Brick-And-Mortar Clothing Retailers: Replace Mannequins With In-Store Tech

0aaaSusanMcReynolds CenturyLink

Once you’ve worked in the mannequin business, you become judgmental of others — other mannequins, that is. And I mean really judgy. You might not consider mannequins terribly significant, but they are: Brands that “get it” make hefty investments to design custom mannequins in an effort to illustrate their brand stories.

Brands each have a unique fit, attitude and persona, and mannequins are a way to personify the brand and bring designs to life through well-crafted and thoughtful aesthetics. Consider Nike: It pushes the creative envelope time and again with custom mannequin collections, featuring poses from static to full-on active (like its NFL collection from 2012, for example, created through design firm Fusion). Not only was this mannequin line aspirational, but it also brought a brand story to life, fusing Nike’s activewear with America’s love for football.

And in today’s retail environment, it’s the details that matter. Luckily with mannequins, the possibilities are endless. Still, as much as I appreciate a good mannequin (and the care that goes into sculpting, posing, and using it to promote brands), its fundamental purpose is ripe for the digital disruption that’s sweeping the retail industry. After more than a century, a mannequin is still just a physical representation of the human body used to display and ultimately sell clothes. Improvements have been incremental at best.


Disruption is necessary, but true innovation takes time, thought, and effort: the retail environment of the future must be carefully engineered to create immersive and thoughtful customer experiences to drive differentiation and brand loyalty. And we’re at a tipping point.

Create A Retail Space Shoppers Won’t Want To Leave

No matter how strongly retailers embrace being omnichannel (a new buzzword, please!) and embarking on digital transformation, rethinking brand experience in the brick-and-mortar store is the real key to staying relevant amid the retail revolution. But stores don’t have to incorporate the most cutting-edge technologies to stay ahead; they just need to go back to basics.

To do that, start with your in-store experience — make your space so appealing that shoppers won’t be able to pass it by. Consider Reese Witherspoon’s company, Draper James: The Southern-inspired clothing line offers an in-store environment that makes customers feel like they’ve just entered a modern Southern home. Charm from the Deep South meets you in all directions, even down to samples of sweet tea available for shoppers to sip as they browse. Checkout areas resemble kitchen islands with barstools to represent the central hub of any Southern dream home.

And we must not forget the importance of perhaps the most basic — yet wonderfully effective — investment any retailer can make: a dressing room with flattering light. Draper James shines in this area, going as far as touting its dressing room wallpaper “Insta-worthy.” Combined, all of these effects create a perfectly executed, intentional brand experience.

Inviting Tech Into The Dressing Room

When it comes to your in-store experience, it’s time to evaluate how the right technology can make the customer journey more enjoyable and frictionless, which got me thinking about mannequins in the first place. With the onslaught of digital disruption taking hold, will the physical mannequin take on a new role and ride the wave of retail innovation or be left behind?

Mannequins allow brands to bring designs to life and provide inspiration and recommendations for styling options — almost like a physical Pinterest board. But new tech innovation (virtual reality, augmented reality and even mixed reality) has already arrived, and there’s more on the horizon to supplant why most mannequins are deployed in the first place.

Although some of these technologies are in proof of concept or early adopter stages, the tools to help reimagine and personalize the retail experience are just around the corner:

1. Add value to your customer journey — and gain insights doing it.

There’s nothing like making customers happy while simultaneously learning what makes them tick. And in today’s digital world, it’s becoming increasingly easier to do — and increasingly imperative.

To keep your physical store doors constantly revolving, “what’s always been done” is no longer enough. Thinking outside the box, keeping up on the latest tech trends and finding consistent ways to engage your customers is a must to stay top of mind. Luckily, pioneers are paving the way — take note from them.

TriMirror is a virtual dressing room where shoppers create personalized avatars (mannequins!) and have a fitting room experience on the go, at home, or within the physical retail environment. What if you could see how jeans might fit your body without entering a dressing room? What if you could try on and pre-order next season’s collection before it even hits the shelves? 

