Letter From the Convention Floor

Interactive Mirror Mirror on the Wall

A high-tech mirror, displayed at a National Retail Federation convention, uses instant messages.
A high-tech mirror, displayed at a National Retail Federation convention, uses instant messages. (National Retail Federation)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

NEW YORK Stephanie Greenfield stared at her reflection in a mirror as she fussed with a designer Nanette Lepore coat in off-white. Instant messages from friends looking on via a video hookup appeared on the high-tech mirror to her left.

JoanArx: definitely pop the collar

BlueSky89: i think it will match your purse

JoanArx: the lining is great too. it adds a lot.

BlueSky89: what necklaces can you show me?

The 23-year-old picked out a long gold strand and placed it around her neck. Then she turned to the video camera on her right to see what her friends thought. The instant messages started flying again.

This could be the future of shopping, on display this week at the National Retail Federation's annual convention. More than a dozen companies, including big names like IBM and Cisco Systems, are demonstrating the latest retail technology in a faux clothing boutique where the line between e-tailing and bricks-and-mortar stores is erased. The new catchphrase is "social retailing," a term coined by the technology consulting firm IconNicholson that combines mobile communication, online networking sites like Facebook and traditional merchandising that could change the way we buy.

In this new world, our friends are constantly online and ready to advise whether those pants really do make our derrieres look big. Checkout lines are nonexistent because we buy items with our cellphones while browsing the store. Retailers know our sizes and text-message us personalized coupons when we walk through their doors.

"It can't feel like it's technology," said Fred Balboni, global retail leader for IBM. "It has to feel like it's a natural part of the way that you operate."

At the convention here, the prototype store is geared to 17- to 24-year-olds, many of whose lives are a seamless quilt of the virtual and the actual. Take the hypothetical story of Caitlyn, a teenager conjured up by IBM to showcase its technology. She is walking down the street when she spies the most adorable denim miniskirt. She snaps a photo of it with her cellphone, then uses her phone to post the picture on a fashion blog. Her message goes out to the world:

1:34 p.m. "saw low-waisted short frayed jean skirt w/ sequins on back pocket. where get."

Minutes later, someone sees her post and sends a link to her cell to the store where she could buy the skirt. She checks out the Web site and purchases the skirt by tapping a few buttons on her phone, or she can put it on hold and pick it up at the mall -- and the store will beam her a welcome message when she arrives, maybe even a coupon.

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