by James Bickers * * 21 Jul 2008
Shoppers at the Japanese department store Mitsukoshi find an electronic
concierge awaiting them when they arrive at the dressing room with
clothes and shoes in hand. As they walk in, an RFID reader detects the
tags affixed to the products; seconds later, a wall-mounted touchscreen
serves up product information and offers alternate sizes and compatible
accessories. If the shopper has picked up the wrong size or an
unfortunate color, he can press a few buttons to summon a store
associate with the correct item in hand.
The "Intelligent Fitting Room" system, designed and installed by Cisco,
has been in place at Mitsukoshi since 2006, and in that time apparel
department sales increased 15 percent over the previous year, while
wasted stockroom trips to check inventory were reduced by 25 percent.
It's one of a handful of test programs aimed at bringing high-tech into
the dressing room, but what remains to be seen is whether the customer
is interested. In a recent report "New Future In Store" by market
research firm TNS, 73 percent of shoppers said they expect to see
touchscreens in dressing rooms in the near future, but only 23 percent
said they would be likely to use them.
Does this RFID tag make me look fat?
High-tech dressing rooms have generated a lot of buzz in the past 18
months, but not a lot of real-world activity. Several high-profile
pilots have raked in the news crews and newspaper reporters, but no
full-scale deployments are yet on the ground.
"No one has fully deployed this in a customer-facing away," said Patrick
Moorhead, director of emerging media for Avenue A Razorfish. "But behind
the curtain, there is tons of activity in this space."
Moorhead says his company is working on a number of technologies that
are "one or two steps back from being commercially available" - and most
of the retailers that are interested in them are boutique retailers
rather than big-box. "They're retailers that own their own store
footprint in the U.S., and they tightly control the store environment,"
In September of 2007, German retailer Galeria Kaufhof made headlines
when it outfitted the entire third floor of its Essen-based department
store with item-level RFID tags. Shoppers entering a dressing room are
instantly shown product information, care instructions and price.
Touchscreens also are mounted on shelves out in the store, allowing
shoppers to determine whether or not their size is in stock without
manually wading through piles of garments.
A similar product, the "magicmirror" from Milan-based thebigpicture, has
been available for about a year, according to company principal Dick
Lockard. It's being piloted in retailers Levis and Throttleman, in the
U.S. Mexico, Portugal and France.
At last year's NRF tradeshow, technology designer IconNicholson unveiled
its "Social Retailing" dressing room solution to much fanfare. A few
months later, the system was used in a pop-up promotion at the
Bloomingdale's Nanette Lepore boutique. A high-concept mash-up of
clothes shopping and social networking, the system includes a camera
that sends a photo of the shopper in his new outfit to selected friends,
who can reply with their opinions and even suggest other items from the
The concept goes back at least as far as 2001, when Prada experimented
with RFID tagging and "smart dressing rooms" in its Soho store. That
deployment famously ended in tears just a few years later; Business 2.0
magazine called it a "high-tech misstep," citing faulty technology,
too-high expectations and a bad attitude on the part of staff as the
Customer demand and business intelligence
When the concept works, though, it can benefit all involved. Lockard
said stores using the magicmirror product are seeing sales uplift
between 25 to 40 percent from mirror users over non-mirror users. In the
case of Mitsukoshi, the retailer is building a database of customer
purchasing trends, according to Ed Jimenez, director of vertical
marketing for Cisco. Over time, that should result in a pretty rich set
of data to mine for product selection and merchandising ideas.
"Because you make each item unique with an RFID tag, you can gain some
business intelligence from the activity," said Tammy Stewart, business
development manager for technology company 5stat. A division of
90-year-old retail fixture manufacturer Store Kraft, 5stat sells a
turnkey RFID product called the Smart Fitting Room. "Say, certain items
are taken into the fitting room frequently but never purchased, or
they're being taken into the fitting room but they always ask for a
Stewart said the Smart Fitting Room is currently being piloted with
several retailers, but couldn't disclose any names. 5stat has a similar
technology, though, on the sales floor at the company stores of
sunglasses maker Oakley. As customers try on glasses, they are
automatically shown product information and lifestyle clips in the same
mirror they use to gaze lovingly into their own eyes.
Still, perhaps the most important question remains unanswered, because
it has largely gone unasked: Do customers really want technology in the
"I don't believe consumers are sitting around waiting for these things,
but if the tech is designed in a way that delivers enhanced value to
whatever they're trying to do, they will adopt it immediately," said
Moorhead. "That's the story behind TiVo, that's the story behind most of
the Apple technologies, and we're making bets that that's going to be
the case with most emerging retail technology. It's not that shopping
sucks today, but the availability of technology to the consumer in the
shopping experience is going to enhance it for them, and they're going
to crave it once they understand that it's available to them."