Digital simulations may feel unfamiliar to consumers at first, but that won’t last long, as they see the advantages such systems have over their bricks-and-mortar counterparts. Haldre points out, for example, that many consumers feel shy about talking about their body shape with salespeople. An impersonal but complete interaction with the online mannequin may make shoppers feel more comfortable. Those who have been frustrated in cosmetics departments, trying to find the right makeup color, or waiting impatiently for sample cases to be unlocked, will also appreciate the convenience. Browsing for new clothing can take place at home, in the office, or even in transit, via a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. The technology also makes it easier to ask a friend’s opinion, because the user can just send an image to another person’s mobile device.
The Value of Virtual Fitting Rooms
For online retailers, because simulations offer a clearer idea of fit than other forms of Internet shopping, they can also build brand loyalty and reduce retailers’ expenses. Poor fit is the most common reason shoppers walk away from or return online clothing purchases; many potential sales are lost because size is not communicated adequately. According to Haldre, Fits.me has reduced return rates by 28 percent, on average, for the retailers that have implemented it. This affects profits significantly, because the opportunity cost of returned apparel is far more than the direct costs of handling and shipping. In taking the garment out of the sales cycle for a week or more, a retailer can lose 20 percent of the value of the garment, particularly if it is a high-fashion or seasonal item. Worse still, consumers who receive an ill-fitting garment are much less likely to buy again at the same store.
The impact on consumer insight is also significant. Because electronic simulations provide real-time tracking of the clothes that shoppers try and reject, as well as the clothes they purchase, digital marketing technologies give retailers opportunities for market testing with much faster results than other media can provide. In addition, because these high-tech approaches tend to increase overall satisfaction, they can become vehicles for turning one-time customers into repeat customers.
Online apparel merchandising will never replace face-to-face retail, if only because fit is not the only quality that consumers care about. An estimated 15 percent of online returns are due to disappointment about the tactile sense, or texture, of the fabric. Some technology-interface designers, such as the Finnish company Senseg, are developing tactile output devices (known as haptic interfaces) that mimic texture and roughness by using electrically generated fields to stimulate receptors in the fingertips, but it seems unlikely that they will be prevalent soon.
But the technology may enhance the appeal of bricks-and-mortar retail, by giving shoppers a clearer idea ahead of time of the apparel they will want to buy and its fit. Early experience suggests that sales can improve, even for products that aren’t considered Internet-friendly, if consumers get a “virtual try-it-on” experience before entering the physical store. The Tissot watch company increased sales of luxury timepieces by 85 percent in London’s Selfridges shop by letting customers “try them on” through an augmented reality display. By placing a band of paper around their wrist and holding their hand up to the screen, customers could see a simulation of the watch on their own wrist.
Retailers that don’t experiment with this technology — especially in apparel, but in other categories as well — may find themselves falling behind. At the same time, the costs of investment are high, and there are not yet any certainties about either customer response or technological standards. How then can a retailer invest in the right technology at the right time — opening the electronic fitting room just as consumers are eager to enter it and as the system is ready for them?