Virtual fitting rooms, 360-degree measurements and deals that find you: shopping's future is already in store

AFP Relax NewsMarch 15, 2012
Tesco's virtual reality fitting room on Facebook

Virtual fitting rooms, augmented reality applications, product information displayed via iPads -- there is no doubt that the traditional high-street retail experience is changing and the trend for in-store technology is growing.

The beginning of a trend 
In 2006 Eyemagnet developed what would now be recognized as a ‘virtual dressing room' for Hallenstein's in New Zealand, and shoe brand Clarks introduced ‘3D foot measuring technology;' now six years later the trend for high-tech high street customer service has taken off with around 25 percent of US shoppers having come across an in-store computer of some kind, according to a 2012 Forrester Report titled "Digitization of the In-Store Experience."

Kiosks to local offers on the go
This high-street high-tech ranges from augmented reality kiosks -- enabling customers to try products on without undressing -- to interactive surfaces which provide product information when an item is placed upon them. Daily deal sites combine forces with local retailers to provide geo-location-based offers using data taken from the customer's smartphone as he or she traverses the city, and other applications allow users to try on a brand's clothes from the comfort of their own home.

Scanning your skin and modeling in the mirror
Examples of retailers using skin-scan technology include Clinique, which, in February 2011, became one of the first cosmetics brand to use the Apple iPad in store to provide consumers with a "state-of-the-art, self-guided skin care diagnostic tool." In May of the same year high-street fashion retailer Topshop rolled out an augmented-reality ‘mirror' at its flagship Moscow store which layered clothes from its line over the customer's existing outfit, using technology from Microsoft's motion-sensitive gaming device the Xbox Kinect. Similar virtual dressing room technology is also used at Macy's and other retailers and continues to gain popularity across the United States.

In one of the latest developments in this trend for virtual fitting, it was announced on March 8 that the Bridgewater Shopping center in New Jersey will install a size-matching station which enables consumers to find their best fit after a ten-second, fully-clothed scan.  The technology is provided by Me-Ality and the Bridgewater Center is one of 300 malls across the USA planning to adopt this technology over the following two years. 

Moving out of the store and into the palm
Several concept devices are also emerging which do away with the need for in-store technology, examples of which include a mobile application unveiled at Mobile World Congress 2012 developed by Texas Instruments which enables consumers to try on Ray Ban sunglasses via their tablet; a US-only app from eBay also focused on sunglasses; and the recent PR campaign by high-street clothing brand H&M which allowed users to take pictures of virtual clothes in stores using their smartphone, superimpose them over pictures of themselves and share the results on Facebook.

Getting social
Supermarket chain Tesco is also one of a number of retailers to utilize social media and the shopping experience in a virtual manner with the creation of its Facebook Dressing room. This concept, launched February 29, combines the popular social networking site with an ability to try on clothes without leaving the house. Users simply log onto the clothing at Tesco Facebook page, create a 3D image of themselves by either uploading a  photo of their face and body or by entering their measurements; they can thereafter superimpose clothes from Tesco's range over this avatar and share the results with their friends via the social networking site. Emily Shamma, director of Tesco Clothing Online, commented on the appeal of Tesco's Facebook integrated virtual fitting room "It [is] quick and easy to use, particularly for customers who don't have the time or dislike having to trek around the shops."

Where are you and what's on offer?
Other retailers are taking the technology in a different direction, using smartphones and mobile devices to inform consumers of special deals in real time as they pass by a store. One of the most high-profile companies using technology in this matter is Groupon which in July 2011 announced a partnership with location-based check-in service Foursquare enabling the company to provide location-based, real-time, deals to consumers in the USA and Canada.   

From the internet to your living room
However it is not just brick-and-mortar stores that are embracing cutting-edge technology in order to make their customers feel confident about buying clothes without trying them on, in the traditional sense, first. Popular online-only retailers such as Tobi.com, which first introduced online fitting rooms in 2009, and Bananaflame.co.uk among others are making use of the shopper's webcam to provide a virtual fitting experience. A representative of Fits.me a leading provider an online fitting rooms explained the rising trend for virtual fittings among internet-only retailers to Relaxnews, "It is the same as brick-and-mortar stores, different brands have different sizes and customers have a right to know that what they are buying fits them before they purchase it, the same as in a bricks and mortar store."

Consumer concerns
However despite the booming trend to include cutting-edge technology in the high street, online and mobile shopping experience some have their doubts. In 2011 blog businessnerds.wordpress addressed issues with Topshop's virtual fitting room in Moscow complaining that the virtual clothes are "still and static" and asking "can you trust the system?" while in a March 10 New York Times business article Sherry Turkleprofessor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology complained that "shoppers lost something intrinsic to the human experience when they avoided salespeople."

Whatever the opinion on virtual dressing rooms, augmented reality apps or trying on clothes via Facebook maybe it is clear that, for now at least the trend is here to stay and if signs from the major retailers are to be believed it is set to evolve rapidly.