How smart mirrors, VR headsets, and other tech will alter retail

Pretty soon the lines between physical and digital reality will be blurred.

You’ll be able to sit in your living room, put on some 3D goggles, and shop for a pair of jeans in a virtual store — that does not physically exist.

Or, if that’s too Matrix for your style, you can use your mobile device to see how a pair of jeans fits your virtual “avatar” and even feel the texture of the jeans through the vibrations of your phone.

What if you have some time to (or better yet, what if you want to) stop by an actual store in person? Then you’ll simply peruse a rack of jeans as information on pricing, deals, and customer reviews appears before your eyes on an optical head-mounted display.

The fashion and beauty landscape is evolving as retailers of all types look for creative ways to offer consumers more efficient, reliable, per­sonalized, and enjoyable shopping experiences. What do these Back-to-the-Future-like solutions mean for the retail industry?

Which technologies truly add value to the store experience, whether online or offline?

Which retailers get it?

Digital gets physical

E-commerce boasts a two-decade tenure of advancing the shopping experience by enabling consumers to browse, research, and compare products from anywhere, any time.

And consumers are into it.

The proof is in the data. Both the number of online buying visits and dollar sales have climbed steadily since 2012. In the 12 months ending in March 2015, U.S. consumers made nearly 5.2 billion online buying visits. They collectively spent $358 billion, shown by The NPD Group’s Shopping Activity Services. And this trend is poised to continue on the same track.

U.S. Brick & Mortar visits are on decline while online visits are on rise

The total U.S. market is up 2% for the 12 months ending March 2015, driven by double digit increases in online sales.

For softline products specifically, penetration in the U.S. online market has been on a steady ascent since 2011. Last year, 23 percent of footwear sales, 20 percent of accessory sales, 16 percent of apparel sales, and 11 percent of beauty sales took place online.

Online retailing, however, is not without its limitations.

E-commerce penetration rates have generally been lower for softlines than for hardlines. And this isn’t surprising, since beauty and fashion are emotive.

In this space reaching a purchase decision is not only about how something looks on a screen, but rather, how it looks on each of our unique bodies, and how it makes us feel.

Sure, you can browse product photos and study customer reviews to reach an informed decision — but what about the tangible components? How can we know in advance if a pair of pants will fit well around the waist, but gather awkwardly around the hips? Or if a dress that is knee length on a six-foot model will fall well below the knees on our shorter frames? Or if for some inexplicable reason something just doesn’t work?

Enter augmented reality — and a little bit of virtual reality.

Augmented reality links the real and virtual, enhancing our world view by providing a different perspective with the help of digital technology, usually some type of screen or lens. It is partly immersive, allowing users to see through or around it. (Think Google Glass.)

Virtual reality technologies take it one step further — creating a completely immersive experience through computer generation, transporting users to “closed” virtual universes. (Think 3D goggles that shut out the physical world around you.)

Magic mirror on the wall

On the augmented reality front, footwear and accessory retailers Warby Parker, Converse, and the like have rolled out digital tools that allow users to virtually try on merchandise. In Warby Parker’s “Virtual Try-On” tool, it works like this: you select a pair of glasses from the site, upload your headshot, and the tool overlays an image of the frames over your photo, providing a general idea of how the glasses might look on your real face.

Likewise, Converse launched its Converse Sampler iPhone App a few years ago. You scroll through photos of sneakers within the app, virtually position them over your feet with your phone camera, assess how they look, and order a pair directly through the app.

Makeup manufacturers have joined the virtual bandwagon, too. With YOY U.S. sales growth of $262 million in 2014, makeup is enjoying healthy gains, and brands are rolling out solutions to test makeup away from the store. Avon, Mary Kay, and L’Oréal USA, for example, provide virtual makeover tools on their websites, allowing visitors to try out different face, eye, lip, and nail products virtually. While Avon and Mary Kay use simple photo upload tools to layer on makeup to headshots, L’Oréal USA’s Makeup Genius smartphone app creates a real-time mirror experience: you scan your face with a smartphone camera and try out “looks” while the camera is live, providing immediate feedback as you tilt and turn your face.

NPD Senior Makeup Industry Analyst Kissura Mondesir says we’re in the “age of the selfie”— with photo uploads, effects and filters all parts of everyday life. These “try before you buy” virtual makeup tools are a natural extension of our creative expression, and they are sure to be a big hit with Millennials.

