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Been in one re­cently? Doesn’t mat­ter—they’re the same tor­ture cham­bers they’ve al­ways been

By Kim Bhasin

Laura Stam­pler, 28, prefers shop­ping for clothes right af­ter happy hour. It takes a cou­ple of whiskey gin­gers or gin and ton­ics, the nov­el­ist from Man­hat­tan says, to deal with the de­press­ing re­al­ity that is a dress­ing room. “I don’t know if it’s the light­ing, or I’m not feel­ing great about my­self,” she says, “but so much of the time, fit­ting rooms can feel more un­flat­ter­ing than a nor­mal mir­ror.”

You don’t have to be buzzed to re­late. The cramped stalls where we de­cide how we’ll present our­selves to the world bring out our worst anx­i­eties—I’m too fat! Too short! Too fat and too short?—right when we need them calmed. “We go into dress­ing rooms know­ing we’re not per­fect,” says Jen­nifer Baum­gart­ner, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and the au­thor of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Re­veal About You. “And it’s am­pli­fied.”

Which is jeg­gings-level in­sane, given that re­tail­ers’ one com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage over on­line shop­ping is that cus­tomers can try on what they might buy. Dress­ing rooms should be Shangri-Las, not dark, dirty shoe­boxes where we try to avoid get­ting stuck by a stray safety pin.

And yet it’s 2016, and the dress­ing room isn’t much dif­fer­ent than it was when peo­ple bought clothes at the gen­eral store. Sure, re­tail­ers have re­cently started pack­ing fit­ting rooms full of fancy tech­nol­ogy. Macy’s and Zara are test­ing smart­phones and tablets that let shop­pers se­lect ad­di­tional items to try on (a tech­no­log­i­cal marvel that Ap­ple­bee’s in­tro­duced ta­ble­side in 2013). Nord­strom is ex­per­i­ment­ing with in­ter­ac­tive mir­rors that al­low you to browse prod­uct re­views or sum­mon help. But so what? Es­pe­cially if there’s no one to ask for help, no hook to hang your coat on, a janky cur­tain that only half-closes, noth­ing to sit on, no ven­ti­la­tion, and flu­o­res­cents that would di­min­ish Bey­oncé’s ra­di­ance. Who wants to spend even more time in th­ese panic rooms?

Re­tail­ers should have bet­ter an­swers to th­ese ques­tions by now. They af­fect the bot­tom line: A shop­per who tries cloth­ing on and re­ceives as­sis­tance do­ing so is likely to spend about $130, vs. about $48 for some­one who stays on the sales floor, ac­cord­ing to fit­ting room con­sul­tant Alert Tech, which ad­vises com­pa­nies such as Nike, H&M, and Calvin Klein on de­sign, lo­ca­tion, and staff train­ing.

But word hasn’t got­ten around, says Marge Laney, Alert Tech’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer. It’s chal­leng­ing to con­vince re­tail­ers (and ex­ec­u­tives) that stick­ing shop­pers in an unat­tended, bar­ren box is bad busi­ness; de­spite the data, the re­turn on in­vest­ment for some­thing like light­ing is sub­jec­tive. “They’ve been run this way for­ever,” Laney says. “Fit­ting rooms are psy­cho­log­i­cal land mines.”

This may ex­plain why some retail sup­pli­ers have re­sorted to psy-ops. A Sand City, Calif., man­u­fac­turer called the Skinny Mir­ror claims its prod­uct makes a per­son look about 10 pounds thin­ner, which it said would trans­late into higher in-store spend­ing. But an ap­pear­ance on ABC’s Shark Tank last year didn’t land it a deal—Kevin O’Leary called the mir­ror a “sham”—and crit­ics ques­tioned if it might cause more harm than good. It’s not like you won’t no­tice, and sigh, when a sweater looks sus­pi­ciously tighter as you’re get­ting ready for work one morn­ing. (The Skinny Mir­ror’s founder wrote in a blog post: “Our brand was highly mis­rep­re­sented.”)

Tech­nol­ogy isn’t a bad thing, of course, and some mer­chan­dis­ers are mak­ing good use of it. In a part­ner­ship with EBay, Re­becca Minkoff stores are test­ing rooms that let pa­trons flip through light­ing tem­plates to show what they’d look like in an of­fice, dur­ing the day, or at night. Through ra­dio-fre­quency iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, screens au­to­mat­i­cally know what cloth­ing is be­ing tried on and show cus­tomers dif­fer­ent col­ors and sizes. In­ter­ac­tive walls on the sales floor even let shop­pers re­quest help to prep a fit­ting room, have items de­liv­ered to try on, or or­der drinks, in­clud­ing Cham­pagne. Just in case you couldn’t make happy hour ahead of time. <BW>

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