By  on June 10, 2009

Shopping for shades is more interactive at Sunglass Hut, thanks to a new retail concept called SocialSun. By the end of this month, nine stores will be outfitted with SocialSun stations, where customers can snap photos of themselves trying on sunglasses and share them with friends and fellow shoppers.

About 15 percent of customers who walk into a store use the SocialSun station, and about 20 percent of those return and use it again.

“In the stores where it’s been up for the past six months, customers come back again to post and share more pictures,” said Sunglass Hut vice president of marketing Marcello Favagrossa. “It was clear it was going to make the shopping experience at Sunglass Hut more fun and engaging, and encourage customers to come back to the store more often.”

Columbus, Ohio-based Sunglass Hut started testing the concept in two area stores in October last year. After exit interviews showed customers enjoyed the idea, the retailer started rolling out the system to New York, Santa Monica, Miami and Beverly Hills last month.

At a 17-inch touch screen, customers can take as many as 12 photos of themselves. They can compare their appearance in various sunglass styles side by side, e-mail photos to friends, post them on Facebook or display images in the store on a giant screen.

A store manager uses an iPod Touch to view and approve each photo before it is displayed in the store, using an application created for the purpose. The systems and software are linked and managed from a central location. They were built and written by Micro Industries, an original equipment manufacturer in Columbus that has about 50 employees and specializes in the retail and medical industries. The computers use Intel processors and run the Windows XP Embedded operating system.

The uploaded photos show about half the users are men and half women. The majority appear to be adults in their 20s. Ninety percent send the photos to friends or post them on Facebook.

Sunglass Hut’s inventory turns over about four times a year. A typical store has 700 to 900 stockkeeping units. Brands include Ray-Ban, Oakley, Persol, Prada, Versace, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, DKNY and Ralph Lauren.

Sunglass Hut plans to do more research on SocialSun this summer. If the concept is well received, it could appear in as many as 300 more stores in 2010 and possibly internationally as well. The company operates about 1,600 stores in North America, some of which are kiosks and stores within department stores. Parent company Luxottica Group SpA, based in Milan, earned 379.7 million euros, or $558.5 million, on sales of 5.2 billion euros, or $7.65 billion, in 2008, although earnings declined last year and in the first quarter of this year.

The three-year plan, if implemented, would be a multimillion-dollar investment.

“We’re hoping we’re somehow contributing to making the retail environment a more fun, interactive and innovative place to be,” said Favagrossa.

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