APRIL 6, 2011
Why Are Fitting Rooms So Awful?
Stores Try To Beautify Spaces, 'Seduce' Shoppers to Buy More With Better Lighting, Mirrors, Design
By ELIZABETH HOLMES and RAY A. SMITH
You spot a gorgeous dress on a hanger and, hopes high, make your way to the fitting room.
The Dream Dressing Room
Stores are making over these spaces with a variety of features.
It's downhill from there. The door doesn't fully shut, the lighting makes you look ill and the frock looks frumpy in a mirror fit for a fun house.
The retail dressing room can be a total sales killer.
Now stores are making a big push to transform the dingy fitting room into a more flattering space. It's part of an ongoing struggle by retailers to coax consumers to spend more. Having saturated the market with stores over the last decade, they can't expand to increase sales. Instead, companies are trying to squeeze more profits out of their current fleet.
Aesthetically, the dressing-room makeovers are an attempt to go from bland and barren to comfortable and inviting, as if the shopper is trying on clothing in her own home. Chandeliers are cropping up in luxurious anterooms, where racks of camisoles hang waiting to smooth the unexpected bulge. Inside the fitting rooms, wallpaper and back-lit mirrors aim to flatter, not frighten.
Stores are focusing their design efforts on dressing rooms in the women's clothing sections. Men tend to buy without trying on in the store, says Paco Underhill, founding president of Envirosell, a retail behavioral research and consultancy firm, who has timed men's visits in stores.
The new design at Ann Taylor, a division of Ann Inc., is intended to replicate a shopper's walk-in closet, says Samantha Dorfman, senior vice president of store development, design and facilities. A huge chandelier and larger-than-life marketing poster fill the entrance to "seduce" customers back to the space, Ms. Dorfman says. It's an about-face from the barren, beige entrance to the fitting rooms in the current layout.
Old Navy, the bargain-priced division from Gap Inc., moved fitting rooms to the center of its new store design. The relocation came after customers referred to the old tucked-away location as the "dungeon," says Tom Wyatt, Old Navy's president. To further cater to its target customer—a time-starved, young mother—the chain added what it calls "quick change" areas. The half-circle spaces are enclosed by a curtain.
Noticing that many women like to go into a fitting room together, Anthropologie, a division of Urban Outfitters Inc., makes sure each room can accommodate more than one person. "They consider it a little bit of a party," says Co-President Wendy B. McDevitt.
For women shopping with children or a boyfriend or husband, department store chain Macy's Inc. has been gradually updating its stores to add communal waiting spots with flat-screen TVs tuned to either sports or cartoons and upholstered seating. The theory: Parking a husband, boyfriend or kids in that spot helps a shopper feel "less rushed and stressed," a Macy's spokeswoman said in an email.
Clothing stores typically allot about 20% of the square footage towards fitting rooms and storage and 80% towards displaying the merchandise, says Robin Kramer, head of Kramer Design Group, a retail branding and design firm which works with clients from Talbots to Alexander Wang. She has lobbied stores to dedicate more space to their fitting rooms. "It's the moment where you put the brand on your body and decide if that's what you want," Ms. Kramer says.
Some retailers are filling the fitting room area with merchandise. At Ann Taylor, racks and drawers in the lounge area display undergarments such as shapewear and camisoles. Its sister division, Loft, also includes a bar of belts and jewelry. Sales associates manning the fitting room are able to sell more items to a customer without leaving the space.
Lighting is a critical component. "Any woman who goes into a fitting room that has really bad lighting, you look at yourself, you look at your skin and you're completely distracted," says Anthropologie's Ms. McDevitt. "Then you lose the real reason why you were in there."
The new Ann Taylor rooms have six sources of lighting and three types of bulbs, compared to one source and type of lighting in the old design. The mixture of ceramic metal halide, compact fluorescent and low-voltage bulbs is more flattering, Ms. Dorfman says.
Bloomingdale's has installed rear-lit three-way mirrors, which allow customers to see themselves from a variety of angles. There is also a ceiling-mounted light three feet back from the mirror to eliminate shadows on the shopper's face, says Jack Hruska, executive vice president of creative services at Bloomingdale's.
Personal touches at Old Navy include labels placed over a trio of bright yellow hooks, helping shoppers organize their haul. "I love it!" and "Not for me," the signs read. Anthropologie writes shoppers' first names on the fitting room door, making it easier for sales staff to refer to them by name. That one-on-one time with a customer helps the store to engage shoppers on an intimate level, Ms. McDevitt says.
Because fitting rooms are highly trafficked areas, stores must make the design durable as well aesthetically pleasing. At Ann Taylor, the gray tones of the custom-designed floral wallpaper mask scuffs. The leather benches were chosen for the material's resistance to stains, like lipstick.
To help shoppers get the attention of salespeople, some fitting rooms at Bloomingdale's, such as those in the intimates departments, have phones. Customers are automatically connected to a sales associate to obtain another size, or ask questions regarding fit. Bloomingdale's says the phones are used frequently.
Victoria's Secret, a lingerie chain from Limited Brands Inc., is testing buttons in a small number of its fitting rooms which, when pushed, alert a sales associate via headset. The system also keeps track of how many people use the fitting rooms, how long they stay and how many times they ask for help, says Marge Laney, president of Houston-based manufacturer Alert Technologies, which installed the Victoria's Secret system.
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