Retail IT tradition: A new magic mirror every year

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There's a reason shoppers try it once or twice and never return

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Although the concept has never caught on with shoppers, retailers just can't seem to let go of the magic mirror, in its various incarnations. PayPal tried one variation last year, Bloomingdale's tried a magic mirror the year before that (having already given it a whirl in 2007), and John Lewis did it the year before that. In 2011, it was The New York Times that toyed with a magic mirror, one that would be in your own bathroom and display ads.

Now we have Neiman Marcus giving it a go, with a mirror that acts just like a regular mirror (the seven-years-of-bad-luck-if-you-break-it kind), except that it shows the shopper wearing a different outfit. It also captures the interactions digitally, ostensibly so that a copy can be shared with the shopper for at-home evaluations. (I say "ostensibly" because, after covering every one of those mirror stories, I am a bit cynical that this idea will ever actually work. My alternative theory about the video-capture is that it will be used as an embarrassing video to show at the performance review of the IT person who pushed the idea.)

The reason this idea keeps coming back (at least in the sort of version that Neiman Marcus is pushing) is that the dressing room experience is generally an unpleasant part of clothes shopping. This is true even for people who love to shop for clothes. Cramped rooms with bad lighting are no one's idea of fun.

But these magic mirrors don't really work as dressing-room replacements. The idea is that the clothes you select will be projected onto your image in the mirror, which can be located anywhere on the sales floor, and not restricted to the dressing room. But the images displayed in these "mirrors" (since they are not really mirrors at all but are instead electronic displays) are not especially crisp. They give a vague idea of how the outfit would look on the shopper, and that vague idea isn't even a match for the shopper's imagination. Most shoppers are going to find the magic mirror an inadequate replacement of the changing room, where they get a sense of the feel of the fabric and the actual fit of the garment.

In other words, the shopper will have to try the outfit on the old-fashioned way anyway. That's why shoppers try these mirrors once or twice and then give up. Ultimately, the mirrors aren't saving them any effort.

But don't they help shoppers rule out outfits so that, at least, they can try on fewer of them? Unfortunately, no. Most shoppers will not even deal with a garment that they aren't fairly serious about, and given the limitations of the pretend mirror, they are unlikely to rule something out based on its report. In fact, they are much more likely to rule out a garment by holding it in their hands, feeling the fabric and studying the color with the naked eye (as opposed to the distortion afforded by the high-tech mirror).

Hey, retailers, here's an idea: If you suspect that shoppers hate your dressing rooms, take this tech-free approach: Put in far fewer but much larger dressing rooms that are comfortable and private.

Yeah, that probably won't happen. But I do think that a store that did that would attract shoppers. Instead, we can probably expect next year to bring more magic mirrors — and shoppers still won't care.

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