A moment of decision is about to arrive for clothing retailers. Should they take the lead in embracing a new technology, or should they wait and risk being left behind? The virtual fitting room is a simulation of trying on clothes — similar to a video game version of a dressing room, but with a possible purchase of real clothing at the end. Like the mobile phone and the interactive kiosk, this high-tech Internet marketing strategy has the potential to transform the retail experience, with particular relevance for apparel and fashion.
As it happens, the virtual fitting room is coming online just when the conventional apparel retail industry is in crisis, in part because of the shift of consumers to online sales. Industry experts estimate that one in four existing clothing shops, in both Europe and the United States, will shut its doors by 2018 — and this forecast could be modest. Forrester Research Inc. predicts that online clothing sales will grow by double digits over the next 10 years, and the gain will inevitably come at a cost to bricks-and-mortar sales.
How can conventional clothing shops compete against a global electronic space? Until now, the answer has been through high-touch physical immediacy. No matter how appealing the clothing itself may be, images on a screen are inherently limited. Face-to-face retail has the advantage of tactile experience and a physical relationship between products and consumers. Most people still prefer to try on clothing before they buy it; indeed, they visit stores precisely for that reason. But high-tech simulations are starting to mimic the emotional experience of bricks-and-mortar shopping, and offer many of the same benefits. In fact, the increasingly personal nature of online shopping is going to create a new challenge for retailers — and a new opportunity.
Several virtual fitting room systems are emerging today, linked with retailers such as Macy’s Inc. and the J.C. Penney Corporation. They use a variety of components, including miniature cameras, apps, and Facebook logins. One of the most fully developed such systems is Fits.me, a clothes-fitting simulation developed by Estonian entrepreneur Heikki Haldre and adopted by the European apparel retail chains Otto and Hawes & Curtis, among others. (Disclosure: I have worked as a business development consultant with Haldre’s company.)
Fits.me’s approach is built on a data bank of human body metrics that an individual enters into an online system. These are used to create a representation of that person’s physical form, or as Women’s Wear Daily called it, a “robotic mannequin.” The tool can be used either at a bricks-and-mortar retail store, to select a garment off the rack without having to try it on physically, or through an online vendor to virtually simulate the fitting room experience. As a customer, you see a simulated mannequin onscreen with a shape resembling your body. The system shows how each garment fits you, how it drapes, and how its contours will appear when you wear it. If buttons are popping with size Small, you can shift to Medium or Large by using a slider. If you purchase the item online, you can feel confident that it will match your body’s actual dimensions when it arrives.
Apparel is not the only retail category that will be affected by this type of Internet marketing strategy. Two other simulation systems already in existence are FittingBox, used either on a remote computer or in a store for trying on eyeglasses and sunglasses, and the EZface Virtual Mirror, a cosmetics kiosk that allows people to try on makeup electronically. These systems give shoppers a sense of physical relationship between the product and their face. Individuals can experiment with a variety of options in video simulation, with their own face captured by camera.