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Virtual trial rooms, AI fitting tools are the future of fashion retail

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As lockdown restrictions are eased and the retail fraternity is getting ready to reopen stores and welcome back shoppers, the focus has shifted towards trial rooms. Trial rooms are a huge advantage that the brick-and-mortar stores have over e-commerce, and nothing can replace the in-person experience of trying on an item in the changing room, but are they safe in the midst of a pandemic?
Even after the pandemic ends and consumption starts showing signs of upward movement, consumer sentiment will continue to be cautious with safety and sanitization being the top priority. It will be the same for brands and retailers as well –safeguarding the health of employees and customers alike will be crucial for them. Human life will take precedence over all and everything that threatens to jeopardise the safety of people will become obsolete – like fitting rooms.
Hence, most brands and retailers that have re-opened stores are hitherto left with just two options — either keep trial rooms off limits or sequester clothes that have been tried on in a fitting room.
In line with consumers’ and employees’ health concerns, American retail chain Kohl’s had decided to close all of its trial rooms indefinitely and is holding returned items for 48 hours. So has H&M and all stores owned by the H&M Group – Monki, Cos, Weekday and & Stories. Gap is also closing its all its fitting rooms and holding returned merchandise for a day. American department store chain Macy’s has announced that while it will not shut down all of its fitting rooms, the retailer is going to ‘quarantine’ all merchandise that have been tried on or returned for 24 hours.
In India too, re-opened fashion stores will look vastly different from what consumers are used to with brands and retailers deciding to go the same route and do away with trial rooms until further notice.
Brands like Jockey are even maintaining a strict no trial-no return policy. Others like Biba, PN Rao, Fabindia, etc., are limiting trials to two-three times, disinfecting trial rooms frequently and even steaming ‘tried but not purchased’ products.
It is going to be a deterrent for sure as most consumers visit stores to feel, touch and try a potential purchase. This has compelled retail gurus and retailers to trying to come up with a possible solutions.
Experts have come up with a slew of suggestions ranging from temperature checking and disinfecting every walk in, to size correcting products as per international standards to avoid unnecessary trials. But it all seems far-flung considering none of them can potentially add to the psychological assurance of consumers.
Can UV-C Hold the Key?
Recently, global experts have increasingly been vouching for Ultraviolet light as a convenient disinfecting alternative for commodities. A few reports on the internet document how fashion retailers in Philippines’ SM Mall of Asia are leveraging on ultraviolet technology to disinfect garments used in trial rooms before putting them back on display.
While the veracity of the information is yet to be ascertained, at least from our side, one cannot disapprove the possibility of using ultraviolet light to sanitize clothes that has been tried on in fitting rooms.
Infact, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent concerns of hygiene and safety has provided great impetus to the use ultraviolet light for sanitization of high traffic public spaces like malls and retail stores. It has been proven to be extremely effective on Coronavirus family and experts have been highly vocal about how UV light could become a key answer in helping the entire world get back to normal.
After being used in airports, hospitals and operation theaters since decades, UV-C (ultraviolet light with wavelengths between 200 – 280 nm) has recently made its foray into retail.
A Philippines based UV-C solution provider, UV Care has successfully installed escalator handrail sterilizers in some of the biggest malls of the country including Robinsons Mall, SM Mega Mall, Ayala Mall, etc. Escalator Handrail Sterilizers provide continuous UV-C light sterilization on escaltor handrails, powered by a self-generating internal motor. Similar initiatives are underway in many other countries as well.
The Harsh Truth
Nothing can possibly replicate the thrill of touch and feel of a product and more so trying it on before purchasing it. Hence, if every apparel tried has to be ‘quarantined’ for hours on end or if trial rooms are to be phased out altogether, it will definitely prove to be a big loss for the physical retail industry.
Moving on, even if the top tier brands and retailers could afford to invest on cutting edge technology in the future and offer consumers the luxury of trial rooms, it is clear that it would not be possible for all. In conclusion, we will have to understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in hitherto unseen ways and in unforgiving times as such, we all might just have to adjust to the new normal.
What International Brands Are Doing
Lululemon: Lululemon launched its pre-planned Digital Educator program on March 23. This allows consumers to free and personalised one-on-one appointments with a trained associate, where they can discuss product fit and recommendations.
Levi’s, Nike & Diane von Furstenberg: All three companies are using Hero, a startup that makes a messaging app that connects retailers to customers via text, chat and video.
Kohl’s, Gap, Urban Outfitters & Target: According to fashion trade magazine Glossy, all of these will be closing all fitting rooms and restrooms when they reopen.
Saks Fifth Avenue: Retailers who are keeping fitting rooms will clean clothes that are tried on and then take them off the sales floor for 24 hours before putting them back on display.

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