Because You Only Get Naked Once: Reflections on NRF

Last week I made my annual trip to the National Retail Federation's Big Show, which this year hit its highest attendance, at more than 34,000. That's a lot of folks trying to find solutions to improve business. 

Also last month I hit my 20-year anniversary with Apparel. It's been fascinating to watch the industry evolve during the past two decades, but in the most recent five years the pace of change has accelerated as advances in technology place more power in the hands of the consumer. As Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director, marketing and international for Marks & Spencer so pointedly summed it up: "The customer is no longer king. They are omnipotent gods."

As we've seen, the addition of digital into the shopping experience has wrought much evolution in retail, from siloed e-commerce sites and the declaration of the death of brick & mortar to the discovery that customers who shop across channels spend much more. We've travelled from cross-channel to omnichannel, adding BOPIS and SFS along the way. More recently, we've discovered that an optimum retail experience involves not only a perfect journey of digital and in-store shopping, but also a simultaneous blend of digital and in-store shopping.

Fast forward to NRF, where there was a clear focus on bringing digital in store — for customers and associates alike. The best experience for the customer offers apparel you can touch and try on ? as well as an endless aisle of product choice and product information and style advice and line-busting offered via smartphone, or kiosk, or tablet, or other digital display ? or digitally-armed associate — in store.

And what about after you've located the items you'd like to try on? The best experience extends that digital environment into the dressing room, allowing you to take actions such as further researching your items, or requesting different sizes or styles, or discovering complementary items, and exiting the dressing room only after you've achieved the perfect fit and style — even if you didn't bring the right products in on your first try. As Frederick Bleckmann of Inmotion Experience puts it: "You only get naked once."

Call 2016 the Year of the Interactive Dressing Room. Retailers understand that customers don't like the hassle of getting dressed and undressed multiple times, and the most sophisticated are leading the charge to revitalize the dressing room experience by making it more interactive and convenient. Powered by RFID, with product tagged at the item-level and dressing rooms equipped with RFID readers so they ‘know' what comes in and out, high-tech dressing rooms  of today are claiming a more prominent and social spot along the path to purchase.

Who's doing this? G-Star RAW, for one. Its Union Square store features an interactive fitting room, to which customers can bring a clothing item to a screen and interact with it. In its booth, RFID provider Impinj, in partnership with Inmotion and ShopWithMe showcased that technology along with other interactive in-store solutions that create interactive product experiences, allow real-time tracking of inventory and provide shopper analytics on in-store traffic and product movement. Other brands featuring interactive dressing rooms that I saw highlighted at NRF include Lucky Brand (using RFID Retail Solutions from Catalyst, a Li & Fung Co.) and Levi's (in collaboration with Intel® and its new Retail Sensor Platform). Craig Fleishman, SVP, corporate development + general counsel, Rebecca Minkoff, spoke of the brand's much heralded Connected Dressing Rooms (powered in part by Avery Dennison).

Of course, as with any developing use of technology, there are new challenges to face. As retailers place digital tools in dressing rooms, they invite consumers to linger. This is a double-edged sword. As Marge Laney, author of Fit Happens: Analog Buying in a Digital World, notes, apparel companies want customers to find what they want, but they also need a certain amount of velocity when it comes to fitting room turns. Too much lingering, and you'll lose sales from people who don't want to wait in line to try on clothes, which begs the question: just how much information and how many options do you want to give your customer in the fitting room?

As retailers work out the optimum balance of dressing room tech, it may be instructive to think about "getting naked once" with respect to all points of customer engagement. Whether it's the helpfulness of your employees, the quality of your product, the navigability of your e-comm site, price consistency across channels or anything else, many customers are only going to give you one shot. Make sure you provide the experience they're looking for. 

Otherwise, they'll just go get naked with the competition.

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].

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