FIX YOUR DAMN FITTING ROOMS
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>