Can VR and 'Sexy-Time' Lighting Save Shopping?

An interactive touchable mirror, which lets people tap for a different size or color.
SourceJEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

Can VR and 'Sexy-Time' Lighting Save Shopping?

By Zara Stone


Because you can’t get the perfect fit online.

By Zara Stone

I love shopping, but I have zero patience with “helpful” sales assistants. I like browsing at my own pace, and a manicured shadow tweaking everything I touch is très annoying. That’s why I was so intrigued by the new San Francisco store of It-girl fashion brand Reformation. It promised a hands-off shopping experience with maximum privacy. No need to call an assistant to open a fitting room; just press one of the touch screens mounted on the wall and, voilà, a touch screen inside the room lets me order additional items and exchange sizes — everything delivered sans human interaction into the sealed wardrobe at the back of my cubicle. I can even adapt the lighting to suit my mood — choices are basic, cool, golden and sexy-time. If Apple sold clothes, I imagine this is what the store might look like.

Depending on your personality, this shopping experience either will seem amazing or overkill. But for many fashion retailers, this type of tech integration is a crucial part of staying relevant to a growing generation of online shoppers. Stores investing in tech to sway customers is nothing new, but it’s generally been at the back end, using heat maps and geo-mapping to predict customer trends, not forward-facing consumer tech. This transition can be attributed in part to brick-and-mortar retailers fighting back against the growth of online apparel shopping, predicted to rise 69 percent from 2015 to 2021, when it will be worth approximately $96 billion, according to market research company Statista.

If I can get a consumer to pause for four seconds, it’s a tremendous success.

Dave Marcotte, senior vice president, Kantar Retail

In the big picture, that’s probably less than 20 percent of all fashion sales, but stores are trying to shift this tide with an ever-growing array of in-house gadgetry — both to attract customers and to increase on- and off-line sales. In 2012, C&A Brazil began using clothing hangers to display the number of Facebook likes that each item received in real time. In New York, visitors at the North Face’s flagship store can slip on virtual reality headsets and explore natural wonders like Yosemite National Park. Singapore fashion store MDS focuses on the hands-off approach, letting customers scan QR codes of items they like, which a robot then delivers to the fitting room.


These options may sound gimmicky, but the theory is solid — keep customers engaged and remove pain points. “Barrier to entry is one of the easiest ways to slow business,” says Yael Aflalo, founder and CEO of Reformation. “In physical retail stores, it’s things like waiting for dressing rooms [and] waiting in line to pay.” This attention to detail saw Reformation’s sales jump 177 percent from 2013 to 2014, to the tune of $25 million, according to The New York Times. “Moving forward,” Aflalo says, “I think shoppers will continue to seek out that intersection of physical and digital in terms of e-commerce and brick-and-mortar.” 

North Face Virtual Reality

VR at North Face gives customers a view of what it’s like to rock climb or BASE jump. 

Source Christopher Gregory / Getty

Introvert-friendly fitting rooms are just the beginning. London-based startup Iconeme has created the mannequin of the future, equipping plastic golems with beacons to beam shoppers product information, accessory suggestions and even checkout options. On the retention end, smart fitting rooms are quickly becoming du jour at boutique stores. Today, many Rebecca Minkoff branches have touch-screen mirrors that allow patrons to order drinks, summon employees and ping a list of “maybe later” items to their email. American Girl has taken a different approach, using tech to make its stores a destination experience. This autumn, the company plans to roll out a redesign, starting in New York, that includes a custom app for appointment bookings at its in-store salon. Then there’s American Girl’s new media studio that provides workshops on everything from stop-motion to yoga, the goal being, its press release says, “to create an unforgettable day.” (The company declined to comment on what would make the day memorable.)

Analyst David Marcotte, senior vice president of retail insights for the Americas at Kantar Retail, isn’t convinced this is a win for retailers. “People get too entranced about technology,” he says, citing the recent furor around Amazon’s checkout-free Amazon Go store in Seattle. “The tech in the Amazon store is at least 5 years old. We already have self-checkout.” Marcotte suggests that stores focus on creating engaging digital displays. One example of a successful integration is DL961’s Digital Denim Doctor Kiosk, installed in Nordstrom’s Chicago store. Its fitting advice includes the Lycra Fit Finder, which uses 3-D scanning to recommend hosiery best suited to an individual’s body type. “If I can get a consumer to pause for four seconds, it’s a tremendous success,” Marcotte says, but he warns that it’s easy to become background noise. “Can you make it dynamic enough to keep [customers constantly] engaged?” he asks.

Back in San Francisco, marketing assistant Kate Harris, 27, is experiencing the touch-screen wonderland that is Reformation. She likes playing with the lighting (sexy-time is her favorite) and that she can order new sizes with one press. But, she says, the mannequin-free store feels a little artificial. “If the concept is that it’s all automated,” she asks, “why do they have so many staff?” Harris doesn’t buy anything but says she’ll check out the store online.

In some ways, it’s all a bit silly. Yes, stores have less foot traffic than in yesteryear, but overall, 98 percent of Generation Z shop in physical stores — with 67 percent using brick-and-mortar most of the time, according to a January study from the National Retail Federation in partnership with IBM. The end is not nigh. “Shopping [has] only exist[ed] in this form for 100 years,” Marcotte says. “Apparel shopping is a very social activity — even people on their own want some kind of engagement.”