Beaming Up To Future Shop

Soon shoppers will literally say “uplink now” andclothes will be dispatched directly to their closets.You are sitting having coffee and a woman passes by in a particularly fantastic skirt. <br><br>You can either admire her from afar,...

Soon shoppers will literally say “uplink now” andclothes will be dispatched directly to their closets.You are sitting having coffee and a woman passes by in a particularly fantastic skirt.

This story first appeared in the May 19, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

You can either admire her from afar, wondering where she bought such a smart piece, or you can pull out your personal digital assistant, press a button and instantly have access to information about the skirt, including brand, similar products, availability and price.

Better yet, press another button and the skirt is yours.

The woman in question isn’t Jane Jetson but a participant in a very real scenario that will soon appear in a store or perhaps sidewalk café near you in which the physical and virtual worlds blend seamlessly into a shopping experience that isn’t only fun, but efficient, too.

Retailers are slowly but surely shifting their technological focus away from the plastic tags and bar codes designed to help give them control over their businesses — and any less-than-well intentioned customers — and instead are exploring state-of-the-art gizmos and gadgets, such as sensors, antennas and glitter-size clothing identifiers, in an effort to make the shopping experience easier and perhaps even more entertaining.

In an effort to bridge the gap between traditional and virtual shopping, retail-focused technologies are being developed that will allow consumers to keep an exact record of what’s hanging in their closets as well as what they purchased, when and for how much.

Glover T. Ferguson, chief scientist at Accenture, said a major innovation applicable to apparel is the radio frequency identifier, or RFID, a tiny sensor embedded in a garment that can provide details such as size, label, fabrication or even styling to uniquely identify the piece of clothing or accessory rather than simply looking at its price. These embedded devices stand to enrich the shopping experience and plant the seeds for a longer relationship with the store as information is then stored in an individual smart card.

“The smart card identifies me as me and provides access to my clothes at home,” Ferguson said. He noted it does not merely say you have a sweater, but provides the particulars like texture or fabrics so you won’t fear pulling off the unthinkable fashion faux pas by matching that brown woolen sweater with a blue linen cropped pair of pants.

When applied to the shopping experience, the possibilities are endless.

The Online Wardrobe, a working prototype developed by technology researchers at Accenture, allows consumers and retail sales associates to work together and takes the task of hanging your clothes to the next level. It uses sensors, tagging and tracking technologies to monitor the clothing one already owns and to help coordinate items, either online or in the physical stores. Shoppers can reveal the content of their wardrobes to the stores and in return, they could receive personalized offerings and timely reminders about products of interest.

In this brave new wardrobing world, an antenna in your closet could receive all the relevant information about items there from special tags on your clothing. Feeding that information into a personal computer, a customized, detailed wardrobe can be created either online or from a local store. Today, an alert and persistent salesperson with extensive knowledge of a customer, her likes and past purchases might call if the right item in the right size arrives; in the not-too-distant future, the matching of customer and items could be arranged digitally.

Need to match a new shirt to a pair of jeans? Simply pull out the jeans and let the computer develop a list of ideal matches for you. This technology also can search for similar products, alert the customer when her favorite store is having a sale and even be adapted as a form of clothing cop, warning you, for instance, that those khakis and that T-shirt aren’t going to cut it for today’s meeting with the boss.

Shoppers preferring tactile and visual contact with the clothing they buy can head to the mall, swipe a smart card containing your own personal wardrobe database through the store’s equipment and be afforded access to a kind of cyberpersonal shopper or, at the very least, a sales associate who can use the available data to assist you. Or you can stay at home and have the data travel the Internet so that you don’t have to leave the bedroom.

The system automatically updates its records when you take out a piece of clothing or add a new one.

While the closet knows what is hanging in it, a store’s shelves aren’t left hanging. Thanks to the RFID technology, shelves also have become smart. They can detect such things as when a sweater is removed from a shelf and can locate that hard-to-find T-shirt in size 4 in another part of the store.

Another technology using RFID is the Real-World Showroom, a person-to-object technology that allows a person to use her PDA, now equipped with an RFID reader. The handheld device can be pointed at any tagged product and the relevant information is immediately retrieved from a number of sources. With a few more presses of buttons, customers can buy the products in front of them without ever interrupting what they happen to be doing at the time.