By scanning a QR code, consumers can try and buy; compare sizes and styles; and make more informed decisions without stripping down. The technology deploys a tension map that highlights where clothing is too tight or loose; it even shows how the material drapes through body movement. Layer on AI and machine learning-informed avatars, and instantly remove hassle and stress from the shopping experience. Here, the retailer adds value to the customer experience and also gains more intimate knowledge by capturing preferences and insights through in-store engagement.

Even True Fit’s Confidence Engine platform, built on data-driven insights and machine learning, enables retailers to offer personalized fit ratings and clothing size recommendations to aid shoppers. And with 81% of consumers more likely to purchase from a brand after having a successful fit experience, personalized fit removes costly friction from the customer journey and builds brand confidence. Regardless of whether these technologies are deployed online first, fit accuracy is highly relevant to fostering a more efficient in-store shopping experience.

2. Integrate tech into your clothing retail space and watch the magic happen.

While many of us prefer testing clothes behind closed doors, imagine if retailers installed memory mirrors (like Neiman Marcus’ “magic mirrors” that allow for 360-degree views and touchscreen engagement) in every dressing room. They should.

Earlier this year, Amazon filed and was awarded a patent for a “blended reality” mirror that allows customers to try on clothes virtually against different backdrops. The mirror serves as a logical extension of Echo Look’s Style Check tool that blends machine learning and styling assistance to help consumers decide what looks best on them.

Similarly, Amazon made more headlines for its 3D body-scanning endeavors to better understand how “customers’ bodies change shape over time.” Interestingly enough, 3D-body scanning to ensure fit, size and proportion accuracy has been used in the mannequin industry for at least a decade. With Amazon Wardrobe’s interest in growing private label brands, knowing how clothing will fit at the point of purchase should go a long way in reducing costly online returns.

Also consider Magic Leap’s Lightwear (more or less augmented reality on steroids), backed by some of the biggest retail and tech names in the industry (including Google and Alibaba) — and totally shrouded in mystery. Magic Leap technology promises to add another dimension to spatial computing and reinvent the way humans interact with reality — and how they shop.

By seamlessly blending computer-generated graphics with the real world, users wearing Lightwear goggles can experience mind-bending interactions with virtual objects — at least that’s the buzz on the street. Rumor suggests a user can simply look at clothing, immediately purchase a garment, try it on virtually, and even feel fabrics through haptic technology capabilities. With a highly anticipated consumer launch slated sometime this year, we’ll have to wait and see.

3. It’s time for IT and everyone else to play nice.

Beacons inserted inside mannequins doth not innovation make. Introducing tech for tech’s sake is never a good idea to drive long-term return on investment. Similarly, while there are many exciting applications and digital capabilities to invigorate the path to purchase, if the underlying connectivity that powers this tech is not optimized or secured, strategic customer experience investments could fall flat.

Deploying cutting-edge customer experiences requires a prioritized investment in building the right network architecture (and an optimized infrastructure) to support increasing digital demands.

It’s also imperative to pay special attention to security controls, especially as in-store attacks increase with new endpoints introduced through the latest technologies (like Internet of Things, mobile POS, cloud-based applications, guest WiFi, kiosks, etc.). Bypassing security controls to implement the latest digital tech allows for vulnerabilities and cyberattacks. That’s a risk no retailer should be willing to take.

Bottom line: The future of retail demands a digital-first culture fully supported through internal alignment across IT, marketing, digital, merchandising customer experience and more. According to Gartner, “In 2017, 50% of all customer experience projects made use of IT, and [Gartner] expects this number to increase to more than 75% by 2022.” Shifting away from siloed, disconnected decision-making toward a culture of stakeholder collaboration with IT is a requirement in the digital age.

So does the future of retail include mannequins? Being made of plastic, they should be able to weather any retail apocalypse. However, with the increasing pressure to differentiate, retail experiences must be more contextual, immersive and authentic to build brand enthusiasts. Technology is starting to give mannequins some stiff competition.


In the role of vertical strategy manager for CenturyLink, Susan McReynolds works with customers, analysts, and industry leaders to keep a pulse on the IT trends and challenges facing today’s health care and retail enterprises. McReynolds provides thought leadership on topics related to cybersecurity, digital transformation and next-generation networking strategies. Prior to joining CenturyLink, McReynolds helped guide national and global athletic brands in developing custom visual merchandising programs. She received both her MBA and undergraduate degrees from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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