“We thought women would be larger in Dallas, but that’s not what we found,” a Levi Strauss & Co. employee recently told a line of customers at the corporate flagship on Union Square in San Francisco.
Like the others, I had come with the promise of finding a pair of jeans meant for me, and this bit of size gossip already made the trip worthwhile.
I was asked to check out a body scanner from Intellifit making a week’s appearance in the San Francisco store. The prospect of having a machine personally select my ideal Levi’s style and size was tempting. The last jeans I bought were in the Clinton administration — before the hip-hugger craze settled in — and I desperately needed a pair that wasn’t threadbare or paint splattered.
In my 40s, a ripe retail demographic, I had set aside any aspiration of wearing the latest jeans, after repeated forays to department and specialty stores, including Levi’s. It seemed as if every pair I tried on were made for Jessica Simpson.
The scanner being demonstrated by Levi’s represents the latest in size measurement — an often elusive concept both for retailers and customers.
In 2003, the Levi’s flagship ended a two-year test of a TC2 scanner that measured customers with white light. That machine required customers to wear stretchy shorts, which limited its popularity and led Levi’s to discontinue its use, said Levi’s spokeswoman Amy Gemellaro.
I arrived at the store around 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, and a dozen people were waiting to be scanned with the Intellifit scanner. The shoppers appeared to range in age from 30 to 55, and were equally split between women and men. Word was spreading down the line that the clear, round machine the size of a large closet was on the fritz.
Gemellaro later told me the glitch was a late-afternoon problem — the computer memory was bogged down after scanning about 600 people that day. Moving the scanner from store to store also causes problems in properly calculating size, she said.
Another issue threatening to throw off the whole works is when a person inside the scanner moves even slightly. It takes 10 seconds for a wand to encircle the ceiling of what looked like a soundproof game-show booth.
The Levi’s employee chatting up the waiting line seemed to sense rising customer skepticism as the wait dragged on. He assured one man the technology was safe and wasn’t an X-ray. Speaking to another customer, he seemed knowledgeable about prickly privacy issues, responding positively to her concerns that all data being collected would not be personally identifiable.
Someone else questioned the comfort of hip-huggers, which he correctly reidentified in fashion vernacular as low-rise. “When I put on my first pair of low-rise jeans, I felt awkward. I wasn’t used to that position. Then I put on a belt,” he said.
There was a collective nodding of heads.
My quick turn at the scanner came 20 minutes later. An attendant typing answers into a laptop asked me my age and the types of jeans I preferred. I was told I’d get a greater selection of styles recommended by the scanner if I gave only a few preferences.
I stepped into the booth and followed instructions to stand on a pair of footprints, keep my arms pressed at my sides and stay still. Only a faint hum and the swift movement of the scanner’s arm well above my head indicated anything was afoot.
I emerged from the booth feeling happy about the whole process and was handed a long white receipt with the scanner’s top 10 Levi’s styles and sizes for me. But I was perplexed. Sizes 16, 15 and 14 were listed, along with my real size, 12.
There was little time to be confused. A cheerful sales clerk in her early 20s was assigned to me and authoritatively began studying the scanner receipt. She smiled and rolled her eyes at the incorrect sizes the scanner suggested. “The machine has been doing this a lot today,” she said, while nonetheless finding useful information in the scanner’s hieroglyphics, such as potential best-fitting styles.
After she asked me my size, I was handed nine pairs of jeans in eight styles to try on — all on the scanner’s list. I correctly sensed the Nouveau Low or Superlow styles handed me would be too low for my comfort or fashion level, even with a belt. I nevertheless tried them on and reluctantly pulled back the denim fitting-room curtain to show the results.
Two more sales clerks, in their 40s, jumped on my problem case. They studied the scanner receipt and my body in the Nouveau Lows.
In 20 minutes, with the undivided attention of three clerks, I happily settled on two styles: the regular 515-Nouveau capris, which were on my scanner list, and 550-Classic Relaxed Boot Cut, which rest at the waist and were not chosen by the machine. I paid $55 for both pairs, which included a combined $21 markdown. I’ve worn both several times.
What clinched my sale was simply good customer service, not the scanner’s results. However, I’m not discounting the technology’s potential benefits for retailers and consumers. I would be scanned again and would be curious to see how the technology progresses. If anything, the long lines at Levi’s stores of customers waiting to be scanned indicate strong interest. Gemellaro, the company’s spokeswoman, said 80 percent of people who are scanned buy jeans. Something must be going right.