Mirroring reality

Tesco’s virtual changing rooms allow you to ‘try on’ clothes online. Deirdre Reynolds starts clicking

Mirroring reality

RETAIL therapy’s downside is the fitting room, with its mile-long queues and inevitable disappointment when the garment won’t zip.

Now Tesco are doing away with the torture of ‘fat mirrors’ and unflattering lighting by creating a ‘virtual fitting room’ on Facebook.

A hit on the social-networking site, the online changing room allows women to ‘try on’ the latest fashions from the store’s F&F range – without changing out of their pyjamas, let alone circling for a parking space.

Fashionistas simply upload a photograph of themselves and enter their body measurements — then let a 3D avatar do all the hard work. The free service also allows customers to ask Facebook friends, ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ before they pop it into their shopping basket.

“Although there has been talk about ‘virtual fitting rooms’ before, until now the technology has not been able to combine styling and accurate fit and size based on people’s specific measurements,” says Emily Shamma, director of Tesco clothing online.

“Shopping with your virtual self helps you to see what dress might suit you best, what top goes with those skinny jeans or how a jacket might look with a particular skirt,” she says. So that’s the science — but does it work?

I put Tesco’s ‘try before you buy’ technology to the test — I ‘tried on’ three outfits in its virtual fitting room and the same three outfits in one of the store’s actual fitting rooms. The results divided Ireland’s top fashion stylists.

“The ‘virtual fitting room’ is a great concept,” says personal shopper Shirley Lane, of PersonalStylist.ie. “But some versions are a lot better than others.

“Based on these pictures, yours seems to be an excellent match — whereas, others I’ve tried didn’t work at all.”

“Let’s get one thing clear,” says stylist Darren Kennedy, who also presents a ’digital download’ strand on ITV’s This Morning. “The virtual fitting room is ultimately a marketing ploy aimed at getting customers to spend more.

“There’s no substitute for trying on and touching a garment — seeing how it flows, what it feels like against the skin and, most importantly, how it makes you feel in your own skin.”

Nonetheless, the new technology is good news for the whopping 75% of women who suffer from ‘changing room rage’ induced by long queues, cramped conditions and curtains that don’t shut properly.

Dubbed ‘CRR’, symptoms include snapping at sales assistants, storming out of stores and even loss of self-confidence, according to a survey by home shopping brand Isme.com.

CRR could explain why many of us are turning our backs on the high street. Last year, Irish shoppers splurged €3bn online as they turned to cyberspace to bag a bargain, recent research by Visa Europe found.

After flights and holidays, clothing and footwear have fuelled the 40% spike in online sales since 2009.

“Consumers typically shop online because it’s convenient,” says Conor Langford, vice-president of Visa Ireland, “but, increasingly, we’ve seen budget-conscious shoppers turn to the internet in the hunt for value.

“The growth in e-commerce activity also reflects the fact that Irish consumers are increasingly confident in using their debit or credit card online.”

Online designer discount store BrandAlley is the latest retailer to drop onto doormats in Ireland.

Though it doesn’t have a virtual fitting room, bosses say girls are happy to double-click their way to a better wardrobe.

“People are definitely becoming more comfortable and confident shopping online,” says marketing director Melissa Littler. “We’ve noticed our Irish customers researching their purchases before they buy.

“For each brand we sell, such as Gucci, Guess and J Brand, we have a detailed sizing chart to help members make informed decisions and our customer-services team are always on hand to answer any questions.

“With online shopping, there will always be a certain level of returns, but ours are quite low — so the information and imagery we provide must be working.”

“At BrandAlley, we have no current plans to introduce virtual fittings rooms,” Ms Littler says. “However, it will be very interesting to see if it impacts Tesco’s online sales and returns rate — we are always looking for ways to make online shopping even quicker and easier for our members.”

Just like the disappointment of actual fitting rooms, though, there’s no guarantee that items that look great on your avatar will look great on you, too.

“I recently bought a jacket from another store that has a similar system,” says stylist Darren Kennedy.

“It looked great on me in the virtual fitting room, but when it arrived it was a complete disappointment with horrible, stiff fabric. Needless to say, I sent it back.

“Once you’re happy with the returns policy, though, I think anything that helps people pick clothes to suit their body shape and colouring is a good thing.”

When it comes to wardrobe staples such as jeans, however, start queuing, says stylist Tanya Grimson.

“Shopping for jeans can be soul-destroying at the best of times,” she says. “And while virtual fitting rooms let you experiment with a few different styles before you leave home, nothing beats trying them on for yourself.

“No written guide can tell you what style suits you best quite like looking in the mirror — fabric, position of pockets, shape and colour are all factors you should consider carefully before parting with your cash.

“It may be a pain, but once you find the ‘nirvana’ jean, you won’t regret it,” says Tanya. “And be sure to buy two pairs.”

* For the virtual dressing room see: www.facebook.com/Clothingattesco and click on the F&F Fitting Room

Virtual dressing room Versus Real dressing room

1. Success — this simple red shift looks almost exactly the same in both the virtual and real dressing room. After physically trying it on, though, I go for a bigger size in the unforgiving fabric before popping both it and the pumps in my basket.

Winner: Draw

2. I loved this bumble bee-inspired outfit on my virtual self – but wasn’t so sure about the real deal. Although I inputted my height, the actual skirt is slightly longer than the digital one and the stripes are a different width making me look a bit hippy – so I leave it behind.

Winner: Real dressing room

3. Bright pink pants and clashing cardi is not something I’d ever pick up in store, so I was pleasantly surprised that my avatar didn’t look too much like a stick of rock wearing them. I had to go a size up in the real cardi, which sits much shorter than shown in the virtual dressing room — but sold!

Winner: Virtual dressing room.

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