These tools provide a better alternative to simply “winging it” online, and they’re certainly helpful (and not to mention — fun!) in narrowing down beauty and fashion items that don’t work for you. But let’s be honest. Do they really provide a revolutionary perspective that you can’t get from a little imagination? And they unfortunately cannot assess how an item fits or feels on you. Many online retailers like Amazon and Zappos have mitigated this risk with liberal return policies that make returns or exchanges free — but this isn’t always a price performer from the retailer’s perspective.

Karen Grant, NPD’s global beauty industry analyst, knows the space better than anyone else. She says the online space is the most dynamic in terms of prestige beauty product growth. But she prefaces this by saying that beauty is still a category where consumers thrive on touching and experimenting, so there remains a need for an in-store element and/or advisor.

Playing dress-up

What’s the best alternative to trying on clothes in person?

Trying them on your virtual avatar.

Using virtual body doubles for online shopping could one day become a mainstream reality, thanks to 3D scanners that create highly accurate models of the human body. These expensive scanners can exist in offline stores in the form of heavy-duty, advanced radio wave scanners, or

laser-based devices like Microsoft Kinect. Alternatively, consumers could enjoy direct scanner access via mobile device cameras or webcams, though these would produce less precise models.

Bloomingdales has experimented with Me-Ality technology, using body imaging machines to match consumers with their appropriate off-the-rack sizes. Men’s fashion brand Alton Lane takes it one step further by conducting in-person body scans at its showrooms and using these precise measurements to design and produce bespoke suits for its clientele. Armed with their virtual avatars, customers can then make future purchases on Alton Lane’s website and feel confident about fit.

Software company Styku is developing a platform that creates 3D models of both garments and shoppers, recommends sizing, and allows shoppers to see how clothing items would likely look on them (via their virtual avatars).

If retailers are willing to invest in and roll out this technology, body scanners will disrupt the apparel industry and open up the online market to risk-averse consumers otherwise skeptical of e-commerce.

Ya feel me?

In the long term, expect to see a cost-effective solution to e-commerce malaise in the form of haptic devices — technology that allows us to feel the texture of an online product through transmitted touch. Haptic devices recreate the sense of touch through tactile feedback by applying forces and vibrations to user devices. Imagine being able to swipe your finger across a tablet screen to feel smooth silk or coarse wool.

Many technology firms are developing systems they hope to one day roll out for commercial retail use—but in order to go mainstream, haptics need to spark device manufacturers’ interest. As of now they’ve garnered minimal interest due to a lack of compelling use cases, so consumers should not expect to see them on the market any time soon.

A rose by any other name . . .

We’ve discussed virtual sight, fi t, and feel—but what about virtual smell? Beauty and cosmetics brands are getting in on the virtual reality game, but are fragrance retailers also innovating in this space?

Tech companies have developed cell phone plugins that allow users to text the smells of “bacon” or “flowers” to friends for fun. If consumers are game for this, why wouldn’t they be interested in a similar application for fine fragrances? Imagine being able to shop online for perfume without a trip to the store, by sampling different trademarked scents through your mobile device? Or better yet, forgo your own perfume application, and just carry your phone around with you and let it emit the fragrance!

NPD Fragrance Industry Analyst Brenna Phelan warns that while consumers might be apt to embrace this virtual fragrance concept, the industry is not. Luxury fragrance brands succeed in part because of the high-quality ingredients and artistry of the perfumers — qualities that may not translate well through virtual smelling. The absence of this category on the virtual front is worth noting.

Beam me up, Scotty

As long as you’re trying clothes on your virtual avatar, you might as well extend the virtual reality and let your body double make a quick spin at the virtual store, too.

One firm at the forefront of developments in the virtual reality space is Oculus VR, acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in March 2014. The tech company is developing the Oculus Rift, a head-mounted 3D display for virtual reality. Though its primary application is for entertainment, film, and gaming, it also has relevance in retail. This technology would allow shoppers to benefit from any number of the fit technologies described above — except they would exist in a completely “closed” virtual world, through a 3D simulated environment. You could put on a headset in the comfort of your home and immerse yourself in an alternative shopping reality, browse and feel products, see how they look on your avatar, and make a direct purchase.

