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Published: Sunday, 8/12/2012

Retailers size up virtual dressing-room programs

Consumers have chance to find clothes that fit, flatter

LOS ANGELES TIMES
A model shows Styku's scanning system. The program measures users' dimensions and creates avatars to digitally try on clothes. A model shows Styku's scanning system. The program measures users' dimensions and creates avatars to digitally try on clothes.
STYKU Enlarge

LOS ANGELES -- At the Westfield Culver City mall, jeans shopper Stephanie Heredia stepped into a booth resembling an airport body scanner. In less than 20 seconds, she walked away with a printout that recommended a dozen denim styles to fit her hourglass-shaped frame.

Paper in hand, she headed to JCPenney to try on a pair of size 12 boot-cut Levis. The fit was perfect. And the best part: No shimmying in and out of a stack of styles and sizes to get it.

"Whenever I go shopping for jeans, I have a heck of a time," said Ms. Heredia, 50. "This is something new, more exciting. "

New technology is making it easier than ever to find clothes that fit and flatter. Size-matching machines are springing up in shopping centers around the country. Free to shoppers, the service means less dressing room drama for customers like Ms. Heredia -- and the promise of bigger profits for the industry.

Clothing makers, armed with body data collected from real shoppers, could sew better-fitting garments and more accurately forecast what sizes to stock. Retailers would save on labor needed to fold and rehang rejected garments. Some see its potential as a marketing tool.

During a test of a body scanner aimed at helping shoppers find the right pair of jeans, denim purchases rose at a Bloomingdale's store in Los Angeles' Culver City area, company spokesman Marissa Vitagliano said.

Sizing machines are "a great example of using technology to drive sales," she said. "It's certainly the wave of the future and we want to be part of that."

The technology also could help cut down on one of the biggest drawbacks to Internet shopping: returns. More than 20 percent of apparel ordered online gets sent back. Sizing software for home motion-sensing devices like the popular Microsoft Kinect soon will allow consumers to scan themselves in their living rooms before clicking "purchase" on their computer screens.

"It's disruptive technology that could break open the whole ecommerce apparel space," said Raj Sareen, chief executive and founder of Styku. The Los Angeles start-up has developed a program that measures users' dimensions and creates personalized on-screen avatars to digitally "try on" clothes. Using specifications provided by clothing manufacturers, the program can figure out whether that dress will fit like a tent or a tourniquet before a shopper ever takes it off the rack.

Mr. Sareen said the firm plans to sell the tool directly to consumers for home use by the end of the year but has not set a price. It is also in talks with major retailers to install the software inside store fitting rooms.

Technology companies say virtual fitting rooms and sizing machines turn the shopping experience into a science. In a typical setup, shoppers step fully clothed into a sizing machine and stand still with their arms outstretched. Thousands of points on the body are then measured and mapped -- usually by a motion-sensing device or by a vertical wand containing small antennas -- and used to determine a person's unique shape. A shopper is then matched with specific styles of clothing brands to fit his or her body type based on sizing information gathered from retailers' inventory.

In addition to Styku, players include London-based Bodymetrics, which makes store body-mapping booths, and the Calabasas, Calif., firm FaceCake Marketing Technologies, which has developed a 3-D dressing room called Swivel that allows shoppers to virtually model clothes on a computer monitor or television screen.

Canadian firm Unique Solutions Design Ltd. operates size-matching stations in 65 shopping malls across the United States that scan about 200,000 shoppers a month, according to company Chief Executive Tanya Shaw. Dubbed Me-Ality, the machines cost roughly $60,000 to $100,000 each to produce and install, said Ms. Shaw, who projects that 200 of the company's machines will be in U.S. malls by the end of the year.

"It's great because it streamlines the shopping process and allows people to shop more efficiently and faster, and ultimately visit more stores," said Sarah Richardson, chief of marketing at Westfield Culver City. "Having that kind of tool takes the guesswork out of shopping."

After the free scan, consumers are matched with their correct sizes in brands including Eddie Bauer, American Eagle Outfitters, Talbots, and True Religion. They are given specific styles to buy and are provided with the price of each item.

Retail employees at Westfield Culver City say they have noticed a steady stream of shoppers coming into their stores clutching the printouts. Instead of browsing, the customers make a beeline for what's recommended.

"They already know what kind of jeans they want; we don't have to explain it to them," said Moises Ramirez, a sales associate at Old Navy. He said the store had noticed an uptick in denim sales, particularly for its Rockstar style, since the Me-Ality sizing booth was set up in the mall.

Tech companies said they hope to expand the technology to other items where fit matters, such as scuba-diving suits, skiing gear, hats, and sunglasses.



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