Clothes buying, both in-store and online, is set to change with help from interactive and virtual assistants. Interactive mirrors, virtual changing rooms, a personalised fitting service and a mobile app all aim to help consumers find the clothes and the look they want more easily. They may also reduce costs for online retailers and help them reach new customers.

What is changing?

Virtual changing rooms are coming to a store near you soon. In May, Topshop launched a new range of dresses and a virtual changing room in its flagship Moscow store to help customers try clothes on, without getting changed. The virtual changing room uses a combination of augmented reality and motion sensors, like those in the Kinect gaming console, to superimpose the dress – back and front- onto the consumer’s image in the mirror.   Macy’s are also experimenting with a Magic fitting room, and recorded 16,000 separate outfits being tried on in a six week period.

The Chief Executive of a marketing company recently demonstrated Swivel, the company’s virtual changing room on stage at a conference. The system allowed her to see how various handbags and a pearl necklace looked with the black dress she was wearing. The bags and pearls also stayed in place on her virtual image, as she moved and turned.

But it is not just in-store where the technology is helping: online shopping is getting a helping hand too. Divalicious, an app for Apple devices, aims to help shoppers pick and mix items and outfits from over 300 brands in one place. Shoppers upload a full body image of themselves and then ‘try on’ the clothes and accessories from any brand in the selection list. If they decide to buy, the app links them through to the appropriate store.  Upcload, produced by a German company, similarly relies on a full body image which is done at home, using a webcam, with the shopper holding a standard sized object such as a DVD so that the system can determine their exact measurements. Then, using a database of over 100,000 body shapes and sizes the system recommends clothes, items, outfits and sizes that should fit well.

Why is this important?

The technology is in its infancy, but could change the face of shopping forever.

Trying on clothes can be more entertaining, and may encourage shoppers to try more or different kinds of outfits. Reluctant shoppers, for whom trying on clothes, or even clothes shopping per se,  is not particularly enjoyable, may be encouraged in, using the technology as a pre-screen to reduce the effort needed for ‘real’ trying on.  Retailers will be able to keep track of what is being tried on and bought- or not, and tailor inventory and promotions accordingly.

Online shopping continues to grow fast, but the hassle factor remains high for clothes shopping: at present some 50% of clothing purchases are returned because the fit is wrong. These virtual technologies could reduce those costs for retailers, who increasingly have to carry the returns cost, while also increasing the willingness of consumers to buy online. The convenience of bringing together access to many brands in one place is likely to create a cumulative increase in sales. If accurate body measurements are also available, clothes can be more accurately tailored to groups of or even individual customers.

If such systems are then linked to 3D printers, one off designs of accessories can be made and delivered in almost the same time as a standard product, either in-store or remotely. Linked to TVs, these technologies could create more exotic and dynamic surroundings than just a static mirror, so that the virtual fashion show or catwalk becomes a reality; the virtual fashion party may be the next stay home entertainment.

Online shopping is forecast to continue to grow strongly, outstripping mainstream retail sales growth, reaching about $248 billion in the US and about $156 billion in Western Europe, according to one forecast.  The new technologies could enable mainstream retailers to fight back, but may also enable online retailers to get even further ahead. They may also enable greater cross border sales where sizing differences might previously have been an issue.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.