Though flashy and fun, this device won’t have real potential in the retail world until it is fully developed, and until software companies create the virtual worlds to live within it.

Physical gets digital

So just as e-commerce sites can use new technologies to become more human, traditional brick-and-mortar stores are trying to become more digital.

Retailers like Bloomingdales, Topshop, and Burberry have deployed augmented reality technology in their physical stores to allow shoppers to see how products look — without physically trying anything on. Bloomingdales and Topshop experimented with Microsoft Kinect to create 3D virtual dressing rooms; with the help of a motion-sensor, shoppers could wave their hands to scroll through different apparel items as the technology overlaid 3D clothing images over their real-time “reflections.”

On the beauty front, Burberry created a Digital Runway Nail Bar in one of its London stores, where customers can virtually test out new nail polish colors. By placing a nail polish bottle on the RFID-enabled platform, customers see the polish appear on the fingers of a virtual hand on a screen; they can then select a skin tone similar to their own to compare how different nail shades might look on their own fingers.

Panasonic recently debuted a “smart mirror” at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show with the hopes of rolling it out to department stores. The mirror has an embedded camera that can scan and project an image of your face on top of your reflection, and enables you to try out different looks by applying digital makeup — and even facial hair!

Sounds similar to L’Oréal’s virtual makeover tool — except Panasonic’s mirror analyzes your face using high definition cameras, points out facial flaws (lines, age spots, etc.), and tells you which products can fix them.

The real deal?

Though certainly engaging and fun, these digital dressing rooms and mirrors don’t seem to provide greater insight than does holding up a real shirt against your real body, or applying actual makeup to your face. Though these technologies might be additive online, offline they seem a bit duplicative. And what’s more, they can’t really offer much insight into how something fits or feels. So while you may save time in the short term, you could wind up spending more time returning items later.

It might just be worth it to endure the dressing room queue.

And as for a smart mirror that points out your flaws? Would you want a computer to point out the bags under your eyes and project them onto a public screen?

What works

Retailers from Walmart to Target are experimenting with 3D computer simulations and other technologies to enhance the real-world shopping experience. The ones who seem to get it are those who have found a way to extend the perks of online shopping to the physical store. Here are some examples of what’s working:

  • Sephora and Pantone teamed up to create Color IQ, an in-store digital beauty device that scans the surface of your skin, assigns it a “Color IQ”, and then matches you with the right foundation color from over 1,500 product options.
  • The software company Zugara has developed a technology that allows shoppers to try on one apparel item and digitally view what it looks like in different colors and styles.
  • American Apparel rolled out an application that lets patrons scan items via mobile device to get more information on products, see floor items in different colors, and read reviews by other customers.
  • Israeli mobile app Zikit pushes mobile coupons and offers from retailers to shoppers who walk into stores, providing retailers with behavioral insights on individual shoppers. This eventually allows stores to tailor personalized suggestions to these customers after repeated app use.

If the above technologies one day go mainstream, retailers could learn to know us and our shopping preferences, and never again will we become lost in a store!

Two worlds at the same time

Some brands are putting shoppers into a completely immersive digital world, turning to virtual reality for branding endeavors.

Topshop, for example, gave its fans a seemingly front-row view of a fashion show during London Fashion Week: store visitors were virtually transported to the catwalk with a pair of goggles (while stationary).

North Face employed a similar virtual initiative to elevate its in-store experience and brand storytelling. The outdoor product company transported in-store customers to Yosemite National Park and Moab Desert via Google Cardboard in partnership with technology firm Jaunt. In between shopping at flagship store locations, customers could virtually rock climb and trek the landscapes with famous athletes.

The future is now

So here’s the thing: these new technologies offer competitive advantages of one type or another to everyone. In-store shopping could become more fun. Online shopping could become more real. Consumers who can’t find clothes that fit will find clothes that fit. Even the most tactile and sensory of shopping experiences could move online, and the most dramatic and dangerous of real-world experiences could be enjoyed in the safety of a virtual environment.

Brands like North Face and Topshop, Sephora and American Apparel, Panasonic, Bloomingdales, Burberry, and more are all investing in these new technologies because they know you don’t need a VR headset to see the future. You just have to face it.

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