‘A necessary evil’: Why standard fitting rooms are set to stick

This story is a part of a series of stories on Glossy about the future of experiential, looking at all the ways face-to-face interactions in beauty and fashion are changing. You can read other stories in this series here.

On June 13, TikToker “Marissa M” of @quartzandleisure posted a video labeled “Zara Dressing Room Hack” that’s since been viewed more than 450,000 times. Set to the TikTok-popular song “International Super Spy” from the children’s series “The Backyardigans,” it shows her store-hopping at a local mall, as a caption pops up explaining her actions: “Buying clothes from Zara, then going next door to H&M to try them on because Zara’s fitting rooms are closed…Then going right back to Zara to return everything I don’t like.”

Posts on getting around closed fitting rooms have been flooding TikTok since stores began reopening and implementing new safety protocols after pandemic-forced closures. Videos show people trying on clothes over their clothes in store parking lots, and receiving large deliveries to try-on looks they like at home. The hashtag #dressingroomsclosed has 182,000 views on TikTok, while #nofittingrooms has 46,000 views and #fittingroomsclosed has 14,000. 

When stores began reopening in May 2020, closed fitting rooms were standard. Retailers said it was a safety precaution and a way to keep headcount down, with mandated restrictions on store capacity. Those rules have largely gone by the wayside.

Today, there’s a retail worker shortage, so an inability to staff fitting rooms is no doubt a culprit in keeping them closed. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings in retail have been inching up all year. In early June, the Labor Department reported nearly 1 million open retail jobs. Nearly 650,000 retail workers quit their jobs in April alone, that’s been owed to low industry wages, new unemployment benefits and fear of getting coronavirus, among other factors. 

As of July 2, Zara’s fitting rooms in NYC were still closed, according to in-store associates. Neither Zara’s nor Target’s corporate offices responded to requests for comment, though Target reportedly reopened its rooms nationwide on June 1. Saks Fifth Avenue declined to comment, though it had reopened its fitting rooms in sync with its stores, promising “additional safety measures” like quarantining clothes post-try-on. Based on personal experience, this didn’t always pan out. TJX company simply stated via an email that the company had been “pleased to reopen [its] U.S. fitting rooms” in June.

Trying on clothes, for many, is a top reason for entering a store versus ordering online and dealing with potential returns. But the pandemic has accelerated the move to buying clothes via e-commerce, and many people have made do without in-store try-on at their favorite stores. Several have moved to emerging technologies like virtual try-on, which is fast becoming table stakes for online retailers. Others have embraced retailers’ newly implemented try-before-you-buy offerings or become more comfortable with making returns, the latter of which wreaks havoc on retailers’ bottomline. 

How fitting rooms will fare post-pandemic may be a question of retailers’ effectiveness at offering another experience that’s a draw. Many people will need a reason to go to a store beyond pinpointing their size in a pair of jeans. But, even according to those offering tech-based alternatives, fitting rooms aren’t at risk for going out of style.

“Whatever is a typical brick-and-mortar try-on experience, we’re trying to replicate that for e-commerce,” said Donny Ouyang, the CEO of 1-year-old try-before-you-buy service BlackCart. But, “Fitting rooms are not going away,” he said.

“Trying before buying has always been part of the success formula of retail,” he said. “And smart mirrors, VR and AR — they’re cool, fancy and newsworthy, but they only serve the purpose of bringing people to the door. You can’t really replicate putting something on, and seeing how it fits your body and what it feels like to wear it.” 

In step with the rise of e-commerce, try-before-you-buy is catching on. In the last three months, BackCart has changed its sales qualification criteria for partner retailers, in order to “damper the demand” as it builds up its team to accommodate them, said Ouyang. It currently has 20 merchants that have recently signed contracts and are “waiting in the queue.”

Its partners, which include Levi’s, have seen a 24% increase in their online conversion rates. On average, their average order value has been up 44% since signing on with the company. 

People tend to try more and keep more when using try-before-you-buy versus placing a traditional order, he said. He added that half of customers use try-before-you-buy to try-on one style in multiple sizes, while others try a wide mix of styles. 

For 2021, BlackCart is projecting $250 million in transaction value. The company takes a “small percentage” of transactions when customers use its service, Ouyang said. Typically, a “try before you buy” button is featured on retailers’ product pages under “add to cart.” 

Likewise, the pandemic accelerated the need for fit technology, considering stores and fitting rooms were closed. But most solutions and quizzes simply suggest sizing, which isn’t enough, said Christina Marzano, co-founder and CEO of digital try-on tool Bods. Sizes vary from one brand to another, plus fit is subjective; a size doesn’t specify whether a piece will be loose or tight, or allow a shopper to decide what they want the fit to be. 

Bods provides a solve, but it does fall short of an IRL try-on experience. “There are still going to be garments that people want to try on, feel on their body and feel the fabric, while having a glass of champagne and that entire store experience,” she said. “We’re not trying to replicate that. We’re just trying to provide something that is better than what exists [online] now, which is nothing — so that people can make informed decisions on their purchases and also have fun while doing it.”

On June 17, New York-based fashion brand Khaite launched on its e-commerce site a beta version of Bods. It allows a shopper to see a style on their body in 3D, after loading two images of themselves and manipulating the resulting avatar as needed. Currently, shoppers can digitally try-on Khaite’s fall 2021 collection, and more styles will be incorporated over time.

Marzano said Khaite was a perfect first partner because it presented challenges. It prides itself on the quality, craftsmanship and details of its pieces. Plus, it sells almost exclusively via DTC e-commerce.

“‘I had the most amazing experience on an e-commerce site,’ said no one, ever,” said Marzano. “But e-commerce is taking a larger piece of the retail pie, and for brands that aim to offer a personalized experience, allowing the shopper to see themselves in the clothes only makes sense.” 

Cate Holstein, founder and creative director of Khaite, said the newly implemented experience is a play to reflect the luxury experience and details that have become signatures of the brand.  

“There are so many digital fit ‘tools’ out there,” she said. “But we were able to customize [this] so that it is embedded within the world of Khaite. It doesn’t feel separate or disjointed, but like an added dimension of the brand to discover.”  

She said that Khaite provided Bods with the patterns and tech packs for each of its styles, just as it would with its factories. “It’s not a matter of creating digital approximations of garments. It’s about recreating each piece, in each size and material, so the experience is fully personalized and true to life,” she said. 

But there’s no besting the process of actually trying on a style in a store full of alternatives — or the return process of simply hanging it up. While some will become smarter than others, in retailers’ attempts to elevate the customer experience, fitting rooms are set to emerge from the pandemic relatively unscathed and unchanged. And they will reopen. 

“The experience of going to a dressing room and waiting in line, feeling rushed through the whole process — it’s not great, but it’s a necessary evil,” Ouyang said. 

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