchasing decision any easier is of secondary importance — some shoppers would just find these kinds of options fun to use. And to some retailers, that might be enough to secure a much-needed sale. After all, online competitors have been stepping in and nabbing customers. (Alibaba, anyone?) At the same time, companies such as Amazon and the Germany-based Otto, which operates in more than 20 countries, are also arming themselves with billion-euro investments in increasingly high-performing distribution centers and sophisticated apps for acquiring more customers — and greater market share. So as this corner of the industry continues to grow, traditional retailers can’t afford flawed fitting rooms. “Right now it’s a battle to survive among brick and mortar,” says James Hood, founder and editor of the advocacy group ConsumerAffairs.com. The technology, he notes, is a “luxury.”

Many of today’s advancements are based on RFID, or radio-frequency identification technology. Each piece of clothing is outfitted with a transponder, and a reading device in the fitting room (or elsewhere) wirelessly reads the information stored and can start certain functions when activated — like bringing to life that panoramic mountaintop view when a certain jacket is brought in. This also means that stores can flash tempting offers about a new pair of gloves or hat to match that jacket, and they can track not only what sizes shoppers tried on and what they ultimately bought, but also what they didn’t buy.

Technology next to naked people. No wonder people are nervous.

It is a much better alternative, some say, than that familiar scene many shoppers are accustomed to when they walk into a store and want to try something on. Whether it’s located near Cologne, Minn. (population 1,519 but just a half-hour drive from the Mall of America), or in the heart of Cologne, Germany, a fitting room “experience” often means being met by an unfriendly sign limiting how many items can be taken inside a curtained area (or, if you’re lucky, a small room with a hinged door high enough for a child to crawl under), that faint sweaty odor reminiscent of a locker room and those overhead lights that cast a pale glow over everything. Indeed, in a survey that asked 65,000 consumers which experience they found least satisfactory while shopping, the number one complaint boiled down to the fitting room, according to research from Synovate and Philips, the lighting company. “This is where the purchase decision is taken,” says Andreas Steinle, managing director of the Future Institute, a think tank based in Kelkheim, Germany. “Here, especially, the goods have to be presented in their best light.” Instead, he adds, many shoppers leave disillusioned.

In pilot projects where changing-room lights were adapted to conjure up beach- or office-like atmospheres, or light that mimicked winter or summer conditions, sales supposedly increased by at least 15 percent, according to the survey from Philips, which certainly aims to benefit if more retailers move in this direction. No one, though, has found the perfect solution for fitting-room design woes — yet. And even some concepts that have been percolating for some time now have proved to be a bust at some high-end boutiques. “It’s been a little slow to catch on,” says Sam Craig, director of the Entertainment, Media & Technology program at NYU Stern School of Business.

Then there are the obvious privacy concerns. “What’s frightening about the word ‘technology’ next to ‘fitting room’ is people are naked,” says Houman Salem, founder and CEO of Argyle Partners, a retail management consulting firm. “I can see why people are nervous.” Indeed, the futurologist Steinle argues that the most important element of this new changing-room experience is that customers feel at ease. “That’s more important than any technology.”

Meghan Walsh contributed reporting.

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