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Fixing the Fitting Room

Virtual reality and iPads won't change what's in the mirror, but better lighting and more staff may help sales.
Fitting room | Source: Shutterstock
  • Bloomberg

NEW YORK, United States — Haley Bierman hates clothes shopping.

The 23-year-old Manhattan fundraiser points to how society uses fashion and television to browbeat girls about how they look from a young age. Like nowhere else, that self-doubt comes out in the fitting room.

"You hear the girl next to you asking her mom, 'why don’t I look good in this, why am I so heavy?''' Bierman laments. Novelist Laura Stampler, 28, prefers looking for clothes right after happy hour — it takes a couple of whiskey gingers to calm her nerves. "So much of the time, fitting rooms can feel more unflattering than a mirror in real life," she says.

For many shoppers, that little room is a box of dread: It exaggerates flaws and heightens insecurities, whispering to occupants that no garment or amount of money can fix their shape or size.

Shoppers are trained to look for certain things when they step in front of a mirror, says Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of "You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You". Stretch marks, muscle tone, cellulite — these are all things they've been taught to view as unappealing.

"We get into dressing rooms knowing we're not perfect," she says. The traditional fitting room only amplifies it. One California company called Skinny Mirror sells reflectors it says make people look 10 pounds thinner, and prompt them to spend an average of 18 percent more. But Baumgartner says temporary illusions only make things worse.

So it may come as a relief to many that fitting rooms are getting a different kind of makeover, one involving technology. Retailers are starting to pack them with gadgets, an attempt to capitalize on one of the few advantages physical stores still have over the online marketplace.

At Macy's, they're testing rooms with smartphones and tablets to select try-on items. Nordstrom has installed interactive mirrors to let customers browse product reviews or summon help. Zara provides iPads so you can request different sizes. Tech marketers have also joined the fray, working on virtual reality shopping so you can flip through colors and styles without actually changing clothes.

Marge Laney, chief executive of consultancy Alert Tech, says that while fitting rooms are "a psychological land mine," they can indeed be defused. But technology isn't necessarily the solution, she says.

Laney has worked with companies across the retail spectrum, including Nike, H&M, and Calvin Klein. She's seen inexplicable screw-ups that affect how shoppers feel in the fitting room: Big-and-tall stores with rooms that can't fit big-and-tall customers. Warped mirrors. Unflattering lighting.  She pointed to the non-aesthetic failures as well, such as bad ventilation and a lack of hangers, hooks, or anywhere to sit.

Shoppers at an urban H&M, Zara, or Forever 21 have probably faced this reality, maneuvering to the back of the store with a pile of clothes. Long lines, cramped quarters, and staffers nowhere to be found. When you finally get to your tiny cell, the stress level is already spiking.

Even small changes to this environment can make all the difference. According to a 2015 study from the University of North Carolina, increasing fitting-room staff by just one worker relieves congestion and increases sales per hour by 16 percent.

What's the ideal fitting room look like? Expectations differ depending on the type of retailer. When buying clothes at discount stores like Wal-Mart or Target, shoppers expect dingy and scuffed-up — they don't really care since they don't plan to linger. There's a much higher bar at an upscale department store or luxury boutique. Walk into a Saks Fifth Avenue or Burberry, and customers demand a swanky alcove filled with flowers, refreshments, and other amenities while trying on thousand-dollar dresses.

Regardless of price level, the rooms should work to comfort. Luxe or mass-market, many stores fail that requirement spectacularly. Take overhead fluorescent lighting. It's ubiquitous and a huge mistake, said Laney. Instead, rooms should have less abrasive, back-lit mirrors. She says these basics need to be fixed first before remaking fitting rooms with cutting-edge tech. A mounted iPad isn't going to make someone feel better about how 20 extra pounds fit into a pair of skinny jeans or a shift dress.

"I'm not against technology,'' Laney says. "But the max I would like in a fitting room would be a small lookbook."

Such minimalism doesn't sway others. In a partnership with eBay, Rebecca Minkoff stores are testing rooms that let patrons flip through lighting templates to show what they look like in the office, on the street, or at a club. Through radio-frequency identification tagging, screens know what clothing is being tried on and display different colors and sizes.

Fancier, interactive walls on the sales floor even let shoppers request help to prep a fitting room. You can have items delivered to try on, or order drinks, including Champagne — just in case you missed happy hour.

By Kim Bhasin; editors: Jared Sandberg, David Rovella.

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The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
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