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Is it curtains for changing rooms?

The fitting room is going virtual. Enjoli Liston discovers how to get the perfect fit without leaving the house

I take a risk every time I buy clothes online, and it almost never pays off. The stack of garments in my bedroom waiting to be returned is testament to the madness that is my online shopping habit – especially as I often have to pay to send unwanted goods back, or waste time returning them to the store where I could have just shopped in the first place.

The problem is I can just never tell whether the outfits that look so alluring online will look good on me, because I can’t try them on. And I’m not alone. According to Andy Mulcahy, of e-retailers’ body IMRG, between 15 and 40 per cent of clothes (different stores have different rates) bought online are returned.

So what can shops do to reduce this inefficiency? Quite a lot according to the producers of web apps that allow shoppers to “try on” clothes from the comfort of their bedroom. Indeed, 2011 might be the year of the virtual fitting room.

“There’s no doubt this technology will become more and more of the retail experience,” says Tim Jeffrey, retail director at ‘i-am’ associates, a brand consultancy firm which counts Adidas and Diesel as clients. Tim describes online fitting rooms as a “compelling” idea which will increase online sales and reduce return rates, cutting hassle and costs for online consumers and retailers.

So how do they work? One of the simplest forms can be seen in eBay’s Fashion App for the iPhone which allows users to pose in virtual sunglasses before they buy the real thing. It uses augmented reality technology (AR), which allows digital data such as pictures and videos to overlay real-world surroundings. This means users can take a photo of themselves on their phones, overlay that with a virtual image of their chosen sunglasses and see how they would look in them. According to eBay’s Ruth Szyszkowski, the auction website’s sales from mobile devices more than tripled in 2010 and she says the app will only add to this because it gives shoppers “more confidence” when buying online.

And eBay is not alone. Watchmakers Tag Heuer and Tissot have embraced similar AR methods, allowing shoppers to print out paper bracelets which, when worn like a watch and waved in front of a webcam, trigger a live video that shows a 3D image of the watch on their wrist. Handy. Last year, H&M launched an app with the mobile platform company GoldRun, which combined AR with GPS technology to create invisible pop-up shops outside real H&M stores in New York, where shoppers could take pictures of each other “wearing” virtual clothes and share the images with their social networks. These novelty tools are certainly entertaining, but what about getting the right fit? Last year, the UK’s fashion retail industry was worth £21bn and online apparel accounted for 14 per cent of sales. It may seem a decent amount but compare it with computers – more than half of which are sold through internet stores – and it seems something is holding online fashion back.

“Apparel remains one of the most difficult categories for online sales – and this is because of the lack of a fitting room,” says Heikki Haldre, co-founder of Fits.me, an online fitting room service based in Estonia which is used by brands such as shirtmakers Hawes & Curtis, and has just been named one of 2011’s top breakout brands by American news channel CNBC. Fits.me allows users to enter their measurements and then transforms a robotic 3D mannequin into their body shape, giving the online shopper a pretty accurate idea of how the clothes will look on them. Although the service is only available for men (their body shapes are easier to engineer), a female mannequin will be up-and-running in just a few months.

Heikki assures me I’m not alone in sending back most of the clothes I buy online. He says one-in-four generously-fitting items (like T-shirts) bought online are returned, and half of all closely-fitted items are sent back. For him, the benefits of online fitting rooms are obvious: “By reducing the risk of shopping online, sales will increase. Reduced returns help reduce costs, which in turn should help retailers sell at lower prices.” So could this technology be the end of the real-life store?

“By 2018, some 35 per cent of clothing sales will be on the internet,” says Heikki. “This will mean that up to one-inthree clothes shops might be closing, or in need of changing their business model. The same has already happened to the book retailers and travel agents.”

But despite an 18 per cent rise in online sales at Hawes & Curtis after introducing Fits.me, the shirtmakers’ head of e-commerce Antony Comyns believes stores have a future. He says: “People ultimately still enjoy physically touching the products, and high-street shopping is still the UK’s favourite leisure activity.” Personally I’d never enter a real changing room again if I didn’t have to. But I’ll be glad to see the back of that stack.