Rebecca Minkoff's RFID trial painted itself into a corner--deliberately

haier magic mirror

The apparel and accessory chain gets creative with its RFID magic mirror trial-and leverages special dressing room paint to block both RF and mobile signals.

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Most retailers experimenting with customer-facing RFID—which has come a long way since it's assembly-line-only days—are trying to expand its use as much as possible, looking for whatever snippets of the business could be enhanced with a touch of wireless tag broadcasting.

But apparel-and-accessory chain Rebecca Minkoff is trying to limit RFID's reach, literally painting its broadcasts into a corner. Why? Here's the problem: Rebecca Minkoff's goal is to take RFID-tagged-merchandise and scan it in a tiny dressing room (and, yes, I agree that saying "tiny" and "dressing room" is duplicative. My apologies). But how can the RFID readers be prevented from detecting merchandise in a neighboring dressing room, which would defeat the purpose?

Answer: Use RFID-blocking paint, plus some precise antenna-calibration tricks and limiters.

The chain's CEO, Uri Minkoff, has been quoted attributing a tripling of clothing sales to the RFID tags in dressing rooms, which are scanned and used with in-dressing-room technology (the mirror turns into a touch screen) to suggest ways to style each item, as well as show shoppers different colors and sizes available. But that can only happen when the RFID system doesn't get confused about what different customers brought into the changing rooms.

According to the chain, the paint approach starts with using a special primer, a black goopy substance called Y-Shield. As described by the paint manufacturer: "Due to its holohedral carbon structure, without fibers or meshes, it offers consistent attenuation regardless of the direction of signal polarization, and a highly conductive surface. As a bonus, carbon is a good RF absorber. About 10 percent of Y-Shield shielding effectiveness is due to absorption. This helps reduce reflections and minimizes the risk from RF sources trapped inside the shielded area."

One Rebecca Minkoff official, who asked to speak not-for-attribution, described their approach simply. "We used paint that blocked radio frequencies to isolate each dressing room. The antenna mounted in the dressing room lights were specially calibrated to not pick up stray signals from the other dressing rooms," the official said.

Note: The chain official added that they might eventually not need the paint. "We've experimented with programming the antenna (in such a way) that would not require physical paint barriers. This is more common in Europe than in the U.S."

Getting rid of the paint primer may not be advantageous, though, given  its other potential advantages.

But let's first look at how Rebecca Minkoff is using the RFIDs and, by extension, the paint. They are using their twist on the retail magic mirror, which U.S. retailers have tried a dozen different ways for a decade, with decidedly mixed (usually bad) results.

"Upon entering a Rebecca Minkoff store, a customer sees a wall of video screens with which she can interact. The shopper can pause the video images of models showing off Rebecca Minkoff clothing and accessories on the runway," noted RFID Journal. "She can use the screens to order a free cup of coffee or a glass of champagne, flip through an electronic catalog to view Rebecca Minkoff's designer styles in different settings and see what is available. When she makes a selections of items she'd like to try on, a store associate—Rebecca Minkoff calls its employees "stylists"—brings the items to the fitting room."

Some of this functionality overlaps with the chain's mobile app capabilities and—danger, Will Robinson!—the mobile app capabilities of rival chains as well as generic apps/mobile sites such as Google or Amazon, which have a nasty habit of directing sales elsewhere.

That's where the other attribute of that paint primer comes into play. Not only does it block RF signals, it also interferes with mobile phone communications. "Very effective for blocking cell phone signals, CB, TV, AM, FM signals, radiofrequency radiation and microwaves. Tested highly effective up to 18 GHz," said the paint manufacturer's site.

That means that not only are the interactive mirrors in the dressing rooms more effective, but the paint makes it far more difficult for the shopper to use any other electronics. It's not clear whether the paint would fully block mobile communications or merely weaken them, given that the signals can certainly beam below and above the walls. But even materially slower communications would help.

By the way, Rebecca Minkoff maintains that no cameras are involved in the mirror, which is true. But that may prove to be one of the problems with these kind of communicative mirrors and it's in the category of perception versus reality.

Even if the reality is that no footage will be captured of shoppers getting undressed, the mirror's capabilities will certainly make many shoppers worried about such possibilities. The thought process would be: "OK, I can see me getting undressed. And the store can see everything I type and ask for. Maybe they can see me, too? Integrating cameras into this thing seems easy."

There's not much that can be done about that perceived privacy invasion. The more a retailer reassures shoppers that it's not happening, the more the fear will be reinforced. Also, those reassurances will likely plant the idea of the problem into the heads of shoppers who might not have otherwise considered it. Can you say lose-lose scenario?

One problem with these mirrors is that they require a lot of human interactions to make them worthwhile. Please don't get me wrong. This, on its own, isn't a bad thing. I've consistently argued that human interactions in stores is the only way that brick-and-mortars will fend off new mobile and e-commerce rivals. Customer service is the physical store's biggest advantage, to the extent that it chooses to leverage it.

That said, it's still a lot of work. These only deliver benefits if lots of shoppers use them—and they need to be encouraged, incentivized and instructed on their use—and if lots of the data that results is crunched and leveraged. It's like any CRM program. Collecting tons of great data is barely half the battle.

Initial indications are that Minkoff's people are at least trying to use the data, which is a good sign. That RFID Journal story quoted Minkoff saying, "We had a new item that went into the fitting room 60 times in one store in the course of a week and was bought only once. There were 20 requests for different sizes, which means we had a fit issue."

Am still skeptical if any of these magic mirror deployments will ever truly catch on with shoppers, but Minkoff's efforts seems like one of the better attempts, phone-blocking paint and all.

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