Virtual changing rooms: a marriage of online and retail

Jul 15

Various attempts have been made to make virtual changing rooms a reality, but the technology has so far been more of a toy than a tool with genuine commercial potential. Using new software, Urban Research tested its first stand alone virtual changing room store last month. It hopes a chain of such stores could bridge the gap between online and offline retailing, and even imagines staff-less stores akin to photo booths in stations and SCs.

Although the first virtual changing room opened in Tokyu Plaza in Omotesando two years ago, the technology has been little more than a gimmick – until now. Last month Urban Research opened a popup store in Parco Ikebukuro with its own take on the no-effort changing room, which also promises to be so much more.

Called Wearable Clothing by Urban Research, the store is just 7 sqm and carries no stock. Instead it allows customers to simply stand in front of one of two 60 inch screens, select the item they want to change into, and the screen will show them dressed in it within seconds. Unlike previous versions, the latest Kinect system means  customers’ movements are represented fluidly on screen in 3D. and Urban Research’s partner Warp Japan continues to work on improving the system. Customers can use the connected tablet to take pictures as well as share them with friends through the usual social networks.

Virtual changing rooms have several advantages for retailers, not least the fact that they can sell product not in stock using their existing e-commerce backend – customers can just scan the QR code from the iPad screen onto their phone and click buy. Virtual changing is also relatively effortless, saving customers time and lowering resistance to trying on clothes – especially among men. Customers can also physically try on one item and then whiz through a collection of matching outfits, possibly encouraging greater spending. If the service catches on, it also means tiny stores in high traffic locations like stations can be opened with little or no stock – there is even talk of unstaffed stores similar to photo booths but offering a great deal more entertainment value for fashion lovers.

Given the ubiquity of fast broadband and wireless links to TV screens, it also opens up the possibility of customers using cameras on mobile devices to try on clothes at home using the same system, but linking to their larger TV displays through technologies like Apple’s Airplay or Google’s Chromecast. Urban Research also sees the mini store as a possible route to market overseas – in airports in particular – given the low overhead of such stores and the ease of translating text into multiple languages.

For now the service is at the trial stage, and the pop up store was only operational until the end of June. A future test store with six screens is being planned and the system will also be installed in Urban Research’s flagship stores in busy SCs such as Lazona and Lucua; in these stores, Urban Research plans to sell product from brands and suppliers that had been selected by buyers but which did not make the cut due to space constraints in stores. Later on, similar shop booths are planned in department stores and station buildings, as well as a trial in Shanghai.

SC developers so far seem enamoured by the idea. Urban Research’s initial tests suggest potential for very high sales densities given the small size of stores, and speed of trying on clothes. Developers also see such stores as a great way to capture online sales within their SCs, especially if such virtual changing rooms were managed by themselves for multiple brands. Although online apparel sales are booming, the need to try on clothes remains a barrier. By stopping by a ‘changing booth’ at their local SC or station building, customers can get a better idea if an outfit suits them and click through to buy online there and then.

There is even talk of tying up with sponsors from other consumer categories like cars or tourism – changing rooms could be configured to look like the inside of a new model car for example, or use a backdrop of the Eiffel Tower with links to view holiday promotions in Paris.

Urban Research is one of the market leaders in online apparel sales measured as a ratio of turnover; last year 20% of its ¥36 billon in sales came from online sources and it is looking for more ways to merge physical stores and spaces with digital sales, particularly through digital technologies, which can increase the level of entertainment for fashion consumers.