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.
"Caitlyn has had full customer service, full attention, all about her, but on a very personal device," said Robyn Schwartz, an IBM retail solutions executive who helps design software that powers such services.
The technology is still many years from being widely used. It is driven largely in part by the advent of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that allow retailers to track merchandise remotely but have raised privacy concerns. The equipment and software can be costly and depend on large networks of savvy consumers to be successful. What's the point of an interactive mirror if there's no one to message you?
Still, glimpses of this future are popping up in stores. Circuit City allows shoppers to order products online and pick them up at the store. At some branches of Stop & Shop, a grocer based in Massachusetts, customers can use Web tablets to send a wireless message to the deli while they shop. They receive a notice when their order is ready.
Back at the showroom floor, the interactive mirrors, designed by IconNicholson, are slated to debut at a Nanette Lepore boutique within a month. Her clothes are sold at her namesake shops and at high-end department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's.
The faux store at the convention includes samples from Lepore's fall 2007 line. Each piece has a traditional paper tag with her logo it and an RFID tag. Scan an item -- such as a gray skirt with lime-green embroidery -- at an RFID hot spot and it appears on a monitor above the clothing racks with outfit suggestions.
A silky top appears on the screen with the message, "Choose gray to highlight patterns." How about a darker look? "Make it black for moonlight viewing," reads a new message on the screen.
Greenfield poses in front of the mirror on the convention floor as part of this demonstration, checking out her outfit from every angle. Her friends watch her virtual fashion show by logging on to a social networking site where they can vote on her choices. The votes show up on the mirror's screen along with their instant messages. (Five give her a thumbs up; two say thumbs down.) They can even suggest alternative outfits, images of which also appear on the mirror's screen.
For Nanette Lepore, it's a high-stakes bet on the future of shopping. One of the high-tech mirrors can cost up to $25,000, and the entire dressing room runs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Christopher Enright, chief technology officer of IconNicholson. But he has no doubt that the vision will become reality.
"This is live," he said as he cast his own vote (yea) for Greenfield's outfit. "It's a revolution in how this whole retailing experience is going to go."