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Shopping gets smart
Feature: 3/11/2002

When Roger Holmes took over as chief executive at Marks and Spencer earlier this year, he promised a bright new technological future for the company - a future in which 'smart' clothes would tell consumers whether or not they were putting together the right styles and colours (director-e News, Thursday 29 August).

In a 'chips with everything' view of the future, he also pledged the introduction of hi-tech systems throughout the stores, investing heavily in microchips to give customers and staff a new range of information about clothes.

Well, Italian fashion house Prada has gone some way towards achieving a similar future concept within its Manhattan SoHo store in New York.

The most striking thing about the store isn't the round glass elevator or the sloping wood floor that displays $500 shoes. Nor is it the see-through raincoats in cages or the clear dressing room doors, made of liquid crystal panels that darken for privacy when shoppers step inside.

The real magic in the fashion house's 17,000-square-foot store is the technology behind the scenes - innovations that other retailers like M&S are also looking to adopt.

RF identification

Using a technology called radio frequency identification that embeds data in clothing tags, Prada sales assistants armed with handheld computers can find out a lot on the spot. What sizes of that blouse are still in stock? What materials are in it?

Prada shoppers eventually will be able to create "virtual closets" and store information about what they tried on and bought in password-protected Internet accounts. They will also be able to opt for customer cards that detail past purchases and contain notes that sales staff may have made on their preferences. Such cards would be readable either by staff handhelds or at cash registers.

Although designed to improve the shopping experience and make stores more efficient, such technologies also carry risks for consumers concerned about privacy - unless merchants set clear policies on the sharing of customer information.

Prada's SoHo store is the first of a string of so-called "epicenters" the Italian fashion company plans, with Tokyo and Los Angeles stores scheduled to open next year. And the company's use of "smart tags" on the sales floor - other retailers and garment manufacturers use them to track merchandise in warehouses - puts it at the forefront of a movement among merchants to expand their use of technology.

Internet kiosks in some Barnes & Noble and Gap stores enable shoppers to research products or order merchandise not on the premises. And Nordstrom is experimenting with storing customer information.

At least one other major retailer is trying out a different sort of tech tool. Vocera Communications Systems is testing WiFi wireless technology at a Target store in Rogers, Minnesota. It bundles the functions of a walkie-talkie, phone and pager into a 1.6-ounce badge. Store associates wear them around their necks and operate them hands free with voice commands.

Mix and match

In the Prada store's dressing rooms, customers can hang clothes in one lucite box and accessories, like handbags and belts, in another. An image is captured from their radio-frequency tags and projected on a plasma screen beside the closet in the dressing room.

By pushing buttons on the screens, customers can mix and match outfits, and find out more details about the clothing.

When a reporter wanted to try on a tapered wool jacket recently, the sales associate took her to a dressing room and deftly showed her how to get information about the garment's fabric and other details by pressing buttons on the screen.

Screens in dressing rooms will eventually be linked to the Web, enabling consumers to create "virtual closets". Just when such features will be available, Prada spokeswoman Katherine Ross wouldn't say.

Integrating the technology at the Prada SoHo store hasn't always been easy. As recently as July, sales assistants still had trouble with the wireless tag scanners. And many shoppers are still unaware of the radio frequency identification technology and how it works.

"Overall, it seems that the technology wasn't used to enhance the consumer experience, but help the sales people on the floor", said Mitch Kates, a principal with consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates. "The technology is cool, but it can also be intimidating".

One loyal Prada shopper, Shawn Rubino of Rye, New York, was impressed by streaming videos embedded in tables in the store and said she was "excited about the technology". But she was concerned about the potential "invasion of privacy" from some of Prada's tech plans. Katherine Ross said Prada has no plans to share any information with outside parties.

Too much information?

How Prada uses its technology to learn more about its customers remains key, said analyst Kate Delhagen of Forrester Research. While other companies store information online, at Prada "store clerks will have access to it", she noted.

Nordstrom has moved into similar territory by teaming up with Blue Martini Software to roll out customer relations software in its stores. The intention is to help sales staff better track customers' purchases and tastes by storing individual shoppers' information in a central database.

While the software is expected to make sales associates more efficient, the larger potential for Nordstrom is in cross-selling and pushing sales of related items, like hosiery with shoes. That could be a big turnoff to customers who don't want staff to know too much about them.

"The main problem is that you set yourself up for more sales people to pitch you products", said Richard Smith, an Internet privacy consultant. "And if they see you spending a lot of money, they'll be hovering more"
Author: John Gibbon
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