Jill Fleming, senior vice president with Retail Forward, said fashion retailers are starting to catch up to grocery stores to make the shopping experience easier by using technology to suggest an item to go with another or inform a shopper when an item goes on sale based on historical shopping data. “It is easier for a computer to suggest something than a person,” she said. “So when a customer looks at a top or bottom, a computer can upsell a host of items that go with it.” She cited Nordstrom, famous for using its customer books to upsell, for taking a leading role in combining computers and shopping.

In the past several years, retailers have taken advantage of customer information through loyalty programs and private label credit cards. But now, technology will help retailers take it to the next level.

Paul Bellask, a partner at Karabus Management Inc., a Toronto-based retail and consumer product industry consulting firm, said wireless technology already is helping retailers. Handheld devices expedite a salesperson’s efforts to find the item for which a customer is looking, as well as its price.

In-store kiosks, while hardly the omnipresent factor that ATMs might be, can pair a registered customer with merchandise in stock and even customize suggestions according to fashion preferences.

But finding the right fit is often the greatest obstacle in purchasing, and Fitme.com is addressing it with Size Genie, which allows customers to determine whether a given garment will fit them or even someone for whom they’re purchasing a gift.

Ram Srinivasan, the chief executive, said he is in discussions with major retailers and hopes to have an impact on the estimated $28 billion lost in merchandise returns. Srinivasan said he is hoping to have signed deals and have both online and brick and mortar retailers operational on the service in the next 2 to 3 months.

While these technologies are developing, the digital age has already arrived for some. Prada opened its vision of techno chic in its SoHo store in 2001. Antennas hidden in dressing rooms pick up an RFID tag on each piece of merchandise and automatically display its silhouette on a touch-screen monitor that also reports what other sizes and colors might be available. Prada staffers have Staff Device Interaction machines that scan data from merchandise and allows the sales associate to show related runway footage or product information on any of the store’s plasma screens.

Customers at American Eagle’s New York and Santa Monica flagships can try on an outfit, strut before a digital camera and then e-mail a friend for suggestions.

Consumers also can have their chinos and jeans custom-made at Lands’ End’s Web site by entering specific measurements. Called Lands’ End Custom, it is an online personal tailor that is available 24 hours a day to help the site’s users craft their own pants by answering questions about their style and fit preferences. The customized items are slated to be delivered in three to four weeks and are accompanied by the Lands’ End unconditional guarantee. Customer-made clothing does come at a steeper price, $54 a pair, compared with the $29.50 it charges for jeans and $35 for chinos.

Peter Weil, senior vice president at Retail Forward, noted that a growing number of retailers are now using computer technology to create optimal assortments and even arrange fixtures on the selling floor. Technology can help stores compensate for centralized buying, too, by enabling large chains to custom-assort stores to reflect anything from the local climate to the demographic and psychographic composition of the neighborhood.

Amanda Thomas is marketing manager at Marketmax, which works with retailers such as Kohl’s, Charlotte Russe Holding, Eddie Bauer, The Finish Line, Marks & Spencer, ShopKo Stores, The Spiegel Group and The Sports Authority. She views technology’s promise in relatively simple terms: “As a retailer, you want the right amount of product in the right store at the right time. You want to make sure your customer is getting a basketball during basketball season and shoes for back-to-school.”

Over the next 10 years, the retail industry will be at the point where a store can identify each customer when she walks into a store. The retailer will welcome her with perhaps a handheld device or loyalty smart card with a wireless chip in it that is particular to the individual customer, can track where she goes — up and down each aisle or if she heads to a particular department — and can send out customized marketing based on past shopping patterns. Imagine: That cell phone may not be just a friendly call making plans for dinner, but rather an alert telling you your favorite sweater is on sale or the latest spring colors have just arrived in aisle two.

“Our world is coming to life. Not just the grass and flowers of spring, but our clothes, our closets and drawers and our appliances, as well. The future is more than the ugly robot from the television series ‘Lost in Space’ yelling, ‘Danger, danger! Will Robinson.’ It’s about everything we own or would consider owning offering a hand to help us through the day,” Accenture’s Ferguson said.